When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
The Season of Gladness
In Judaic tradition, the Feast of Pentecost is the last in a 50-day cycle of harvest celebrations. “The Festival of Weeks,” as it’s known, begins with the barley festival that concludes Passover and ends with Pentecost’s wheat festival (wheat being the last grain to ripen). The Torah prescribes several protocols for observing Pentecost, from altar dances to offering loaves of wheat bread. But the binding principle among them is Israel’s joy in having its own farmland. Leviticus 23.11 slates Pentecost for the day after the seventh Sabbath (i.e., Sunday) following Passover and occasions extra joy as the first day since Passover when Jews are permitted to add yeast to their bread. Hence, the Festival of Weeks’ gradual build-up to fully enjoying the fruits of harvest earns its popular title, “The Season of Gladness.”
This background gives us a vivid picture of what’s going on in Jerusalem when 120 followers of Jesus gather in a second-story room to pray and wait for the Holy Spirit. Like the Passover holiday, the city is jammed with foreigners bringing wheat offerings to the Temple. In contrast to Passover’s solemnity, the streets hum with excitement. Fifty days of subsisting on flat bread are finished; much like Christians’ high spirits on Easter—their rapture in its celebration of life and conclusion of Lent—Pentecost stirs Jews in profoundly emotional ways. Yet when this particular day of Pentecost comes, we don’t find Christ’s followers spread out, busily preparing for celebrations or milling among the masses. They’re together in one place, joined in expectancy. They don’t know when the Holy Spirit will come, how It will be manifested, or what it will do. All they know is Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until It comes, and they’re not leaving without It. By day’s end, their questions will be answered, the Church will be born, and they’ll harvest an astonishing 3,000 new believers, with more joining them every day thereafter. After 50 days of “flat” activity, they plunge into a Season of Gladness that has yet to end.
All Tongues for All People
The believers sit quietly, fending off street noise and other distractions as they pray and meditate. Then, suddenly, according to Acts 2.2, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” What appears to be fire falls and separates into individual flames that rest on each of them. They’re filled with the Holy Spirit, which enables them to speak in languages other than their native tongues. The explosion in the Upper Room halts the hubbub below. Like villagers rushing to a fire, crowds hurtle from every quarter to see what’s happened.
Luke’s account includes a detailed census of the observers’ nationalities, listing people from every corner of the known world—Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As they wedge themselves into the room, they’re astounded to hear this group of Galileans speaking in their diverse languages. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” they exclaim in Acts 2.11, asking one another what this means. In predictable fashion, some onlookers jeer at the believers, lamely trying to mask their lack of comprehension: “They’re drunk!” That’s when Peter, who just 50 days ago was too timid to admit knowing Jesus, boldly rises to the occasion. “They’re not drunk,” he tells them. “What you’re looking at is Joel’s prophecy: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’” (Acts 2.15-17) By empowering the believers to witness God’s wonders in all tongues, the Holy Spirit demonstrates Its availability to all people.
Unity Through Diversity
Today, Christians of every stripe commemorate Pentecost in a variety of ways. Roman Catholics and “high-church” Protestants vest their clergy and altars in vivid red symbolizing the fire that fell in the Upper Room. Evangelical believers rejoice in the birth of the Church and the power to witness. Pentecostals glory in the gift of tongues and other miraculous signs. And next week, our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters will celebrate the Trinity in a ritual of hymns and readings. The wide spectrum of worship could not be more appropriate. If the Holy Spirit’s descent teaches us anything, it’s unity through diversity. God pours out His Spirit on all people. It rests on and speaks to each one personally, in language he/she understands. That by itself constitutes a miracle, though hardly the half of it, because the unique flame that lights each life comes from one Fire. The distinctive words we speak and messages we hear witness one Spirit.
We shouldn’t be surprised or troubled when others observe the Holy Spirit’s manifestation in us and jeer. Their cynicism only reveals inability to understand. Peter ends his Pentecost sermon with this: “The promise for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.39) And whom does God call? In John 3.16, Jesus settles the issue of who can receive God’s grace once and for all: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Whoever—that’s you, that’s me, that’s anyone with faith to trust God’s promise of reconciliation. He gives His Spirit to all people. It won’t be confined by manmade preconditions to receive this amazing gift. Wherever and whoever we are, whatever we believe, and however we worship, the Holy Spirit brings all of us back to the Upper Room. Its power holds us together in one place, plunged into an eternal Season of Gladness.
The Holy Spirit rests on and speaks to each of us individually, yet It unites us by Its power.