by Dan Loch
Last weekend we celebrated Pentecost with ten-foot high white poles festooned with red streamers, fluttering red ribbons on the back canopy, and floating red balloons. Pentecost, the 50th day after the Passover, was a Jewish festival to give thanks for the first fruits of the harvest, for God’s care and bounty in the harvest. The festival took place seven weeks after the Passover, a week of weeks, giving it its Jewish name, the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). It was a major pilgrim festival and devout Jews from every nation were in Jerusalem at this time.
Last Sunday’s First Reading from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and two passages from John’s Gospel are the three classic Pentecost stories: Jesus’ promise of the Spirit at the Last Supper (John 15:26-27; 16:12-15), his giving of the Spirit by breathing on his disciples after the Resurrection (John 20:19-23), and the spectacular tongues of fire on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11).
It gets us nowhere to try to figure out which account, breathing on the disciples or tongues of fire, is “correct.” As Paul says in the Pentecost Epistle: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service, but the same Lord; there are different workings, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”
In the Gospel of John, the more mainstream early tradition, the Spirit is given to the disciples as an Easter gift on the same day as the Resurrection: the Spirit as the First Fruit of Easter, the breath of Jesus, and the creation of a new people of God, now sent to spread the Good News. The Sabbath was the conclusion of the week. Here Jesus arrives on the first day of the week, a look to the future.
In Acts, Luke plays with the notion of tongues as what’s in your mouth, as the languages spoken by your tongue, and as “tongues of fire.” He foreshadows the reach-out of Christianity to the world beyond Israel. He has Pentecost reverse Babel. Language is no longer a barrier to people hearing and responding to Peter’s message – the message that Jesus of Nazareth had conquered death and that he, Peter, and others were witnesses to the Risen Lord. Divine energy was unleashed like a California bushfire fanned by “a mighty wind.” That was as close as the early church could get to describing the phenomena of the Holy Spirit descending on a fearful group and making them bold, audacious, and confident. In Old Testament Biblical tradition the sound of a mighty wind and flare-ups of fire signaled God’s presence – think Moses, the “burning bush,” and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. On Pentecost a central fiery mass appears. Distinct “tongues” separate off and come to rest on individuals. The Spirit, which once was solely upon Jesus, is now distributed among and empowering those who are now to carry on Christ’s mission.
As we have seen time and again, the disciples didn’t “get” (failed to comprehend) much of what Jesus revealed to them. The Spirit will now lead the disciples to ever deeper understanding of Jesus’ revelation. A possible way to reconcile Luke’s and John’s account is to go to the usual smack-down of the disciples. At the Last Supper Jesus promised the disciples the Holy Spirit, then on Easter Jesus breathed on the disciples with the Spirit but, as we’ve seen over and over again, they were r-e-a-l slow to catch on. They needed a jolt to get them moving, so on Pentecost 50 days later – Jesus is patient – it took a roaring wind and setting their hair on fire to give them the message.
I keep thinking about the people in the multi-national crowd who understood the disciples in his or her own language on that first Pentecost. Maybe it wasn’t so much the gift of
tongues the earliest disciples received as much as their hearers received the gift of ears
, of listening. It makes me ask myself how well I listen.