This text is used as one of the texts for the Lectionary Year B on May 24, 2015.
Peter’s Pentecostal message sets the bar pretty high for all sermons that follow. He took advantage of current events and cultural context in order to relate the news about Jesus of Nazareth and its significance for all within earshot. And the response he received, about 3,000 people joining the community of disciples, was not too shabby at all. His example should inform our own preaching, but it can also inform every Christian’s efforts to communicate the gospel in relevant and captivating ways in everyday conversation. But lest we think this homily to end all homilies was solely the product of hard work, bountiful commentary consultation, and extensive creative planning, Luke prefaces Peter’s sermon, along with every other spiritual advancement in Acts, with the arrival of the much anticipated “helper” promised by Jesus. If the resurrection of Jesus is the key moment of Luke’s gospel, surely the advent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus is the defining moment of Acts.
In considering these two events as one text, a provocative rhetorical strategy of reversing the sequence of cause and effect can be used. In other words, start with the effects that might be desirable or impressive to the audience, and then, once you’ve instilled that desire in them, move backwards to the cause or causes that make the effects reality. In the present example, the disciples’ ability to communicate in multiple languages, Peter’s boldness in preaching the gospel in such an impromptu manner to such a diverse audience, and the incredibly favorable response by those in attendance are all types of effects we would love to see take place in our church ministries. How many of our members or staff would jump at the chance to develop new skills and gifts that could further equip them to reach out to others, or perhaps to grow in boldness for the purpose of speaking to others about their faith? And who wouldn’t sign up for the evangelism strategy, or ministry program, or sermon builder website that could guarantee a salvation response of 3,000? Once the carrot of effect has been dangled in front of the audience, return to the cause that enables it to be grasped, here the Holy Spirit. The movement of the Spirit of God is THE cause, for Peter and the other eleven disciples, as well as for us and our churches today. Or if you prefer, the cause is the collision between the power of God’s Spirit and the obedience of God’s people.
In vv. 5-13 Luke paints a picture of Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, filled to overflowing with foreign-dwelling, Jewish pilgrims. The geographical designations, though perhaps not instantly obvious, amount to an “every direction from Jerusalem” summary: Mesopotamian lands to the northeast; Asia Minor to the north; Rome and Crete to the west; Libya and Egypt to the south; and Arabia to the east. Being ethnic Jews, most all of these visitors likely spoke and understood Aramaic, but they also would have brought their own regional languages and dialects to Jerusalem with them. This first manifestation of the Holy Spirit was directly connected with the equipping of disciples to exemplify the power of God and to perform their mission mandate of testifying about Jesus in this very unique cultural context. While this may not always be the case, the connection here between Spirit manifestation and mission mandate should carry a great deal of significance in our theology of the Holy Spirit.
An additional angle on these verses might take a look at this “language speaking” incident as a reversal of the Old Testament “language speaking” incident in Genesis 11 (the tower of Babel). It appears that the fall-induced curses on humanity, seen throughout Genesis 3-11, are starting to be rescinded, signifying a brand new moment in God’s plan of redeeming humanity and creation.
Peter then responded to the Spirit’s movement and the crowd’s theory of inebriation by referencing the prophet Joel. This oracle of salvation from Joel 2:28-32 claims that the Day of the Lord would be signified by the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the prophesying of men and women from all ages and social classes. Perhaps Peter also saw a reference here to the phenomena surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection (or the natural wonders of Joel 2 may still lie in the future), but the outpouring of God’s Spirit alone evidences a new day of salvation. In light of these signs of the Spirit, visible in the “unusual” behavior of the followers of Jesus, Peter urged his hearers to respond to Jesus, for “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Take note that the call to response in Peter’s sermon is supported by three elements: proclamation of Scripture, a testimony of personal experience, and pointing out as evidence the Spirit-filled living of Jesus’s followers. In our churches, the pastor can supply the first two out of her or his own study and walk with the Lord, but the third can only be supplied if the church family is indeed living in a Spirit-filled manner.
Finally, we return to the spark that ignited all of these flames. The account of the Spirit’s arrival upon the disciples is commonly known, but the gravity of this moment may not be fully felt in many churches today. The lion’s share of attention given to the person of the Son and his role in our justification contrasts starkly with the dearth of attention given to the person of the Spirit who indwells and empowers the justified for their God-appointed mission. Peter’s sermon would move into proclamation about Jesus’s identity and saving work, but he opened with the Spirit. For it was the Spirit’s work in the lives of Jesus’s followers that gave credibility to that following gospel proclamation. Both in our preaching and in our Christian living, the role of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated.
University Baptist Church, Houston, TX