You may recall that Luke started the book of Acts by setting up a sort of transition – the shift from Jesus’ bodily ministry on earth to the church’s embodiment of his ministry.
He lets us know that there were 40 days during which Jesus made appearances among his followers, teaching and commissioning them, even as he continued to do wonders in his resurrection form.
Luke also tells us about that strange day when Jesus ascended into heaven… but not before he told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit to come upon them. It would be through the Holy Spirit that they would receive power. They would then bear witness to God’s power, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
So they waited.
They stayed put in Jerusalem, where folks eventually gathered for Pentecost. And here’s what happened… listen to Luke’s description in Acts 2
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Maybe like me, you’ve wondered why, of all the ways that the Holy Spirit might become manifest, the Apostles were given the ability to speak in multiple unfamiliar languages.
As the festival of Pentecost approached, Jerusalem again grew busy and crowded. Like the Passover, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festivals. One of those times of year that those Jews who had the means would come to Jerusalem, swelling the ranks of those who had lived in other nations.
As Luke wrote… there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. This meant Jerusalem was quite the multilingual city.
And so, when the apostles started talking in different languages, you can be sure they drew a crowd. A crowd of people heard these men- all of them Galileans – and understand exactly what they were preaching….
It must have been surreal, hearing one’s language spoken unexpectedly.
I imagine it like the reaction of characters on Doctor Who- no matter where or when the TARDIS lands- no matter the language spoken by the beings they encounter, the ship’s translation circuit allows its passengers to hear in their own language (for us- English). The Doctor’s new companions are always a little puzzled at first, but eventually are able to focus on what is being said, rather than why they can understand it.
Any way… The Holy Spirit arrived in power and filled these men, so that they were fluently speaking in languages they had not previously known.
Luke says people were amazed and astonished. They asked “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs— in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
It was a fair question. What was God up to?
This Pentecost moment is more than just a sign of God’s ability to do unexpected things. This is an important moment in the launching of a new movement. God is pursuing people in a new way to do a new thing.
Among the great variety of people gathered in Jerusalem, many of them would have been familiar with Hebrew or Greek, able to do a sort of instant translation as needed to understand what was said. Kind of like I do when I’m among folks speaking Spanish.
I hear it, translate it in my head and then think about what it means.
But in that moment, God made all that work unnecessary. This Pentecost miracle means that the great variety of people hear the good news in their first language.
The language of their hearts, not their heads.
Their go-to language.
They don’t have to search for the meaning…
They immediately understand what is said.
Which makes it that much easier to trust what they were hearing
This is important because, while there were some who sneered… who called them drunk… Many other women and men heard and believed what the apostles were preaching.
These new believers were baptized began to learn how to follow Jesus. And when they spoke with other Jews – each in their own language – they, too, were able to share the good news about God’s love made flesh in Jesus, adding even more disciples to their numbers…
People the disciples themselves might not have been able to speak with beyond that Pentecost day.
And, remember those who were not residents of Jerusalem?
Those who had made the Pentecost pilgrimage that year?
THEY had a story to tell when they went home. As well as a sermon to share in their corner of the world.
I always think of this holy cacophony on Pentecost as the payoff for the story that started way back in Babel, when humanity had tried so hard to build a tower to heaven as if we were gods. All of those languages that separated people for generations have now been redeemed as God’s plan to draw every tribe and nation back into relationship with God.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps us understand that language isn’t always the barrier to our reconciliation with God. Sometimes God’s welcomes gets lost when we translate it into tradition.
For many Jewish Christ-followers, the law had been a comfort, even as they knew they could never fully obey, and therefore never become fully righteous… fully right with God. But because of their lineage, their heritage, they had confidence in their belonging to the family of God.
But as the good news spread beyond the Jews into Gentile communities, how would this imperfect law observation affect them? They didn’t trace their family lines back to the tribes of Israel? Was true inclusion possible for them?
In Chapter 4, Paul brings an important household and family metaphor into play with coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles. Listen to the way he works to help them see their lives before and after Christ – the Messiah – comes on the seen as everyone’s Redeemer.
Galatians 4:1 My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2 but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Here, Paul wants the Galatians to see that being law-observant was necessary for a time… an interim period… but was not the final chapter in the long story of God’s relationship with humanity.
As children (minors) in God’s household, humankind would be considered heirs but not yet of the age to claim that inheritance. The law acted as a sort of steward or guardian, giving us an imperfect experience of salvation and keeping us within the bounds of our relationship.
If you think about access to the head of the household and all of their holdings, an heir who has not yet “come of age” may as well be a hired hand or an enslaved person in the household.
That is the before. For Jews and Gentiles alike.
But now, knowing and believing all we do of Jesus as the Christ, having received the Holy Spirit, God made us so much more.
No longer in need of a steward, God’s children become the full heirs of God’s Kingdom, recipients of all the good and perfect gifts that God had longed to give. from the beginning.
