Pentecost – Bright Tongues of Fire; Tighter Bonds of Community

Impromptu Gathering on Church Steps after the 9 AM Mass last Sunday

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-11
May 23, 2021

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples is one of the determining events of Christianity, yet it is dramatized in four verses in the “Acts of the Apostles.” This certainly reveals Luke’s literary skill but also that he could rely on his readers or listeners recognizing the scriptural references and making a commitment to studying his work intensely and often. In preparation for Pentecost, we will rely more heavily on quoting from the scriptures, both the Old Testament and Luke’s Gospel, than usual to make it more understandable.

Pentecost, which itself means 50, is a Jewish festival celebrated 50 days after Passover. At Passover, the Jews commemorated that the LORD had freed them from the bondage of slavery, at Pentecost that he had given them the law and formed a covenant with them on Mt Sinai. These were originally harvest festivals but given an historical context in later Jewish history. It was also one of the three pilgrimage feasts when Jews were called to go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice.

Luke expects the people of his community to know more than these basics. He assumes that they are familiar with the whole story in Exodus:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning,
as well as a thick cloud on the mountain,
and a blast of a trumpet so loud
that all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.
They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke,
because the LORD had descended upon it in fire;
the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln,
while the whole mountain shook violently.
As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder,
Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.

(Ex 19:16–19)

Compare that with the Pentecost event in Acts:

And suddenly there came from the sky
 a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

(Ac 2:2–3)

Luke used the conventions of Greek historical writing. One of these is connectedness. Reading Acts, we can expect not only references to passages from the Old Testament but from the Gospel of St Luke and the later sections of Acts as well.

When Jesus acknowledged to the disciples that he was to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, he said:

“When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled.”

(Luke 9:51)

Today he tells us:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled

(Ac 2:1)

We are on the LORD’S timeline.  What will be done will be what Jesus wants to be done and when he wants it done. Luke has also indicated what we should expect. John the Baptist had prophesied:

John answered all of them by saying,
“I baptize you with water;
but one who is more powerful than I is coming;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

(Lk 3:16)

We see the fire and so the next line of today’s reading reveals the Holy Spirit:

And they were all filled with the holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

(Ac 2:4)

The Passover of the Jews was completed with the Pentecost of the Law. The Passover of the Christian’s Easter is completed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Luke expects his community to read his Gospel and Acts many times to grasp the meaning of Pentecost.

He next listed what may seem to us to be a random list of nations.

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia,
Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia,
Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism,
Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking
in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.

(Ac 2:11)

There is nothing random in Luke.

The nations mentioned represent the entire world. Luke is showing that the message of Jesus is worldwide. A good touch here is that this was a pilgrimage feast and Jews from the whole world would have been expected.

We see also that special mention is made of the traditional enemies of the Jews: the Egyptians, the peoples of Mesopotamia, Assyrians and Babylonians, and of course the Romans,

This passage reflects a prophecy of Isaiah:

The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing;
they will return to the LORD, and
he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria,
and the Assyrian will come into Egypt,
and the Egyptian into Assyria,
and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria,
a blessing in the midst of the earth,
whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying,
“Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands,
and Israel my heritage.”

(Is 19:22–25)

Remember that this is from first Isaiah and was written 600 years before Jesus. It is part of being a Jew although one not emphasized in common writings of the day,

It is also important to remember as well that everyone heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. At the tower of Babel, the LORD scattered the people and gave them new languages because of their pride. Now he is bringing people together through the spirit.

Our passage for the day ends here but it is further explained in Peter’s Pentecost speech which followed immediately. It is too long to quote at length much less comment upon, but its postscript is instructive:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles
and to the communal life,
to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, and
many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.

All who believed were together
and had all things in common

(Ac 2:42–44)

Pentecost may contain many bells and whistles as well as signs and wonders, but its end is in charity and community. As we emerge from the COVID lockdown, we need to pray for a new Pentecost. We need the Spirit to rebuild but we must recognize that as with the first Pentecost it will be completed not with brighter tongues of flame but with tighter bonds of community.