Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
I remember when I was a little child, probably less than 6-years-old, going to a birthday party for the girl that lived up the road. I was still young enough to not think much about it, but I was the only boy at this party. This was no big deal for me. We all got the same cake and ice cream. And we all got something else as well; we all received a gift for coming.
Being the only boy at the party meant that I received a different gift than everyone else. I don’t remember at all what the gifts were, but mine was wrapped differently and it had my name on it. It was meant for me and everyone else got their own as well. This was a nice gesture, especially because it wasn’t our birthday, but we did receive gifts.
Next week our church will observe our 50th anniversary, 50 years since the birth of our congregation. It was the fall of 1958 when the first service was held at Mrs. Coffey’s home here in Staunton. But I don’t want to wait another week to have a party. So I thought I would break out my party hat and noise makers to celebrate the birthday of the church today. No, not the birthday of Staunton Mennonite, but the birthday of the Christian church.
Many people will argue as to when the actual birthday of “the church” is. Some would say that the birthday of the church is when Jesus called his first disciples. Others would say it was at Jesus’ resurrection. Still others would say that the Christian church wasn’t birthed until after the Christians and Jews stopped worshipping together. Still others would say that the church has always existed. But as for me, I don’t feel like fighting over the actual birthday of the church; I feel like celebrating the birth of the church. And I think we should celebrate the birthday of the church today, on Pentecost, the day associated with the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Today I would like to look at what happened on that first day of Pentecost, on the birthday of the church. And I hope to show how everyone who is a part of the church is given a specific gift according to who they are, kind of like I was given a specific gift meant just for me at this birthday party made up all most exclusively of little girls.
Our scripture for today begins with the followers of Jesus gathered together in a room. It is assumed that these followers of Jesus are the same 120 that are named in chapter 1:15. Why were they gathered there? They were there to celebrate the Day of the First Fruits (Exodus 34:22). This festival was also called the Festival of Weeks (Deut. 16:10) because it was celebrated seven weeks after the Sabbath of the Passover. Seven weeks times seven days per week plus one Sabbath day equals 50 days after the Passover, and this is where we get the name Pentecost.
The Jewish day of Pentecost was one of the three major festivals that every adult male Jew was to observe by going to celebrate in Jerusalem. So we can assume that there were people in town from Jerusalem, and there were people from as far as the Jews might have scattered. But in this one room were gathered the 120 followers of Jesus and these followers are all of Galilean descent. As they are gathered, they hear a sound; the sound of a violent wind rushing into the place where they were gathered. And this wind is none other than the Holy Spirit.
The Hebrew word in the Old Testament that we often translate as Spirit is Ruach. In Genesis 1:2 we read that a mighty wind from God swept across the face of the waters as a part of the creation story. The word translated there as wind is ruach, the same word that is translated as Spirit. So there is this manifestation of the Spirit as wind, and this same wind that swept over the face of the waters in now sweeping across Jerusalem and right into the house where these followers of Jesus are gathered to celebrate Pentecost. And this Spirit brings with it a gift for the gathered followers. It brings the gift of speaking in tongues.
Now I know that the gift of speaking in tongues is a confusing gift for those of us, myself included, that don’t speak in tongues. But we should not confuse this speaking in tongues with the ecstatic speaking in tongues that Paul tries to control in the Corinthian worship sessions. This speaking in tongues found in Acts 2 is clearly the ability to speak in different languages.
In verse 5 Luke tells us that there were Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem, that is Jews have come from “all over” to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. And these Jews must have spoken different languages. Verse 6 tells us that when they heard the sound of the Spirit coming upon the followers of Jesus that they all must have run out into the street and gathered together to see what that noise was that they had just heard. And these people were bewildered because the sound led them to the place where the followers of Jesus were gathered and the Jews were hearing these Galileans speaking in their own native tongue.
