(A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday based on Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27)
Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus ascended to his Father in heaven. Ten days after that, on the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to his followers just as Jesus had promised would happen. The Holy Spirit has ever since been the very presence of God with his people. We need to get hold of the fact that God is, through his Holy Spirit, actually and literally in our lives and in the life of the church. That presence makes all the difference.
Why? What does the Holy Spirit do? We could make a long list. The Holy Spirit works in us to make us more holy, more capable of being instruments through whom God will work. The Holy Spirit comforts and strengthens us. The Holy Spirit teaches us and opens our minds up to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins. I want to focus, though, on one particular function of the Holy Spirit. It is the function that was displayed on that Day of Pentecost. In that function we see the primary purpose of Pentecostal power.
The Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to cross cultural barriers in the proclaiming of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The primary purpose of Pentecostal power, then, is to empower us to communicate the good news to anyone and everyone.
This should not be surprising. After all, on the night that he was betrayed, Jesus told his disciples,
Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:12-14)
How can it be that we, the followers of Jesus, will do “greater works” than those that Jesus did? It’s all about mathematics. When Jesus walked the earth, there was only one Jesus. While he was the Son of God, he was nonetheless flesh-bound and thus could be in only one place with one group of people at a time. But he left behind his church which would be and is made up of many, many people who can be in many places at one time. It is God’s plan that the church do what it has done—spread out over the world, preaching the good news and doing the work of ministry.
The church cannot and does not fulfill our calling on our own, though. We need the help of our Lord and he has promised to give us whatever help we need, so long as it is for the carrying out of our mission and so long as it is in line with the kind of life Jesus lived and the kind of love that he showed. And there is no more significant help given to us by Jesus than the Holy Spirit.
Tremendous and mysterious things happened on the day that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. Notice the language that Luke uses to try to describe the event: “there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them…” (Acts 2:2-3, emphasis added). Notice that no such qualifying words are used in the next verse: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v. 4). They did not begin to speak in something “like” other languages; they began to speak in other languages. They spoke in those languages because the Holy Spirit empowered them to do so. Moreover, they spoke in those languages for a specific reason: so that the Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world could hear the proclamation of the gospel in their own languages. “Amazed and astonished, they asked....’How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?... In our own language we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’” (vv. 7, 8, 11).
The primary purpose of Pentecostal power is the empowering of the church to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ across those cultural, geo-political, and language barriers that separate us. We are still surrounded by people who need to hear and in many cases they need to have the message translated for them. Now, this is literally true. According to one database, there are 6,912 known distinct languages in the world. While I don’t know how many of those language groups have been touched with the gospel, one measure might be the number of languages into which the Bible has been translated. According to the International Bible Society, at least a portion of the Bible has been translated into 2,287 languages. So while it may seem to us that the world has been thoroughly saturated with the gospel, the truth is that we have a long way to go. Thus, we need to keep sending missionaries and we need to try to gain access to more people groups and we need to keep learning more languages so that we can communicate the good news to as many people as possible. I realize that on Pentecost the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak in other languages, but more often than not these days the Holy Spirit leads us to the people to whom we need to go and inspires us to do the work we need to do to learn on our own. You might say that it is a greater miracle for the Holy Spirit to cause you to speak a foreign language than for the Spirit to cause you to go to an unreached group and to spend the years and effort necessary to learn a foreign language; I say that it is not. I say when that when the Holy Spirit melts our hearts and causes us to care, that’s as big a miracle as there is.
Remember, now: the essence of Pentecostal power is that the mighty acts of God through his Son Jesus Christ are proclaimed. Not everybody who needs to have the good news translated for them lives in a foreign country. The United States of America is still one of the world’s great melting pots. We have people coming to us from all over the world. A great many of them are Spanish-speaking folks. We all know that our nation’s immigration policy is a hot topic right now. We also know that the extent to which allowances should be made for Spanish-speaking people is another hot topic. I know that those issues matter. But when we Christians are under the influence of Pentecostal power, when we are under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, what will matter the most to us is that those people who are our neighbors—be they legal or illegal, be they permanent or temporary—hear the good news of Jesus Christ. If we need to learn their language to communicate the good news, then let’s learn their language.
Here is something else to think about on this Pentecost Sunday: many of the folks around us who speak English need to have the gospel translated into words they can understand. If we are imbued with Pentecostal power—and if we are Christians, we are—then we will be open to how the Spirit leads us to communicate the gospel to them. I dare say we won’t be able to help ourselves any more than those disciples on Pentecost were able to help themselves. I am not advocating any kind of softening or compromise when it comes to the message of Jesus Christ. Far from it—I would advocate that we treat the life and teachings of Jesus and of the entire Bible in a much more comprehensive and serious way than we presently do. Somehow, though, our church and all churches need to translate the gospel into the language of the people.
