June 12, 2011

What Does This Mean?

Passage: Acts 2:12-13

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

An Associated Press story reported that police found a burglary suspect dangling from the ventilation system of a convenience store. “Deputies said the man removed a ventilation cover and crawled through the vent before getting stuck and setting off a fire extinguisher that sprayed powder all over the store. The man told deputies he was playing hide-and-seek on the roof with other adults … He said the other players couldn’t figure out where he was and stopped looking for him.”  One wonders if this man had consumed a few too many “adult beverages” as he made his plan to rob the store.

This is what some said about the disciples on that day of Pentecost; this was the Pentecost that followed fifty days after the Passover when Jesus had been crucified.  Those first followers of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of God, spread out all over the Temple area and proclaimed to all the good news about Jesus; the gathered throng were Jews from all over the Roman world who had come for Passover worship.  The amazing and astonishing part—besides the sound of the rush of a violent wind that first got everyone’s attention—was that each person heard what was being said in their own native language.  Some sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

I would not presume to speak for you but it appears to me to be quite a stretch to say that the phenomena of that day can be explained as the result of the disciples having had too much to drink.  If you are watching an NFL football game on a cold winter day in say Green Bay or Chicago and you see bare-chested men cheering madly you can, with certainty, conclude that alcohol is blunting their body’s ability to feel cold.  The events of the day of Pentecost cannot be so obviously linked to alcohol consumption.

It was obvious to all that the followers of Jesus were Galileans—you could tell by their accent; further, Galileans were not known for their ability to master foreign languages.  The astonishing thing was the each person heard the proclamation in their own native language.  People representing many of the world’s languages were present that day; what was clear to everyone was that the speakers were not schooled in the languages people were hearing.  Some with a dismissive sneer said they were drunk.  Many, though, knew there was something more going on here; they kept asking one another, “What does this mean?”

1.  Then as now there are people who sneer and say it means nothing.  Last week I was listening to a talk show and the host was interviewing someone who purported to represent atheists and agnostics.  Together they criticized Alcoholics Anonymous for their Christian roots and commitment to reliance on God for help with addiction.  They described Christians as those who rely on their ‘sky friend Jesus’.  They thought this all fictional and I gathered the beef was that atheists were somehow marginalized by public support of AA.

I was not able to hear enough of the programme to really understand why they were picking on AA; I heard enough to get my motor running and wish I were in the room to help them understand the folly of their thinking.  First, no Christian ever speaks of Jesus as a “sky friend”; this is a straw man of their own imagination created for a light breeze to blow away. Second, if, as they claimed, Jesus were a fiction of the Christian’s imagination why were they so hot and bothered by our purported delusions? (These points were just for starters)

I note, though, that Peter is not distracted by sneering attitudes.  In what seems a light hearted challenge he offers a brief word in their direction; it’s only nine in the morning—the bars aren’t open yet.  He invites those sneering to consider otherwise but does not dwell there.  He makes no apology and proceeds to declare Jesus as Lord and Messiah—this is what it means!

2.  Peter’s audience that day were Jews who would know the writings of the prophet Joel and have some familiarity with the significance of the text he cited; a text that describes what is to come “afterwards” (as Joel puts it); after the coming of the Messiah was how it was read.  “In the last days it will be, declares God”.  Peter interprets the “afterwards” of Joel with the Older Testament idea of “the last days”, that is the days following the Messiah’s coming.

In other words Peter is declaring that “the last days” have begun.  “The Spirit of God is being poured out by God on all flesh... and they shall prophesy”, as Joel declared—this is what you are witnessing, Peter boldly proclaims to his fellow Jews.  In announcing “the last days” Peter is indicating Jesus Christ to be the great pivot on which real history turns; real history being God’s unfolding plan to save and redeem humanity and, along with them, the creation itself. You might say that “the last days” represent the final chapter of what we know as human history; in Jesus of Nazareth—crucified and raised from the dead—the first page of this chapter was opened.

Pivot, hinge, first page of the final chapter; these metaphors are only that and cannot fully grasp the magnitude of this moment of history in Jesus of Nazareth; it will only be when our faith become sight we will start to grasp the fullness of the scope of what this moment means.  We do know this that Joel could see as coming in the future is now to be declared because of Jesus; “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Three thousand said yes to Jesus that day.

3. Many hearing these followers of Jesus’ that Pentecost day would have been in Jerusalem fifty days earlier for Passover.  Talk of Jesus would certainly have brought to mind the buzz in the city that Passover about the Galilean named Jesus who rode a donkey into the city and how the crowds hailed him— and also that he was crucified.  There were other things on that Passover day that were ominous.

In citing Joel Peter includes the section about portents in heaven and signs on earth: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”  What does Peter have in mind?  Sir Colin Humphreys is Professor and Director of Research at the Departments of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge.  In his recent book The Mystery of The Last Supper he argues, I think convincingly, that Peter has the day of Jesus’ crucifixion in mind.