Now if any of you have ever tried to learn a new language, you will know that it is not easy to do. English is hard enough for me, so trying to learn Spanish in High School was pretty difficult. Then I get to Seminary and they told me I needed to study Greek and Hebrew and I thought to myself, “There goes any chance of ever getting a 4.0 grade point average.” Okay, maybe it was never a realistic goal to begin with, but languages are difficult to learn. Millions of dollars are spent every year on teaching and learning languages. Here in the Valley we have one of the largest computer software businesses dedicated to teaching languages, Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone offers language software in 31 languages providing one of the easiest way to learn another language. Well I don’t know if it is the easiest way or not, but I can assure you that it wouldn’t be easy for me.
We need to recognize just how great of a gift the ability to speak other languages is for these earlier followers of Jesus. The didn’t have Rosetta Stone in the first century. Language could only be learned by being around other people speaking the language. And this isn’t just a gift of convenience; it isn’t just a gift that is given so that these Jews can have a casual conversation with other Jews that are visiting their fine city for Pentecost. The gift of speaking in tongues in this case is God equipping those whom he has called for a particular ministry. God was equipping those Galilean disciples to tell those that had come from far and near that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. He is the one that they have been looking for. Jesus is the one true Lord of their lives.
I think that this passage is just packed full of symbolism and Old Testament fulfillment. We will probably all remember the story in Genesis chapter 11 of the tower of Babel. When we look at this story, we find that the world only had one language. And there was nothing wrong with only having one language. The problem was that the people wanted to stay close to each other rather than scattering throughout the world as God had intended for them to do. They wanted to stay together to “build a name for themselves” (v.4) to become powerful, self reliant, and respected, maybe even feared. And if they did so, they would probably have stoped depending upon God.
So God went in and did what God does so well; God messed up the best laid plans of these people and said, “That’s not what I was planning on.” God confused their language and they could not understand what one another was trying to say. So they separated into groups that could communicate with each other and scattered throughout the world.
But in Acts 2 we find the undoing of what God had previously done. God chooses now to give the followers of Jesus the ability to speak in the native tongues of their fellow Jews so that, rather than separate, God could bring these people together again. Not together in the same physical location like they were trying to pull off with the tower of Babel, but to pull them together as the family of God seeking to lives as a part of the kingdom of God.
Our scripture then goes on to say that the Jews were confused by the way the followers of Jesus were able to speak in all of these languages. They were so confused that they accused the followers of Jesus of being drunk. And I think my translation in the NRSV puts a special twist on this verse. Verse 13 quotes the Jews as saying, “They are filled with new wine.”
Indeed, they are filled with new wine. And not wine from grapes or bottles. They are filled with new wine from new wine skins. They have been given a new message to share, they have been filled for sure. And Peter seems to pick up on this because in his response he says, “Surely they are not drunk, for it is only 9 in the morning!” Yes, they are filled with a new wine. Not a wine that makes drunk from alcohol. A wine that makes drunk with the promise of a new day. The old is gone and the new has arrived. This is the beginning of something special. This is the birthday of the church, the embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth!
And Peter looks at this and he says this is the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel said all of those years ago, when he said that God would pour out his spirit upon all flesh, that your sons and your daughters would prophesize, that your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even the lowest people in society would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the birthday of the church, and it is a time to celebrate.
Now we as the Mennonite church today claim to believe in what has been known as “the Priesthood of all believers.” This is based on 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” All of those that are a part of this new thing that has been birthed called the church are given a role in the body. We are all called to proclaim the mighty acts of God. So does this mean that are we all called to be a pastor?
When we look at passages like Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Timothy 3 we can find a number of titles that are given for leaders in the church. Things like apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, bishops, and deacons are named. But even this list isn’t exhaustive in our 21st century context. We also have music leaders, audio-video technicians, nursery monitors, trustees, ushers, church council members, et cetera. We are a royal priesthood, and we work together to proclaim God’s mighty acts in word and deed. Why? Because God has called us to do so. Each and everyone of us is called to serve God, to proclaim his mighty acts.
