This sermon was prepared by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark., on October 11, 2009.
Acts 2: 1-21
Before his ascension, Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power to be witnesses for him throughout the world. He instructed them to return to Jerusalem and await the Holy Spirit’s in-dwelling. They followed his instructions, and returned to Jerusalem to pray and wait. On the day of Pentecost—the annual Jewish festival that is observed fifty days (seven complete weeks) after the Passover, the Holy Spirit fulfilled the first part of the promise Jesus made. We have a record of that fulfillment in Acts 2, which presents the first miraculous experience of the Church—the gift of tongues.
I do not know and am not qualified to explain why the Holy Spirit did not empower the first followers in other ways, such as by enabling them to raise the dead, heal sick people, or perform other miraculous acts. However, there are some valuable lessons for us to draw from what the Holy Spirit chose to do and how it affected that initial band of Jesus followers.
The Holy Spirit equipped the Church to communicate across barriers. The first miracle that occurred in the witness of the Church is that the followers of Jesus broke language, cultural, and even geographic barriers before they left Jerusalem. These were Galilean men and women from humble beginnings. There is no evidence that they were well educated. There is no record that they had traveled beyond Palestine. Without attending a language school or spending years immersed in distant lands, they began speaking languages understood by people from communities throughout the Mediterranean Sea region who were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival from as far away as Rome and places in South Asia.
It is a powerful irony that the first recorded miracle of the Church era involved cross-cultural communication. Jesus is identified in John’s gospel as the Word—the revealed expression about God—so that we will experience God’s redeeming love. After his ascension, Jesus told his followers that they would communicate the redeeming message of his resurrection. When the Holy Spirit in-dwelled the first followers on Pentecost, God again affirmed his plan to communicate with humanity. The power of God revealed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost overcomes distance, cultural, and language barriers, like the power of God revealed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ overcame the barrier of death.
In this Information Age, let it not be said that the followers of Jesus Christ cannot communicate with people. Let it not be said that the people of my generation cannot communicate with people of the hip hop generation. Let it not be said that racial, cultural, geographical, political, or other barriers prevent us from being witnesses about the redeeming love of God, the liberating power of God, and the sustaining peace of God. God is still in the communication business!
The Holy Spirit places top priority on witness. Everything we read about what that first miracle in the Church shows that the Holy Spirit equipped those men and women to proclaim the resurrection message to people who did not know about Jesus Christ. It does not appear that this occurred in a worship setting. Even if it did, nothing suggests that the men and women who spoke in languages they had not previously learned were unaware they were doing so. They were not “talking out of their heads,” so to speak. They were talking intelligently to people who understood them clearly. This was evangelistic talk, not ecstatic talk.
Exuberance and ecstasy certainly has its place in worship and discipleship. We have every reason to be passionate about who God is, how God loves us in Jesus, and God’s wonderful power to redeem us. At the same time, we must always remember that Jesus directs his followers to be witnesses to people about these things. What we do and say, in worship and elsewhere, is most useful to God when it involves witnessing—communicating God’s truth—so that people understand it. If people do not understand what we do and say in worship, they will not be reached by our exuberance and ecstasy, however genuine it may be.
That is why Peter refused to allow the Pentecost spectacle to be misunderstood. Peter was not about to have a demonstration of God’s power be mistaken for human drunkenness or anything else. It is not enough for us to experience the Holy Spirit. We must always be ready to interpret what God is doing in and through our lives to people who notice and do not understand. Remember that we are called to be witnesses. That calling obligates us to explain what we have experienced with God, not merely revel in the experience.
The Holy Spirit is God’s answer to our “how” questions. The Holy Spirit answered a big “how” question on that first Pentecost after the resurrection. “How can we be witnesses about the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the world when we are a small band of Galileans in Jerusalem?” You and I, like the first followers in the Church, can learn a great lesson from their experience. It is up to God to resolve the “how” issues of our lives for God. People may not understand what is happening when God resolves them, but you and I can trust God to show up with answers to the “how” issues.
Trust the Holy Spirit to show up with answers to how we will do what God wants done. Trust the Spirit to provide answers to “how” we will afford it, “how” we will find it, and “how” we will recognize what God wants us to achieve. And when the Spirit shows up, don’t let unknowing and uninformed people ignore or overlook the divine cause for the “how.” We are not the issue whenever there is a “how” question. We are merely the human agents through whom the divine will and power of God will be demonstrated by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is impartial because God is free. The first miracle produced the first public sermon ascribed to Peter, who explained to the amazed people who heard Galileans speaking languages from across the Mediterranean region that God was fulfilling an ancient promise. Peter was not the only speaker. The gift of tongues did not come to him alone, or only to the original eleven apostles and Matthias (chosen to replace Judas Iscariot). No, the first miracle that led to the first recorded sermon occurred when the Holy Spirit equipped mena and women to be prophetic witnesses for Christ. This was an impartial ordination, not a cultural, national, or gender-specific one.
According to Acts 2:4, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Who were “all of them”? They were men and women. The Holy Spirit did not follow the traditional cultural pattern of elevating men above women. Instead, the first thing the Holy Spirit did was to defy that pattern. Peter explained it in these words, beginning at Acts 2:15:
These people aren’t drunk, as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen: “In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy.” [The Message]
Just as Peter was bold in refuting any mistaken idea what the miraculous gift of languages was caused by drunkenness, followers of Jesus in our age must be bold in refuting mis-guided ideas about who the Holy Spirit can and does equip for prophetic ministry. The notion of women preachers is a New Age phenomenon to be sure, but it is not a gimmick of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. No, it is what happened during the first Pentecost experience in the life of the Church. That was the beginning of a New Age. The “liberal” behind that group of women preachers is the same “liberal” who called Peter and the other men. The “liberal” who touched the women is the same “liberal” who touched the men. The “liberal” who ordained the women to speak in languages they had not learned is the same “liberal” who ordained the men to do so. The Holy Spirit is that “liberal.”
Let me be blunt like Peter. This was the work of God. This was the sovereignty of God on display. This was the Holy Spirit doing a new thing. This was Spirit of God breaking human rules and throwing out cultural norms and turning over rabbinical tradition. This was the Spirit of God being God without asking any man or woman for permission. This was the Holy Spirit showing up and showing out. This was the Holy Spirit God saying, “I will call whomever I please for whatever purpose I want to bless anyone I choose.” This was the Spirit of God saying, “If I would not let a human grave hold my Christ, and I will not let human tradition and male chauvinism deprive my women from the calling to prophetic ministry concerning his resurrection.” If you want to call it drunkenness, you are wrong. If you want to call it unseemly, you are wrong. If you want to call it unbecoming, you are wrong. And if you want to call it un-Biblical, you are wrong!
The Holy Spirit does not need our permission to appoint anyone for prophetic ministry. He is sovereign to call whomever He chooses and to equip anyone He calls for radical living to the glory of God. That is good news to all of us. It tells us that the Holy Spirit will equip us if we will allow ourselves to be available. It tells us that we will be blessings no matter what obstacles people try to put in our way. It tells us that God cares so much about the resurrection witness going forth and being known and believed that the Holy Spirit will bust loose anywhere, anytime, and in any manner He chooses. It tells us that we are called by the Holy Spirit to be free, because the Spirit is free.
Be free, my sisters and brothers, in the Spirit of God. Live free by the Spirit. Trust the Spirit to equip you to be free witnesses for Jesus Christ. Trust the Spirit to call you and equip you and send you and sustain you come what may. Live in the Spirit. Trust the Spirit. Follow the Spirit. Be free in the Spirit.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.