Note to the reader
I preached this sermon at University Church of the Nazarene (on the campus of Africa Nazarene University, outside Nairobi, Kenya) on June 4, 2017.
Text: Acts 2:1-13
Everyone was excited about the Feast of Weeks. They called it Shavuot, or Pentecost. They counted them down with anticipation. From Passover to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai — count ’em: 7 weeks, 50 days. And so from all over the Mediterranean basin and beyond, Jews who had scattered descended upon Jerusalem for a 2 day celebration. It was party time!
A surprising twist
Do you like surprises? On Pentecost, God did something surprising, something these Jewish pilgrims could not have expected. Now, the 120 gathered praying in the Upper Room knew what Jesus had said. Just before he ascended to heaven, the Lord had promised:
In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, CEB).
But the visitors to Jerusalem knew nothing of Jesus’ promise.
When the wind blew, when the Holy Spirit descended, when the fire lit over the heads of the 120, when they heard them speaking their languages, miraculously empowered by God, the crowds were amazed. Some thought they were drunk, even though it was only 9 a.m.!
The rest of Acts 2 records Peter’s sermon. You might call it a birthday sermon. No, it wasn’t Peter’s birthday, but if was the birthday of the Church.
3 Lessons from Pentecost
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day on the Christian Calendar when churches around the world commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on that day so long ago. Red is the traditional color of Pentecost, symbolizing the fire of the Holy Ghost. Pentecost sometimes is overlooked. It may seem less important than Christmas (the Festival of the Incarnation) or Easter (the Festival of the Resurrection). Yet Pentecost Sunday is foundational for our faith, especially for our life together as the Church, the People of God. As we consider Acts 2, let’s look together at 3 lessons from Pentecost:
Lesson 1 – We really need the Holy Spirit.
Lesson 2 – We really need a new direction.
Lesson 3 – We really need each other.
We really need the Holy Spirit.
You can’t understand Acts 2 unless you know something about Joel 2. When some in the crowd at Pentecost accused the 120 of celebrating Shavuot a little too much, of being inebriated, Peter stood. Before a crowd of Jews, Peter appealed to a Jewish prophet. Joel had prophesied what God would do:
After that, I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions (Joel 2:28, CEB; see also Acts 2:17).
On this, the birthday of the Church, Jesus knew that the task of making disciples in all nations was immense. There was no way that the Church in its own puny power was up to the job. They absolutely had to receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
If on that day long ago, they really needed the Holy Spirit, then hear this: We really need the Holy Spirit! We simply cannot fulfill the world-changing mission that God has given us if we operate in our own weakness.
There were 3 symbols when the Holy Spirit fell on the 120 gathered in the Upper Room: wind, fire, and languages. When I say, “We really need the Holy Spirit,” I think first of the symbol of wind. The KJV describes it as a “rushing, mighty wind.” It’s a symbol of spiritual power.
A.B. Simpson once said: “One of the special marks of the Holy Ghost in the Apostolic Church was the spirit of boldness.” Commentators have often remarked about the change that came over Peter on the day of Pentecost. Just 50 days earlier around a bonfire, when accused by a solitary slave girl, Peter had denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. Now in broad daylight, in front of a crowd of thousands, he boldly preached the Good News. What a difference the Holy Spirit makes. We really need the Holy Spirit! I wonder: Has he filled you?
We really need a new direction.
Yet not only do we really need the Holy Spirit. Secondly, we really need a new direction. When the Holy Spirit comes – says John 16:8 – he will convict the world of sin.
Besides the symbol of wind, representing the Holy Spirit’s power, there is the symbol of the flames of fire hover over each of the 120. This flame symbolizes the Holy Spirit’s cleansing. Looking back on what had transpired at Pentecost, before the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15:8-9 Peter testified that God had “purified our hearts by faith.” What do we mean by purity? We’re talking about new direction, abandoning wrong things that would destroy us and embracing the good things of God that give us purpose and long-term contentment. Only the Holy Spirit and his cleansing can give us the new direction that we so desperately need. John Hyles comments:
Fire is chosen to symbolize the Holy Spirit, no doubt, because of what it does. Fire burns out the dross. Fire gives light. Fire gives warmth. Oh, to be on fire for God!
As Peter preached to the crowd, he realized that his listeners also needed a new direction. Look at Acts 2:23: You crucified him, with the help of wicked men! And then in v.37, the crowd is troubled by Peter’s accusation and asks: “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter answers: “Change your hearts and lives” (CEB). Other versions say: “Repent and be baptized.” What are we talking about? New direction. Let the Holy Spirit’s fire purify your sinful heart. Do you need a new direction today?
We really need each other.
Yet there is a third lesson from Pentecost. Not only do we really need the Holy Spirit; not only do we really need a new direction. Finally, we really need each other.
John Wesley famously insisted:
‘Holy solitaries’ is phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulturers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.
It should strike us that Jesus could have sent the Holy Spirit on each of the 120 individually when they were praying at home alone. Instead, the Holy Spirit fell when they were in the Upper Room praying together. There is something about joining forces that moves spiritual mountains.
The third symbol – besides wind and fire – was languages. These were earthly languages, the various mother tongues spoken by the Jews who had come from so many far-off places. Was it a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing? The account is inconclusive, but one thing is sure: God was intent on getting his message across. The language miracle symbolizes the connectedness God desires for his people; language is meant to bind people together for a common purpose.
What is striking about Acts 2 is that it begins with togetherness and it ends with togetherness. Acts 2:42ff speaks of shared teaching, shared meals, shared prayers, even shared possessions. The Holy Spirit united their hearts in singleness of purpose and mission. Don’t you long for that kind of unity in the Church today? Simply put, we cannot accomplish individually the mission God that God has given us. The Ivorian proverb reminds us:
You can’t pick up a grain of rice with just one finger.
About 2 months ago, I was hospitalized with a sudden bleeding condition. I thank the Lord for a wonderful wife who stood by me through that scary experience, which included an operation. But there were many others who helped us: nurses at the ANU clinic, ambulance drivers, ANU transport who took Amy to and from the hospital, Pastor Gift, the DVC and the VC who visited me at the hospital, and so many who prayed for me. The proverb says: “No one is an island,” and I was so glad through that experience to be part of community. The lesson from Pentecost is still true today: We really need each other! Let us never allow the Devil to divide us.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. Three lessons are before us:
- We really need the Holy Spirit. We need the spiritual power symbolized by the wind, the power that only he can give us.
- We really need a new direction. Only the fire of the Holy Spirit can cleanse our hearts and give us a fresh start.
- We really need each other. The languages symbolize our connectedness. To accomplish the Church’s mission, we must work together.
May the Lord open our eyes anew to the lessons of Pentecost.