When you say the word “Pentecost,” most people probably think of Pentecostals; and if they know the stereotypes, that’s probably where their minds go, to images of people jumping over pews and swinging from the chandeliers. Like most stereotypes, that one has at least a grain of truth to it—I remember a service at a Pentecostal church in Queens in which, while our friend Ralph Johnson was preaching, one of the choir members jumped up, let out a scream, and took off running, doing laps around the sanctuary. The fact that Ralph just kept on preaching as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening suggested that, in fact, this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. That sort of thing, if not usually that extreme, does tend to happen in churches that emphasize the power and work of the Holy Spirit, if they’re open to such occurrences; and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the leaders are careful and diligent to weed out things which aren’t of God, rather than letting services devolve into “anything goes.”
The problem comes when, as too often happens, people begin to associate the work of the Spirit only with the more flamboyant phenomena, such as speaking in tongues. I don’t disbelieve in such things, and I don’t see that Scripture does either, but they’re only a very small and particular part of the Spirit’s work; to focus on them, to say that it’s only when people are speaking in tongues and falling over that the Spirit is moving, is to have a very skewed view of the matter. Unfortunately, that sort of view is all too common in some parts of the church—and just as unfortunately, it has tended to push others in the church into the equal and opposite error of denying the work of the Spirit. You can hardly blame folks for saying, “Well, if that’s what the Spirit does, I don’t want any part of it; I’ll just stick with God and Jesus, thanks”; but that, too, misses the real work of the Spirit, and skews our view of God, ourselves, and the church.
You see, as we’ve been talking about the fact that the work of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was only completed in his ascension, we’ve also been pointing to another truth: the work of his ascension was only completed at Pentecost, when he poured out his Spirit on all who believed in him. In Jesus’ crucifixion, the price was paid for all our sin, leaving no penalty or punishment remaining; in his resurrection, the power of sin and death over this world and over us was broken, freeing us to receive the life of Christ; in his ascension, Jesus opened the way for us as human beings to enter heaven, and took up his place as the one who intercedes for us before the throne of God; and in giving us his Spirit, at Pentecost, everything he did became for us, applied specifically to each of us. It is by the presence and power of the Spirit that the work of Christ becomes real in our lives, that it becomes not just redemption in general, but our redemption.
To understand why that is, think about breathing for a minute. I imagine there are a lot of folks here who never do; breathing is automatic, just something your body does while you’re focusing on other things. I assure you that’s not the case for an asthmatic, or for others in this church. For some of us here this morning, breathing is far less easy, far less of a given. There can be any number of reasons for that—for me it’s nothing major, just a combination of mild asthma, allergies, and sinus problems—but they all come down to the same thing: the experience of fighting for breath, of working hard to get enough air in, and the need for air that begins to build in the body. Breathing becomes, at least at times, a matter of conscious effort; you are aware of your body as you inhale and exhale, and you feel the air flow in and out as your diaphragm tenses and relaxes. And if you’ve ever been there, you never take breathing quite as much for granted again.
Indeed, if you’ve ever had a time when you were unable to breathe, it becomes very easy to understand why the ancient Hebrews equated breath with life, and why in Hebrew—and also in Greek—one word means both “breath” and “spirit” (and also means “wind”). The Greek word is pneuma, from which we get words like “pneumatic” and “pneumonia”; its Hebrew equivalent is ruach. Whichever word you use, though, the concept is the same—this is what is essential for life. It is the ruach that gives life, that turns the body from a dead lump of clay into a living being; and when death comes, it is the pneuma that is no longer present. Thus in Genesis 2:7, God breathes the ruach of life into the first human being, and he becomes flesh and gets up; and thus we have this extraordinary image in Ezekiel 37.
You see, the people of Israel were in exile—for their sin, God had allowed them to be conquered and hauled off to Babylon—and they were crying out for salvation, which they defined as a return home. What God understood, though, was that their problem ran far deeper than just their physical distance from the heartland of Israel; their real problem was their spiritual distance from the heart of God. That was why they were in exile in the first place, and without anything to change the situation, their return home would ultimately end with them getting dragged off into exile all over again. For the people of God to really be the people of God, they needed a lot more than merely a new address—they needed a whole new life, a whole new spirit, to enable them to live in a new relationship with God. And so through Ezekiel, through this extraordinary acted parable of the valley of dry bones, he tells Israel, “I will put my ruach within you, and you shall live.” Nothing less would solve the problem. And so at Pentecost, when all was ready at last, God fulfilled his promise, and his Holy Spirit came upon his people in power.
Jesus had told his disciples before he left that this moment was coming, and coming soon, and so they set about preparing themselves for it. As part of that, they gathered together regularly to pray, and so they were all together on the day of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, which is one of the high festivals of the Jewish calendar. Luke doesn’t tell us explicitly where they were when this happened, but it seems to me that they must have been in the temple, because where else would a crowd of devout Jews been on such a day? Not just the disciples themselves, but all the other devout Jews who heard them speaking. What’s more, the Spirit of God shouldn’t be kept under cover in a back room somewhere; when God poured out his Spirit on all his people as he had long promised, where else should it have been than right there in the Temple, the center of his people’s worship and the heart of their life as a nation?
The results were astonishing, as they tend to be when the Spirit is powerfully at work. Suddenly there was a sound like a high wind—a vast pneuma—and Acts says “it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” It might seem odd for Luke to use the word “house” to describe so great a building as the Temple, but it was often called the house of God, so his word choice does make sense. In any case, the emphasis is on the sound—on the size of the sound, if you will, that it filled the entire space. Along with a sound like a great wind came what looked like tongues of fire; and just as the wind is associated with the Spirit, so too fire is associated with God’s appearances. During the Exodus, he led Israel with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night; and when he appeared to them on Sinai, we are told that “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it in fire.” In other words, these were unmistakable signs to the Jews that God had just entered the building, and that he had come in power.
