Words and Deeds Understood in Any Language

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 (NIV)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, June 2, 2019*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Fifty days after Easter we celebrate the day that the Spirit came down and filled mortals so that we might gather in community, as Church, and be the Body of Christ on earth after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. We call this day Pentecost, which may sound like a three dollar word, but it’s actually just the Greek word for “fiftieth.” At the time our lesson was written the fiftieth day after Passover had long been the Jewish “Feast of Weeks” which honors the covenant God made with Noah and celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

For Christians Pentecost took on another meaning with giving of the Spirit that brought about the birth of the Church fifty days after Easter. Amazing things happen in the Pentecost story. It is a remarkable attention getting narrative. We are told that “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of violent wind.” If you live in Knox County just one spring you know what violent wind sounds like. It’s got a mighty ROARING WOOOOSH that gets your attention. That sort of wind first appears in Genesis sweeping over the void before creation of the world. That wind also appears at the beginning of the creation of the Church. It is the mighty breath of God that gives birth to creation . . . and gives birth to the Church!

In Genesis after wind, we are told there came light. So too on Pentecost Light from heaven comes as a Spirit, like fire, resting upon those in the upper room of Jesus: “they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” They then take that Spirit down to everyone on street. We wear red and have it about the church on Pentecost in remembrance and celebration of the first fiery light in church. That’s some beginning! The fiery Spirit roaring in like wind lighting on the Jesus followers.

What this all means is that creation of the Church, was, like creation of the world, God given; Spirit- filled . . . and it is an important, memorable, attention-getting, big deal! The author of Acts – not me– put playful puns in the text. The Spirit’s tongues of fire gives the power to communicate in all tongues. It is a reverse Tower of Babel story. In the Babel story people understood one another until they disobeyed God who came down and made them speak in so many different languages that we can say The Tower of Babel led to babble.

The babble in Babel in turn led to people spreading out to the ends of the earth. In the Pentecost story those who obey God and are ironically given the gift of babble in other languages, and then go down to the crowds in order to speak the Gospel to them before spreading it to the ends of the earth. And when they went down to the crowds in the street, “All were amazed and perplexed.” The babble confused them. Some even believed the babble was booze born. But Peter, who before the Spirit descended upon him tended to be a bit of a buffoon, bubbling a bit, even betraying his beloved Jesus, that Peter – filled with the Spirit– now becomes an eloquent and persuasive speaker.

To the gathered Peter gives a remarkable speech that includes these words: “In the last days God says I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” T he last days are not a reference to some yet to come apocalypse. This is a reference to the days initiated by the Spirit filled Pentecost. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. X , p 64) puts it like this:

the catch phrase “in the last days” locates the outpouring of the Spirit against a new eschatological horizon. Simply put, Pentecost initiates Israel into a new epoch– “the last days”– of God’s salvation history, when things said and done by Jesus’ successors take on added urgency, not of an imminent apocalypse in the case of Acts but rather to a mission to restore God’s kingdom to Israel.

It’s about the urgency of bringing in God’s Reign on earth. And what Peter says is quite amazing and can be perplexing. He is continuing Jesus’ Way by preaching from the prophet Joel. Despite what we might otherwise hear these days, at the heart of Jesus’ message– at the very center of his Way– is equality and love for all. Jesus invites, welcomes and embraces all manner of people. Jesus’ love is not limited to his followers. It’s for everyone. You, me and everyone else. And the efficacy of the salvation Jesus offers, was not, and is not, limited to any sect or denomination, to any religion, people or nation. We have all been saved from a lesser existence by Jesus. We are saved from a lesser world by each person who loves as Jesus did, who incarnates Christ in their words and deeds.

