Leonard Sweet shares the following story. “Recently, a judicial friend was presiding over a case in a small, rural county. The defendant was charged with drunk driving and trying to assault the police officer who arrested him. To convict the defendant on the assault on an officer charge, the had to prove that the defendant knew the person he was assaulting was a police officer. And the easiest way to do that is to show that the officer was wearing a police uniform, and therefore the defendant knew that this was a police officer.
“So the District Attorney asked the officer on the witness stand, ‘And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?’
“The witness looked at him blankly. It was clear he didn’t know what the District Attorney meant by ‘attired’. Everyone saw this but the District Attorney.
“’Would you repeat the question, please?’
“In a slightly irritated voice the District Attorney said, ‘And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?’
“The witness still was puzzled. ‘Say that again’, he pleaded.
“’How were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?’ barked the District Attorney.
“My friend said you could suddenly see the light bulb come on in the officer’s head, and he proudly proclaimed, ‘I was traveling on standard issue radial tires!’
“This officer needed an interpreter even within the English language!
“That’s what I’m getting at: We all need our own personal interpreter, full time, 24/7. So much of what we hear, even within the English language, we don’t understand. And nowhere is that truth more evident than with people who are new to the church.”
No matter what group we are in, we get accustomed to the jargon of the group. The church is no exception. How we tell the Jesus story or why we take time out on a Sunday morning must be told in plain English to others. That is one of the points Luke is telling us about on a Pentecost morning nearly 2,000 years ago.
The day of Pentecost was a big Jewish celebration. It was fifty days after the Passover, hence the name Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. It was a celebration of the grain harvest. (Most all Jewish festivals or holidays had their roots in agrarian celebrations, either planting or harvesting.) Later, Pentecost became Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the law on Sinai. It was typical for pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora to travel to Jerusalem for the holy days, Pentecost being one of those.
The “they” Luke refers to in the first verse of Acts 2 are Jesus’ disciples. They have been in hiding since Jesus’ crucifixion. Even though Jesus made several appearances since the resurrection, they remained in hiding fearing that they too will be arrested. Luke doesn’t say it, but they may have judged that if they told people about Jesus appearing after his death, no one would believe it. A reasonable assumption.
The disciples were often together for mutual support. They were together for Pentecost, in Jerusalem. They were staying away from the observances. Then there was chaos, not a Maxwell Smart kind of chaos, but an utter hold on to your seat kind of chaos. The wind blew through the windows like a hurricane or tornado. These bright licks of light, looking something like fiery tongues, settled on each of them. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they began speaking in other languages. A wild scene.
I don’t know which Naked Gun movie it was, but there is a scene of a fire at a fireworks warehouse. The bad guys are somehow associated with the warehouse, which why Inspector Drebin is there. A crowd naturally gathers as fireworks are launching and exploding all around the warehouse. Drebin displays his badge and shouts to the crowd, “Nothing to see here. Go back to your homes. There is nothing to see here.” The fireworks are still exploding behind him. Not the same as Pentecost, but it is similar.
The scene in Jerusalem was so wild and made such a commotion that it attracted a curious crowd. These people were from all sorts of places inside and outside the Roman Empire. Each person heard their own language being spoken. You might imagine some the conversations: “How long you been coming here?” “Oh, about seven years.” “Yeah, about the same for me. Ever seen anything like this?” “Nope.” “Me neither. Suppose they’re drunk?” “Yeah, looks like it to me. These Galileans are too dumb to know other languages.”
Peter must have overheard their conversation. “They’re not drunk. It’s too early in the morning.” Which if you think about it isn’t a very good defense. Is Peter implying that they are usually drunk later in the day?
But now that Peter has their attention and being filled with the Holy Spirit, he is now emboldened to tell the story of Jesus. But first Peter preps the crowd. He does this by quoting the prophet Joel, specifically Joel 2:28-32. This puts what just happened in context. “In the last days …,” is what Joel says. Jesus would have said, “The kingdom has come near you.” This is what Peter means. The Jesus event is a sign that God’s kingdom has come. Jesus’ very existence proves this.
And now to add more proof, the Holy Spirit has come and what they heard was the result of the Spirit. The birthday of the church was foretold by God through Joel’s lips. Prophecy has returned to earth and knows no gender bias, no age bias. The Holy Spirit comes to everyone regardless of status. The great physical signs were already witnessed at Jesus’ crucifixion. And – everyone who calls on God will be saved. The audience knows that this will only happen when the messiah comes. The messianic age has begun.
Peter continues his sermon, reminding his audience about what Jesus did and links Jesus to King David, in other words the messiah. Even though David remains in his tomb, Jesus did not. Jesus is raised to God’s right hand. It all must have been effective. Thousands were baptized that day.
The Holy Spirit transforms frightened disciples into bold proclaimers of Jesus. The Holy Spirit chooses to arrive when Jerusalem is crowded. The potential audience is large. In essence, the gathering of a crowd was an evangelical model of people coming to hear a message. Now granted, a big commotion is what caused a crowd to gather.
But after that Pentecost, the disciples gradually left Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They were compelled to tell the story about Jesus and the world wasn’t going to go to Jerusalem, a backwater province of the Roman Empire. They went to places where people gathered. They went to synagogues where Jews and those sympathetic to Judaism would gather and would understand their references to Jewish scriptures. They went to the marketplaces.
You know what? By today’s standards we might say they were failures. They converted very few people in those first centuries. And in those odd places where they had a visible percentage of the population, they were persecuted. Who would join a group who lived under the threat of arrest and worse? But people did. The Jesus story was just too compelling. It could not be kept a secret.
The time we live in now is not hostile to Christianity like it was in the first few centuries of our era. It is indifferent. What we like about Christianity will not be known if we wait for people to show up. We need to share it with others, preferably where people gather.
Text: Acts 2:1–21