That first Pentecost was a pretty exciting day in Jerusalem. Ordinary people from Galilee – which was considered a rural backwater by the residents of the city – were suddenly speaking in foreign languages and attracted the attention of other Jews in Jerusalem. There were a lot of people in the city — both residents and pilgrims who were celebrating the Feast of First Fruits, which was known as Shavuot (in Hebrew) or Pentecost (in Greek.) Capturing their attention was one thing; making sense of what was happening is another. Initially the crowd, who considered themselves much more sophisticated than the Galileans, expressed both curiosity and scorn. They demanded an explanation and meaning. Now it was up to Peter to speak to the crowd and offer an answer to their question, “What does this mean?”
Peter’s response to them begins with the prophet Joel. He does not quote the prophet’s words exactly; instead he subtly alters Joel 2:28-32a to in order to adapt the prophet’s words for new use in these new circumstances. Joel’s original testimony about God now has new added meaning in light of God’s deeds through Jesus Christ and his sending of the Spirit. Peter used Joel as a resource to help him answer the questions of his audience.
Peter makes at least three significant revisions: first, he changes the opening clause from “After these things” to “In the last days,” which tells us that Peter sees himself as announcing a new, culminating era in human history. The times have changed dramatically. Second he inserts the word “my” before “slaves.” Joel referred to “slaves” as an explicit socioeconomic class, but Peter changes the identification of this group to mean God’s slaves. Finally, Peter adds an additional “and they shall prophesy” at the end of verse 18. He does that to emphasize why God’s Spirit is bestowed on “all flesh” – to young and old, to women and men. It is given to everyone so that they will prophesy, because in Acts the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of prophecy.
Making those changes helps Peter to answer the question “What does Pentecost mean?” The gift of God’s Spirit indicates that something new in human history has begun. The Spirit has come to mark every member of the church as belonging to God and as God’s agent in the world. We are God’s slaves. The foreign languages are not meant to be some kind of trick or mass hysteria. God is at work equipping people so they can communicate about God. The Spirit inspires them to engage in prophecy. The community of faith is a community of prophets.
Peter does not speak of prophecy as predicting the future; but as telling the truth. Prophecy names the places and ways where God intervenes or initiates action in the world. It proclaims the word of God and identifies God’s salvation at work. Peter’s sermon does not just name prophecy, it also demonstrates it. He is answering the very pressing questions of “What does this mean? What is happening now?” From his reference to Joel we see that prophecy speaks to the present time using promises and images from the past that allow it to be relevant today. Prophecy draws from scripture and uses ideas and hopes that point toward the future, because the ultimate message of Pentecost is meant to culminate in the salvation that God will accomplish for all who accept it.
The rest of Peter’s sermon is a complex exegetical argument that looks to scripture and the story of Jesus to show that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension provide the basis for the outpouring of the Spirit. Peter wants to show that the events of the day help to reveal that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and that God’s salvation is at hand. It is because of what Jesus did that the Spirit comes on Pentecost. That is exactly what prophets do; they show how present events connect to God and God’s purposes.
Prophecy is not a word that we hear very often today. Another word that might make it easier for us to understand what Peter was doing is “interpretation.” He interprets, or makes sense of the crowd’s experience. He offers a theological basis for what the crowd was experiencing, and for what they must do to share in the salvation God has offered. Peter is not primarily an interpreter of scripture. First and foremost he is an interpreter of the events of the present day and the good news about Jesus Christ. Scripture provided a helpful means by which he made sense of those things.
Using the words of Joel Peter also refers to a community full of visionaries and dreamers. He was making sure they understood that this was not about him, he was not the only one equipped to make meaning. That work belongs to all who receive the Spirit, both then and now. Therefore our celebration of Pentecost should be a remembrance of what happened that day but should also remind us that we, too, are equipped by the Spirit to be interpreters or prophets.
The story of Pentecost also reminds us that the Spirit sends us as prophets out into the world. Pentecost began in a secluded place indoors but it moved to public proclamation. As Christians we give theological meaning to words and events for the sake of the world. We have to make sure that we don’t look to Peter and other people like him as the only one who makes sense of things as we watch from the sidelines. Peter insists that God’s Spirit is poured out across all cultural and social boundaries. The Spirit empowers interpretation that happens corporately. Also, Peter and other believers in Acts do not receive all the answers when they receive the Spirit. They are called to live into God’s future, and are sometimes susceptible to error and must rely on others to make sense of God’s intentions. That is the inspired but sometimes difficult work of all God’s people in all times and all places.
The Book of Acts does not regard the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost as a singular occurrence. This event introduces a sequence of occasions in which the Spirit mobilizes Jesus’ followers and inaugurates new ways and means for ministry and community. The Spirit continues to push believers toward new horizons. Nor does Pentecost describe the total work of the church. For example, in this story there are no gentiles on the scene, nor or they even envisioned as part of the gospel’s future. Not on that day, but as we have learned in our lessons from Acts in previous weeks, when the time came for the inclusion of gentiles, that new stage of the church’s existence needed prophecy, a new interpretation, to make sense of such a radical change. SO it has been throughout the ages as the church has adapted and changed. Right now the Roman Catholic Church may be facing change as Pope Francis forms a commission to study whether or not woman may serve once again as deacons. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is at work once again!
We say that the church was born on Pentecost. It was a sign of unity that people who had been gifted with the Holy Spirit could preach and interpret the good news of Jesus Christ. The church was born of the gifts of the Spirit, and manifested through water and bread and wine. What we receive so freely we must give freely. We are the church of today, the body of Christ in the world. It is our turn to prophesy, to interpret, and the Spirit gives us everything we need to complete that mission. Happy Birthday to us! Amen.