Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind—Acts 2:2
Pentecost happened with a bang. Heaven came down to earth and blew through the room.
This heavenly wind “filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). While all this is exciting stuff, the story dances on the edge of danger. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (v. 3). God’s fire isn’t something to be messed with. Remember what happened to Sodom. The people were inhospitable to strangers, to three foreigners, and God consumed the city with fire from heaven (Genesis 19).
That same fire comes again at Pentecost: God’s fire, spectacular flames from heaven. Excitement fills the room and pours out into the streets. This isn’t the first time the disciples get excited about divine fire. In Luke 9, Jesus and the disciples try to pass through a Samaritan village. But the villagers refuse. In response to their lack of hospitality, James and John ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to consume the people (Luke 9:54)—just like Sodom and Gomorrah. The disciples want to use God’s heavenly fire to punish the Samaritans. But Jesus rebukes them. God’s fire is dangerous; Jesus won’t let the disciples use it.
On Pentecost these flames come down from heaven, but this time God’s fire doesn’t destroy anything. The fire doesn’t punish inhospitable people. Instead, the divine flames create the church—a group of people ablaze with God’s spirit of hospitality. With the fire comes the Holy Spirit, who enables the disciples to speak in different languages.
People visiting Jerusalem from all over the world hear the invitation of the gospel in their own language. Acts makes it a point to list all the peoples and languages so we get a sense for how expansive this invitation is—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome … everyone, Jews and Gentiles (Acts 2:9-11). Everyone is invited to join this movement of God. And that’s basically Peter’s interpretation of the event when he quotes the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”—notice how Joel says all flesh (v. 17). And skipping to the end of Peter’s quotation of Joel: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”—again, notice how Joel says everyone (v. 21).
The Pentecostal Spirit of God leads the followers of Jesus into a mode of communication that opens them up to everyone, to different people in different languages. Pentecost is a communication miracle. And the point of the miracle is an invitation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t descend with power in order to provide an exciting experience that comes and goes. Rather, the Spirit comes with fire and enables the followers to speak in different tongues so that everyone can hear the invitation of the gospel and join the fellowship of Christ. Pentecost is the miracle of communication that leads to the miracle of communion: people come together, foreigners become family, strangers become friends.
After Peter’s impromptu Pentecostal sermon, the author of Acts describes what happens: “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common. … Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:41-46).
Speaking in tongues is only the beginning. Complete strangers start hanging out together. They devote themselves to fellowship, to being with one another. People open their homes for grassroots worship services—breaking bread, talking about Jesus and praying. And they share their stuff with anyone who needs it. The miracle of communication that happened on Pentecost birthed a miracle of communion, of fellowship.
Yes, this communion is a miracle because it’s hard work to get together all the time; it has to be the Holy Spirit who makes it possible. People do a lot of traveling between here and there. Acts tells us that they eat every time they get together but fails to mention food preparation. Since these were daily communion meals, there must have been a lot of food to prepare.
Theologians like to come up with what they call “marks of the church.” They narrow down the few practices that need to happen for church to happen. Different churches have different lists. If I were to pretend to be a theologian and come up with the two most important marks of the church according to Acts 2, they would have to be prayer and food preparation. The church needs people who are always learning how to pray and always coming up with new recipes for good food to share. This is an earthy spirituality: make food and eat it with people, then pray about what’s going on in your life.
If, as I noted earlier, flames from heaven are usually dangerous, how can this be said of eating together and praying together? Well, this stuff is dangerous because you can’t choose who you want to invite; you can’t choose who you want to open your life to; you can’t choose who you fellowship with. Think of the dangers and inconveniences that come with inviting strangers into your house. Didn’t our parents teach us to be afraid of strangers? But if anyone heard the invitation, the host would invite them to her house and give them a seat at the table. That’s dangerous. This isn’t just friends getting together for a good time. The fire of the Spirit comes with dangers. But that’s nothing new; after all, Jesus is killed when he follows the leading of the Spirit.
To believe in Pentecost is to believe that heaven has come, that Jesus is here, that the Spirit is on the move. And this kind of belief is not something you decide to do in your head. There’s a lot of Christianity out there that insists that faith is all about a conviction you have in your head, a decision you make in your mind—that God exists or that Jesus saved us. It’s all theoretical and rational—a faith for intellectuals. But Pentecost shows us that Christian belief and spirituality happen to your whole body. Your mind follows your feet. Decisions come after something happens to your life. A new consciousness comes when you have to figure out what to do with the mess of people all around you and the concrete responsibilities of mutual care: feeding people, praying for needs, sticking around when some folks start getting annoying, or sticking around when the excitement wears off and life gets boring, mundane, ordinary.
All that is what it means to have faith. The story of Pentecost, which is the story of the beginning of the church, begins and ends with people just hanging around, waiting for something to happen. First they gathered in the upper room, just because that’s what Jesus told them to do before he left (1:4). Then the Spirit came upon them. The Holy Spirit didn’t come because they first believed. No. Pentecost just happened, and it happened to their whole bodies, not just their heads. Their minds followed their feet out the door and into the streets. Finally, the miracle of communication created a regathered and renewed community. After all that came the decision of faith, the decision of belief.
They faced the same decision we do today. Faith is simple but involves everything you have: to make food and eat together, to break bread and share a cup, to talk about Jesus, to pray for one another, to stick around even when you are annoyed and bored, to clean up after a mess of people invade your house, and then, after all that, to invite them to come back. That is faith: to decide to return, reassemble, come back, because that house of worship is where the Holy Spirit sustains our life, because this mess is what salvation feels like and what heaven looks like. Pentecost is a vision of eternal life.
Pentecost means that Jesus now comes when the Spirit brings people into fellowship, into communion. Salvation isn’t simply about knowledge, as if we are a bunch of theoreticians and intellectuals. What you think in your head won’t save you. Instead, we believe in a saving relationship. And to believe in this saving relationship is to let your mind follow your feet; you have to lean into this relationship, slowly and patiently live into it. It takes time, ordinary time, to grow into the saving life of Jesus made present in his body, in you and me, ordinary people doing ordinary things, like eating and praying.
If you are like me, you have a hard time seeing how all this ordinary stuff of church is infused with the spectacular Spirit of God. The usual doesn’t feel very miraculous. The Spirit of Pentecost seems so distant. It’s hard to believe that heaven is always at our fingertips. But that’s OK. In fact, that’s just the way it goes with faith. Paul says as much: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. … But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).
We wait for it with patience. The miracle of Pentecost begins and ends with a bunch of people hanging around, waiting for something to happen.