First Thoughts on Year B Acts/Epistle Passage from the Lectionary


William Loader

Pentecost:  23 May  Acts 2:1-21

One of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pentecost falls 50 days (seven weeks) after Passover, as its Greek name, Pentecoste (50th), preserves. It is also called the Feast of Weeks, an occasion to celebrate the gathering in of the harvest (Exod 3:14-17; Lev 23:15-22). It also became a time to celebrate the coming of the divine Law on Sinai. Legend has it that on that occasion a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world. All could understand, but only one nation promised to keep the Law, Israel.

Such symbolism has shaped our story. Perhaps it also lies under the influence of the Tower of Babel story, in which human ambition resulted in the collapse of the tower and the breakdown of communication: the legend to explain why people speak different languages and cannot understand one another (Gen 11:1-9). Certainly the imagery of wind reflects the word for Spirit, which, in both Hebrew and Greek, means wind, breath, and Spirit.

These rich embellishments may hide a historical event. It is entirely credible that the first great pilgrim festival after Jesus' execution at Passover and his disciples' acclamation of his resurrection would have been a special occasion for the fledgling Christian community. Perhaps there was some event amid the crowd. Perhaps there was some experience which those who believed saw as an outpouring of the Spirit. Luke is hardly likely to have dreamt up the occasion from probabilities.

Yet we can see that Luke has been painting panels of faith richly coloured with symbolism. He has Jesus appear after his resurrection for forty days before ascending. His hearers would have made the connections to the forty years in the wilderness. He has 120 believers assembled in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost. His hearers would have recognised the numerical symbolism (12 x 10). Here was true Israel ready to expand. Then comes the Spirit and the harvest! The Spirit comes as wind. The Spirit comes also in tongues of fire. None of this would be lost on those familiar with the word used for Spirit and stories told about Sinai. And some would hear the echoes of Babel.

Not only is the symbolism striking. The scheme of events also clearly reflects symbolic interests. We celebrate the Day of Pentecost as the day of the coming of the Spirit because of Luke's symbolic history. In John's gospel the Spirit is a gift of the risen Jesus on the day of resurrection when he appears after having risen and ascended to the Father - all back to front, when compared with Luke's scheme. No other New Testament writer reflects Luke's timetable of events. Even Luke, himself, in his gospel, has the ascension much earlier according to some early manuscripts (24:51). Paul and most others assume that resurrection means exaltation to God's right hand. From God's presence Jesus then appears as the risen one to his disciples - and not just limited to forty days. Paul hails his own encounter - long after forty days after Easter - as an appearance of the risen Lord.

So, whatever historical event lies beneath Luke's story in Acts 2:1-21 - and there probably is one - we have to recognise that he is writing a symbolic narrative which wants to tell us of something much more than a once-off historical event. He is celebrating the presence of the Spirit in the early Christian movement. He does so with a slight sense of humour. He alludes to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, which Paul also mentions, and gives it also a symbolic twist. It makes people sound like drunks to those who do not know what is going on. But to those who do know, here is a language miracle, which reverses the curse of Babel. Communication is restored! Luke nowhere follows his creative innovation through to its logical conclusion at a literal level, namely, that Christians filled with the Spirit don't have to learn languages! How often people have wished that they could! So here, too we have symbolism.

Like a movie director, Luke creates a scene with wind and fire. The scene is a commentary on the whole movie to follow. The God of Sinai and the Law is acting again. The promise of an abundant flow of God's Spirit is being fulfilled. God's Word, God's Law, is being declared. These people with flames shooting from their heads are again the true Israel, committed to obey God's Word. History is repeating itself, but in a new way. The focus on Israel is reinforced when we realise that Luke is talking here about people from all parts of the empire: all Jews! This is a celebration of God and God's people. In Acts 10 the same blessing becomes available to people of other nations.

Luke's symbolic scene expresses hope and confidence. John's gospel has Jesus say to his disciples as they face the prospect of his death: ''Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God and believe in me!" He then goes on to speak of the coming of the Spirit (14:16-17), which is then expanded in our Gospel Reading for today. If we celebrate the presence of God in the person of Jesus who lived compassion in flesh and blood, does his death leave without hope and only with memory? Is such life still possible? Luke's artwork answers in unmistakable terms: yes. God, God's Spirit, the Spirit which drove Jesus, is accessible to all! Believe it! Believe that God said yes to Jesus by raising him from the dead. God said: this is who I am and how I am! We are not left with a good and inspiring memory, but a promised presence. That presence promises we stay in touch with the divine word, we learn to communicate in love, and we can celebrate being a community in true continuity with God's people of all ages.

Peter's speech is equally flamboyant as it uses Joel. This enhances the moment of great drama: moon turning to blood, a darkened sun, blood, fire, smoke - it just needs dramatic musical accompaniment, drums, trumpets, clashing cymbals. We're off again into a block buster portrayal of Pentecost! Both the story and the speech are doing things, painting word pictures, inviting us to fantasy - all because Luke really wants us to sense a momentous truth. The Spirit, Breath, Presence of God, which we celebrate in Jesus, can be present in human community. When this happens and we let it happen, the ancient curses which divide us are undone and we connect with God in a new way and we gain a new sense of identity.

Luke invites us to play and play we should - he has set the scene. Let's run riot with symbolism. He did. And in doing so the key is not to lose connection with what and who is being celebrated.

Gospel: Pentecost: 23 May John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

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