It’s not about changing the message. We can’t change the old, old story and we don’t want to. But it is about somehow putting the old, old story in the language of the people around us that we’re trying to reach.
One of my all-time favorite television shows is WKRP in Cincinnati, which was a comedy about the goings-on at a radio station. One of the characters was a black DJ named Venus Flytrap. In one episode, Venus was asked by a custodial worker at the station to talk with her sixteen year old son, who was involved in dangerous activity and was planning to drop out of school. The young man, whose name was Arnold, said that he just couldn’t learn that science stuff. Venus wanted to show him that he could. Here is how Venus’ conversation with Arnold went.
Venus: There are three gangs on the street, right?
Arnold: Yeah yeah, three gangs.
Venus: And this right here is the territory. Now here (drawing a circle on the wall) is the neighborhood. Got that?
Venus: And right in the middle of this neighborhood is a gang called the New Boys.
Arnold: Yeah, the New Boys. Good name.
Venus: Out here on the outside, on the edge of the neighborhood, is another gang. These are real negative dudes. Really negative, right?
Venus: They call themselves the Elected Ones.
Arnold, bored: All right, the Elected Ones.
Venus: You got that? Really negative, they don't like nothing!
Venus: They spend all their time out here circling around the neighborhood, just circling. Checking out the New Boys. Now the New Boys see this, and they guess, they figure, something's wrong here. So they make a deal with another gang - a gang of very happy-go-lucky guys. They call themselves the Pros. The Pros. Now, the Pros are very positive cats. See, they got all the good-lookin' women, right?
Arnold, interested: Yeah!
Venus: Now you see right here, the Pros and the New Boys, they call their hangout the Nucleus. Now see, that's a real tough word. It's Latin. I kinda think it's Swahili. And it means center.
Arnold: Yeah? What is it?
Venus: Nucleus. Say it.
Arnold: Nucleus. Is that really African?
Venus: Say it!
Arnold, with exaggeration: Nucleus!
Venus: All right. I'll give you another Swahili word. It's, uh, it's "tron." It means "do."
Arnold: Yeah, "tron, do."
Venus: All these gangs like that name so well that they all decide to use it. Fr'instance, the Pros right here in the middle start calling themselves the Protons, and the New Boys, they start calling themselves the Neutrons. And out here on the edge, the Elected Ones, they start calling themselves the Elec--?
Arnold: The Electrons. The Protons, and the Neutrons.
Venus: And all this right here, this is the neighborhood. This is block after block of nothing. You understand block after block of nothing.
Arnold: Yeah, I know all about that, and your time is up, Professor….
Venus: Good. I was finished anyway. Now, you go on back to school.
Arnold: School! Man, all I know about is a bunch of … gangs that live in a round neighborhood!
But, in learning about a bunch of gangs that live in a round neighborhood, Arnold had really learned about the atom with its nucleus, and its protons, neutrons, and electrons. Venus wanted Arnold to learn about the atom. He found a way to put his message into words that Arnold could understand.
That’s what the Holy Spirit will lead and empower us to do—to proclaim what people need to know in words and in ways that they can understand. Our tradition has some great words that are full of meaning: salvation, redemption, grace, sin, and sanctification, for example. But who around us knows what they mean? The gospel message says everything that people need to know about God, themselves, life, and eternal life. But how can we get them to hear what they need to hear? How shall they hear of the mighty acts of God unless they hear of them in words that ring true? And how can they ring true unless they can understand them?
Eugene Peterson recently retold a story that is pertinent to this subject. The literary Greek that developed over the last five centuries B.C.E. is called Attic Greek. The Greek in which the New Testament was written, though, is not Attic Greek. It is so different that some scholars posited that it was a translation of a Hebrew text; others held that it was a special “Holy Spirit” Greek. Finally, though, a breakthrough occurred that explained the situation. In 1897 pieces of writings were pulled from a garbage heap at a dead Egyptian town called Oxyrhynchus. The scraps “came from wills, official reports, letters from husbands away on business to their wives at home, a letter that a son who had become a soldier wrote to his parents,…shopping lists, bills and receipts—the kinds of writings that never get bound into books and catalogued in a library” [Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 145]. Scholars eventually found almost all of the 500 or so “special” words in the New Testament that they had thought were unique. As Peterson put it, “(I)t was a surprise: our Bibles written not in the educated and polished language of scholars, historians, philosophers, and theologians but in the common language of fishermen and prostitutes, homemakers and carpenters” [p. 146].
It should not be a surprise, though. After all, we are talking about the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. We are talking about the Savior who loved and ministered to sinners. We are talking about the God who went to all that trouble to make his message understandable, to put it in a form that frail human beings could grasp. Given that he did that with the Living Word, how surprising is it that he did it with the written Word? And, how surprising is it that his Holy Spirit, the divine empowering force of the church, would compel us to proclaim the message in the language of the people in order that those people might be saved? That very sharing is the purpose of Pentecostal power.