The more love, the more God is experienced, and the better the world becomes. God’s Reign breaks in. God’s Spirit is for everyone and upon everyone. And Peter quotes Joel saying as much in the first words preached out the Bible to the Church:

“In the last days, God says I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” . . . “

ALL PEOPLE! The Spirit does not descend just to rest upon Jesus’ followers. It’s wind and fire like presence is for every body. Peter tells the gathered – and us– that no less than God has declared “I will pour my Spirit on all people.” The Spirit is God’s presence. God is love, So the Spirit is love being poured on EVERY BODY! God’s love is for every one. Everybody gets it!!!
This is exactly what Jesus did with love, right? Jesus gave and gives his love equally to all. The early Church’s very pangs of birth can be understood to be about the loving spirit of God to be for all and upon all. No exceptions ALL PEOPLE. So no matter what anyone else might say, the first sermon in the Church made it abundantly clear that God will personally pour the Holy Spirit upon everybody– ALL PEOPLE.

Peter goes on to elaborate on this equal access to God’s loving Spirit. To the gathered from around the world in a deeply patriarchal culture Peter speaking for God proclaims to ALL people that “Your sons AND daughters will prophesy.” This is not just for men. This is not just for boys. This is equally for women and equally for girls. Male and female have the Spirit upon them equally. Male and female shall equally prophesy. Those who preach and teach that women are not meant to be equal in the Church, equally touched by the Spirit, are disregarding God’s very own declaration given the very moment that the Church was born! The Spirit is poured upon ALL PEOPLE! Our sons AND our daughters will prophesy! If conservative means to try to stick with the original way, if orthodoxy means to follow tradition, then please note that this Church and the denomination of United Church of Christ are conservative and orthodox in this regard, since we treat women as equals– just like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the early Church – and God– did on Pentecost, day one.

Andd it is not just male and female who are treated equally either. Peter notes God also says that “your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” There is no ageism on Jesus’ Way. There is no ageism with the Holy Spirit or the Church at the start. Both the old and the young are affected, are touched, and have the Spirit resting upon them!

And just to make sure that we know God really means ALL PEOPLE are blessed, Peter goes on and notes that God claims “Even upon my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.” The word servant meant slaves, the oppressed and outcast, the lowly to the culture. To the Spirit there is no distinction between slave and free. All people are blessed, are loved, the Spirit is upon them.

PAUL writing decades before our lesson wrote a very similar thing in Galatians 3 (27-28):

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In the Gospel of Matthew (5:43-48) Jesus himself declared that love is supposed to be all encompassing. Listen to the words of Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus’ instructs us to love all because God loves all. Jesus puts this even more succinctly in the Gospel of John (13:34). He said “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In the famous passage from John 3:16 Jesus puts it like this

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

God’s love, and Jesus’ love are not limited to his followers, as I have indicated the efficacy of the salvation Jesus offers, was not, and is not, limited. We have all been saved from a lesser existence by Jesus, and we are all of us – ALL PEOPLE– saved from a lesser world.

John 3:16, the verse I just quoted, is often left to stand alone as if the verse is about a love that only saves those who believe as the person quoting the verse believes. But such use of the Bible does a disservice to God. The next verse, John 3:17, makes this clear when Jesus says

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Jesus and God, along with Paul and Peter, seem to all agree that Jesus Way, what we now call Christianity, from the moment of its birth was not about exclusion. The Church was born on Pentecost to be about inclusion, about the Spirit being poured on all flesh equally. Men. Women. Old. Young. Slave. Free. There is no one who is not male or female, old or young, slave or free. There is, then, no one whom the noisy, fire like Spirit leaves untouched. The Spirit is unconditional Love. The church was born of it and to it.

And Love, you see, is a universal language. Love is a thing everybody can understand and grasp. If we go out and speak the good news that each person is equally entitled to love and is loved by God; if we speak that by our words and our deeds, everyone will be able to understand us. See if we follow Jesus and do that, if we obey God and follow the Spirit then we are given the gift of babbling love in a way that can be understood in any language to the ends of the earth. So the good news, the fantastic news, of Pentecost is that just like Peter and the other disciples on the birthday of the church, that first Pentecost morn, with the Spirit of God, our words and our deeds will speak the universal language of love. The language of love that is understood to the ends of the earth!


* based in part on a sermon I first wrote in 2009