Note what happened: when the Spirit filled them, Jesus’ followers began to talk about God in many different languages. In fact, they began to preach the gospel, to proclaim the wonderful things that God had done, so that everyone who was there in the temple could understand the message—and there were a lot of people there from a lot of different places. In modern terms, we would say there were people from Iran, Iraq, Tur-key, Egypt, Libya, Greece, and the Arabian peninsula, as well as the capital city of Rome. Now, all of these people would have spoken either Aramaic or Greek, or possibly both, but this was something else: there in Jerusalem, where those were the languages they needed to communicate, suddenly they heard people speaking their own language.
And such people! Galileans! Now, to understand their reaction, you have to understand how Galileans were regarded by the people of Jerusalem. I think about the closest you can come is to think of the way many people in America think of the rural poor in the backcountry South; and that fits in two ways. One, if Jeff Foxworthy, with his “You might be a redneck if . . .” schtick, had been a first-century Jew, he would have been a Galilean. They didn’t quite match up with the rather cruel stereotype we get in jokes about people marrying their cousins, but there was definitely the sense that Galileans were hicks, less educated and less sophisticated, out of the cultural mainstream—certainly not the sort of people who would have studied foreign languages.
And even if they had, they weren’t the sort of people who could have spoken them intelligibly. Just as some people mock Southern accents, while others find the accents of the rural South hard to understand, Galileans were known for their difficult and rather mushy way of speaking, with consonants disappearing or indistinct, and a rather . . . different approach to vowels. So to hear Galileans speaking their own languages, and doing so clearly and fluently—well, these were people they thought of as uneducated, unsophisticated, and incomprehensible at the best of times, suddenly speaking the equivalent of flawless BBC English.
In other words, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples suddenly had the ability to tell people about Jesus and carry on his ministry in ways they could never have done before; they were empowered to do things as agents of his grace that they could never have done on their own. It’s not always as flamboyant as all that—indeed, it wasn’t for the disciples, either—but at bottom, that’s what the Spirit is on about. The Spirit isn’t with us, fundamentally, to do weird stuff, as if he liked to see how strange he can make us look or feel; rather, the Spirit is with us as the one through whom we receive and live in the life of God, that we might be his children, and the power of God, that we might do his work on this earth.
What happened that day in the temple was unimaginably great, a seismic shift in human existence; but it was also, in a way, a very simple thing. Before that day, only a small handful of people lived in the presence of the Spirit of God; most of God’s people had to do without. Spiritually speaking, they had no breath—they couldn’t breathe, because they were airless, living in a spiritual vacuum. That’s why, as we talked about a few weeks ago, they had to have the priests to pray for them. On that Pentecost in the temple, however, everything changed. There was a sound like a mighty wind, as the Spirit blew on Jesus’ followers, and they breathed in, and for the first time, God’s Holy Spirit filled all his people; and when they breathed out, they spoke words of life in every language. They had prepared themselves for his coming, clearing the decks for his work by committing to the work of unity and prayer, committing to integrity, and now all they had to do was breathe. It was that simple, for the Spirit of God—the breath of God—had filled them and had become their breath; the life of God had become their life. All they had to do was to be there and to be open, and the Spirit did the rest.
It’s the same way for us. Pentecost was a one-time event; on that day, God for the first time gave his Spirit to the whole church, not just a select few. What God calls us to is just to let go, to relax, and breathe deep—to breathe deep the breath of God, as a song I know puts it—so that the Spirit can give us his life; he calls us to open ourselves to his work and pay attention, and to let him move in us, changing us and stirring our hearts. We breathe in through prayer and worship, whether alone or together—most especially when we are together, when we can draw strength from and reinforce what the Spirit is doing in those around us, but also as we learn to worship and pray in and through the acts and moments of our everyday lives. And as we breathe in, we also breathe out, as the Spirit moves us to speak the words of Jesus Christ to those around us, and to love them with his love for them. Everything we do as Christians, we do in and by the Spirit of God; indeed, everything we do as Christians, we do only in and by the Spirit of God.
Understand this. It’s the Spirit who enables us to understand God’s Word, because it’s the Spirit who speaks to us through his Word. It’s the Spirit who is the power of that Word in our lives, carrying what we hear into our minds and hearts and using it to change us, bit by bit, day by day, from the inside out. It’s the Spirit who carries our prayers to Jesus, where he presents them to the Father, and the Spirit who brings his words to us in return. It’s the Spirit who is alive and active in this world, through whom God is with us every moment, guiding us, protecting us, speaking to us, strengthening us, shaping our lives, and growing us up to full maturity. It’s the Spirit who gives us the ability to resist temptation, if we ask, and the Spirit who inspires us to talk to our neighbors and friends, however haltingly, about Jesus.
I don’t, incidentally, just mean those who aren’t saved and don’t know him; I don’t just mean evangelism, as important as that is. I also mean those who go to church and have some relationship with Jesus, and the sorts of conversations that build us up in the body of Christ. You see, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and loves to talk about them; and when the Spirit is moving in us, so do we. But it’s all by the Spirit of God; it’s only by the Spirit of God, and none of it in our own strength. It’s the Spirit who is our wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour and the living of these days; it’s the Spirit who gives us power to love and follow Jesus. It’s the Spirit, indeed, who gives us breath to live at all.