Including the freedom of life in the Holy Spirit.
Paul says that Christ has set us free, free to live in God’s love.
Free to be children who know they are loved.
Of all the stuff I learned in Child and Adolescent Development classes, I was most fascinated and moved by the way a parent’s love plays out in the behavior of toddlers. Technically, we see this at every stage during which children work to establish themselves as separate individuals… including teenagers.
But you can see much more easily among children who are just beginning to be mobile. The bond of love between the parent and child determines how free the child feels to go explore… and just how far they will wander.
Children who are loved. Who know they are loved. Who have come to trust that their parent will be faithfully present and available as needed while they roam… They become confident in their own ability to navigate the world.
So they toddle off, a little farther each time they venture out. They check in, looking back to see if their parent is watching, but they aren’t as fearful.
Not like the child of a parent whose love and care seems conditioned on the child “getting it right.” Or the child whose parent is unpredictable, whose rules and expectations are confusing and capricious.
Those children stick close, hesitant and fearful.
Needing direction or correction or affirmation for every move, every choice
Imagine a child going to the playground, carrying with them and consulting a long list of rules in the book before choosing where to climb or what to play. They occasionally calling in a specialist to interpret the rules, just to be safe.
Over time, children who are corrected and encouraged with love come to know the values behind the house rules and expectations. They know them so well that they can improvise. They feel freedom to interpret what is happening around them and are able to respond appropriately.
Paul wants the Galatians (and us) to know that the law- written, preserved and proclaimed as a way of life- is not the same as having the Spirit of God living in us, prompting, prodding, guiding us in the way we should live.
You and I have been invited into a relationship that simplifies that whole complicated set of rules into a single guiding principle – the Law of Love.
God said “Love me. Love me with every bit of the best of you… heart, soul, mind and spirit.” In the physical, mental, social, spiritual aspects of our lives, we are commanded to love an d honor God.
Likewise, we are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
So that all of our relationships with all of our neighbors honor God
Which means love must be obvious in the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual interactions between us and others – Be they family, friends, church folk, people we know in the neighborhood or complete strangers.
And the only way to live this life of love, Paul says, is to live by the Spirit.
What does that look like?
If we aren’t going to have a rulebook, judges and referees, how can we possibly know we are living by the Spirit and not just our own desires and passing fads?
Well, it’s not an exhaustive list, but starting in Galatians 5:16, Paul gives us a good idea of what to look for…
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Funny thing about fruit – Including spiritual fruit – I tend to think of it as a finished product. Something I can go get at the store when it’s in season. But actually, it isn’t an end, so much as a continuation.
Fruit is produced by a plant so that some creature… a bird, an animal, a human animal perhaps… will eat it. And while that is good, and might even keep an animal alive for another day, producing fruit isn’t just about providing nourishment for another part of the ecological web around the plant.
Each fruit contains seeds that will travel with and in the critter that eats it.
Until the seed is dropped into new soil somewhere.
And then the cycle of life can begin anew.
This was not lost on Paul, who saw fruit daily on trees and bushes, He intentionally describes fruit as evidence of a healthy, thriving person and community of faith.
Because those fruit offer nourishment to a world
that hungers for kindness,
that is starved for generosity and compassion.
When people experience through God’s people the love and peace offered by a life in Christ, we have the opportunity to bear witness to its source and to invite them to come and experience life anew…
Life in the Spirit.
Paul’s examples aren’t just about making good choices, what it takes to be considered straight up moral individuals.
The works of the flesh – the things that cry out to us from the brokenness of the world – these are exactly the opposite of loving, kind and gracious ways of living in community. They are precisely the actions that cripple families and tear worshiping communities into apart. In fact, knowing that Paul is writing to a particular group of people whom he knew by name, it is not a stretch to imagine he is calling out specific and known situations.
God has expectations, to be sure. Every parent does.
We talk about renouncing sin as we baptize new member at the font and as we take on responsibilities of leadership within the faith community.
We confess our sins each week, aloud as a community and in silence as individuals
Clearly, we believe that what we say think and do matters. To us and to God.
Hopefully, we see how what we fail to say and do matters just as greatly.
But just as Jesus included his promise to be with us as he commissioned his followers to go and make disciples, Paul reminds us that he also promised that we would receive all the power we need in order to bear witness to the glory and grace of God.
Pentecost was the answer to that promise.
The Holy Spirit – God’s own power – is available to each and all of us. We can claim and proclaim the new life we embrace as co-heirs with Jesus, adopted children of God, crucified and resurrected with Christ
Set free for the freedom
As we remember the life, death and resurrection of Christ at the table, in a few moments, we will have the opportunity to embrace freedom and reject the values we held before knowing the truth of God’s great love for us.
Nourished by the bread of life and the cup of salvation, may we live for one another, as God lives – through the Holy Spirit – in us.