When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
“When the day of Pentecost arrived”. What a mundane way to introduce the great events that unfolded. The Spirit falls, and the apostles are filled. People from around the known world, hear the commotion and then - wonder of wonders - also hear these Galileans address them in their own language. Peter stands and preaches a great sermon (only a portion of which is included in today’s reading) which results in the baptism of three thousand and the rocketing growth of the church.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived”. Surely Luke would have done better with “when the great day”, or “the much celebrated day”. Yet this is scripture, and so perhaps he did well enough! Perhaps these six words contain something of a lesson for us. Might it be that a church which in such desperate need of another Pentecost could find great value in this phrase?
The answer is, of course, yes or I wouldn’t have started down this path! Let me give you four lessons the modern church, with its love of programmes, would do well to head. Four principles which even we in the empty rural marches of England can follow.
The first is to do with timing. The disciples had not planned this - how could they have even dreamt of this - and so as Pentecost dawned it was simply another great festival of Judaism. They knew the patterns of celebration in which they would join with their fellow Jews, but had no inkling of an idea that what they would experience would eclipse all else. The lesson to draw from this is that God’s timing is better than our timing. We might plan, put on events, but in the end all is hollow without the Holy Spirit. As Paul noted: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6). We do our bit, but we can only do our bit. Let us not kid ourselves that we can achieve anything without God’s Spirit except a lot of rotas and activity.
The second is also to do with timing. In the previous chapter, before his Ascension, Jesus had instructed his disciples“not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”. Waiting is a frustrating thing. “Up and at it” is the modern way as we are told to seize days and strike hot iron. But they were told to wait, and wait they did until “the day of Pentecost arrived”.
Now the thing about Pentecost is that it was a long established Jewish festival, and as we see in the passage a great number of Jews from around the world would descend upon Jerusalem. By waiting, these disciples were empowered to speak to a far larger and more international crowd that would otherwise have been the case. As with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ himself, which occurred at Passover, these critical events in the history of Christianity took place in front of a vast number of witnesses.
The third principle is to do with what the disciples have been doing whilst waiting. In Acts 1:14 we read: “all these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Prayer: that great overlooked engine house of the church!
To stop to pray is to acknowledge the hand of God in the affairs of the world. It is to seek a deeper wisdom than ours, and to call for a blessing greater than we can give. It is to concede that the reigns of the church lie in the hands of God, and not committees. How often churches seize up because their whirring wheels of activity have not been oiled with prayer. How often wild geese are chased because we would not stop to listen.
And notice who prayed. Not just the disciples, but everyone. Men, women, old and young. Prayer is the task of the church, and not the clergy. It is a duty which cannot be subcontracted. There were one hundred and twenty in the entire church as they prayed, and at Pentecost three thousand were added to the number. As it happens, this email and its printed version is sent to one hundred and twenty one people. What if we were to all pray?! There are (just) more of us than there were in that early church!
The final principle is related: expectation. The resurrection had brought a deep belief, and a deep trust, to the disciples. It is this which steeled them for the persecutions which were soon poured out upon them. This trust meant that when Jesus told them to wait, they did so in expectation of something greater. When he promised that the baptism of the Holy Spirit would occur “not many days from now”, they knew what he spoke was true. The disciples were expectant.
In 1792 William Carey preached a sermon at the founding of the first modern missionary society, which contained he famous call: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God”! If both these lungs of faith are in good condition, then the church is indeed prepared for the leading of the Holy Spirit.