Your probably sitting there thinking, “Sure, Kevin. We are all called. But what can I do? What can I do to proclaim God’s mighty acts? What gifts do I have?” Well this is the beauty of looking at Pentecost as the birthday of the church. Because what do we do at a birthday party? We give gifts. And like the birthday party I went to as a little boy, we are the ones that receive gifts at this birthday party; gifts selected specifically for us.
On the birthday of the church, the people that had been called by God into his service were all gathered together, and God gave them a gift. God gave them the ability to speak to others that were from a different place then they were. God equipped them with the gift of speaking in foreign languages to proclaim God’s mighty acts. And God continues to equip those he calls today.
My friend John Stoltzfus is a good example. John is a 48-year-old and if you have met John, you know that he is indeed a gifted person; he has a caring heart, a desire to meet people and to love them, and he has a love for God and a desire to be a part of God’s plan of salvation here on earth.
John grew up in an Amish-Mennonite church where education was not highly stressed. The last grade that John completed was 8th grade. That wasn’t because he wasn’t or isn’t intelligent. But high school just wasn’t considered necessary for someone who was likely going to tend to the horses, cows, and the crops.
John’s journey took him through many states, literally. He spent time as a mechanic and eventually began driving across the United States in an 18 wheeler. But every since his days as a youth, John felt a call to ministry.
Well John eventually moved to Virginia and became a part of the Greenmonte fellowship and a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference. Now there is nothing in the rules that say that you need to have a certain amount of education in order to be a pastor in Virginia Mennonite Conference, or in MCUSA for that matter. But John felt that he was not equipped to be a pastor, so he continued to seek other ways in which he could serve the Lord.
John took the test and passed the exam to receive a GED in 2005 with the intention of going to nursing school. But just before the start of classes, the program was cancelled for that year. John finally gave in to the leading of the Holy Spirit and he was able to enroll at Eastern Mennonite Seminary on a trial basis, and he began his studies at EMS in the fall of 2006.
So here is John, one of the nicest guys in the world, but uneducated by Seminary standards. Most Seminary students come in with a Bachelor’s Degree with the intentions of working on a Master’s degree. John didn’t have a high school education. His formal education ended after the 8th grade. Now I won’t say that Seminary was easy for John. I know it wasn’t. John would share later with me how often he thought about quitting, throwing in the towel, going back to driving truck. But he didn’t. And if you get the Waynesboro newspaper, you probably read John’s story there. If you missed it, it is also in the most recent Mennonite Weekly Review.
John was called into ministry, but he knew that he was not well enough equipped to perform as well as he could in the role of pastor. So John was able to study and improve his knowledge and experience as a ministering person. Now you might say, “God didn’t equip John Stoltzfus for ministry. John Stoltzfus equipped John Stoltzfus for ministry.” And in some ways you would be correct. John does appear to be a self made man and a successful self made man at that. He had to put in a lot of work to get where he is today. And while I don’t mean to minimalize the effort that John put into completing a Seminary degree, I know that John would never claim that he did it on his own. He describes himself as a turtle sitting on top of a fence post: He didn’t get there by himself. John Stoltzfus has been equipped by God for the ministry he has been called to.
I can’t tell you why God chooses to equip some people by simply filling them with the Holy Spirit like on that first Pentecost, while others God equips by opening up doors and walking with us through them. I don’t know how God chooses to equip some to teach, some to preach, some to lead singing, and others to lead children’s programs. But I know this, we are all called to be servants of God and the spirit of God blows where it will. God has called us, and God will equip us for what he has called us to.
My prayer for us today as we celebrate the birthday of the church at Pentecost is that we will all recognize the call that God has placed upon our lives and that we can receive the gift that is intended for us to receive. Because like that birthday party that I went to as a little boy, God has a specific gift intended for us at this birthday party as well.