First, Luke tells us that there was darkness over the land as Jesus was being crucified.  Humphreys is not the first to note that what are known in the Middle East as khamsin dust storms literally darken the sun; such sandstorms are common in the spring.  Second, one of nature’s marvels is a lunar eclipse which has been described throughout history as the moon turning blood red.  Humphrey’s shows how modern scientific methods are able calculate the historic dates on which a lunar eclipse would have been visible from Jerusalem; one of those dates is Friday, April 3, AD 33, the most likely date of Jesus’ crucifixion.

If Humphrey’s is correct then Joel’s prophesy would have leaped off the page, so to speak, as Peter quoted it calling to mind natural events that occurred that day; events that many hearers would have witnessed on Passover seven weeks earlier.  We often remark of unusual natural events occurring on annual days of celebration; do you remember the Christmas we go snowed in; do you remember the Passover of the sandstorm and the lunar eclipse?

4.  Pentecost was reckoned by the Jews to be the anniversary of the giving of the law at Sinai (a reasonable deduction from a chronological note given in Exodus 19:1).  When the law was given at Sinai, according to one rabbinic tradition, “the Ten Commandments were promulgated with a single sound, yet it says, “All the people perceived the voice”; this shows that when the voice went forth... every people received the law in their own language.”

Such tradition would be known among those gathered at Jerusalem that Pentecost day.  So now, on the reputed anniversary of the law-giving, people “from every nation under heaven” heard the declaration about Jesus “each one ... in the native language of each.”  A moment akin to the significance of Sinai has occurred in Jesus.  The living word of God has been given—indeed as John wrote in his gospel: “the word became flesh and lived among us”.  The word of God has been promulgated in a single life; Jesus of Nazareth.  If the giving of the law was a seminal moment in God’s dealings with humanity then Jesus is that even greater moment as he is the very fulfilment of this law.

The day you were given your name by your parents was an important day.  The force of being named that day has import throughout your life.  It is on every piece of identification you have to show that you indeed own this car or a particular property.  That you were named with the name you have has a particularly important force on the day a deceased parent’s last will and testament is executed.  The force of a moment in your history—the day you received you name—is not diminished because it occurred way back in your personal history, so to speak.

When the story of the day of Pentecost is read in the 21 century we are prone to wonder what to make of its significance for today.  We more readily know what to do with Christmas and Easter. Pentecost no so much.  The force of this day continues now.  The Spirit of God—God’s effectual presence and power—imbues the church to be the witness of Jesus to our world as the first disciples were to theirs.  When the faithful Jews heard the law being read it was heard as God speaking personally to them—even though Sinai was a point in history long past the force of that day continued.  In a similar way,the force of the day of Pentecost continues; the Spirit is being poured out on us so that we can declare “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.

Last week our missionary friend Reg Reimer was in Saigon celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church’s first sending of missionaries to Vietnam to preach the gospel.  Reg and his wife Donna went as missionaries for this denomination in the mid 1960’s up until the fall of Saigon in 1975 when foreigners were forced to leave.   I once sat with Reg sharing a meal in a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Toronto; Reg knew the restaurant owners while in Vietnam.  It was quite and experience to see this thoroughly-Canadian-somewhat-Mennonite looking man order our meal in fluent Vietnamese.  It seems to me that his ministry is a continuation of the force of the day of Pentecost.

5. There was the sound of a rushing wind that Pentecost day marking the Spirit’s presence.  The word for wind or spirit or breath is the same word for our Hebrew foreparents.  “Breath” in Hebrew denotes creativity.  The breath of God that God breathes into his own people is that movement of God upon us and within us which enlivens our creativity and frees it for service in God’s kingdom.  Where the Spirit is concerned, creativity has nothing to do with extraordinary artistic talent.  The creativity of the Spirit, rather, is simply the freeing, the freeing up, the magnification and multiplied usefulness of any gift we have in order that this talent might now be used for God’s purposes among those near and far.

The Spirit, or breath, of God fosters and frees up such creativity as and only as we first decide to do something.  In congregational life drawing up a list of talents in the congregation can be helpful but may lead us to conclude that we can attempt only those things for which we have demonstrable talent.  It’s never a congregation’s responsibility to sleuth out what it thinks people can do and then tell God that this is the range of his Spirit’s breath.  It’s always our responsibility to discern what the king and his kingdom require, and resolve to do it.

We find out we are supplied with what we need as we reach to do.  Often people discover talents they didn’t know they had as they attempt to do things in obedience to God that they see need to be done.  If you think, for example, that our congregation needs to give attention to youth then you could lend yourself and your efforts to do just this—think of the wonderful talents you could discover in yourself.

6.  The point I would invite you to take with you is that the force of what God did on the day of Pentecost has not been rescinded; this power to serve Jesus is as much ours as if you and I were present that day and people heard our halting voice in their own native language.

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’  May we answer with Peter, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”