“What Does This Mean?”


June 4, 2017

Text:  Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

    The holy day we call Pentecost actually had its beginnings in the Jewish festival called Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks because it falls seven weeks after Passover.  Shavuot had its beginnings as a celebration of the wheat harvest, but eventually became associated with God giving the Torah--his Law, his commandments, his teachings--to the Jewish people.  That is the festival that was being celebrated at the time God gave the disciples of the risen and ascended Jesus a further gift--the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The story of that Pentecost nearly two millennia ago can be a puzzling one.  As you recall, the Spirit of God came upon the disciples like tongues of fire and the rush of a mighty wind, and they began to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in the native languages of everyone within earshot--without having learned any of the languages--so that all present could hear and understand.  When those present witnessed this happening, they started asking one another, “What does this mean?”, except the scoffers in the crowd accused them of being drunk.

We may well ask the same question of this story:  “What does this mean?”  Especially it is appropriate for us to ask, “What does this old, old story mean for us now?”

Some people puzzle over the disciples being able to suddenly proclaim the Good News of Christ in languages they had never spoken before.  Some Christian groups think we ought to be able to do that now.  But the reality is that most of us don’t have that gift.  

Shavuot in those times was a pilgrimage festival.  People traveled to Jerusalem for the festival from all over--and by that time many Jews were living far away from Jerusalem.  They had established themselves in other lands and used languages other than Hebrew or Aramaic as their primary language.

So it seems to me that when God gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples, God gave them the gift they needed in that situation to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people who were gathered there.  God gave them the gift of languages so that all present could hear and understand what was being said.

God gives us the gifts God needs us to have.  The Apostle Paul understood this truth very well.  His first letter to the church at Corinth was written to a church that was in the midst of a controversy about spiritual gifts.  There were some people among the Christians of that place who wanted to exalt certain spiritual gifts, such as the gift of speaking in tongues, as more important than some of the others.  Paul saw it differently.  Listen again to what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11:  “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.  A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.  A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another.  All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.”

There are several things to point out here:

  • There are many different spiritual gifts.  I believe Paul’s list is not exhaustive.  For instance, surely being able to care for hurting people with compassion is also a spiritual gift, although it is not on Paul’s list.  And surely the infinite God provides an infinite variety of gifts as they are needed.

  • The spiritual gifts are equal in value.  One is not superior in any way to any of the others.

  • The spiritual gifts are given for the common good, for the benefit of the larger body of believers and all people.

  • The spiritual gifts are given to people as God sees fit.

And what would God’s criteria for giving out the spiritual gifts be?  It seems to me that one criterion would be that God needs one or more people to have a particular gift to accomplish God’s purposes in a certain place or a certain situation.  I believe that is what happened at that first Pentecost.  God needed to have everyone present be able to understand what the disciples were saying, so God, through the Holy Spirit, gave the disciples the gift of language, and all present were able to hear about God’s mighty works in their own native languages.

    God gives us the gifts God needs us to have.

    It also needs to be said that God gives us gifts to do what we cannot do by our own human capabilities.  Jesus’ disciples were all Galileans who spoke Aramaic in their day to day work and Hebrew when worshiping in the synagogue--and the two languages are fairly similar.  Most, if not all of them, came from working class backgrounds.  They were not highly educated.  They had not had any reason or opportunity to learn to speak any of the various languages spoken by the pilgrims who had come from afar to worship during the festival of Shavuot.  But God gave them the ability to do what they were unable to do through their own ability alone.  God gave them the ability to proclaim God’s mighty acts in languages they had never spoken before, because that’s the gift God needed in them at that moment.

    What gift does God need us to have at this time that is beyond what we are capable of doing on our own?  I don’t know.  But be sure of this--God has a purpose for this church that remains unrealized, that requires things of us that are beyond our human capabilities.  But it is not beyond God’s capabilities, and God is willing and able to give us gifts beyond our ability to accomplish his purpose.  Are we open and willing to receive those gifts?  Are we willing to accept God’s power working in and through us in ways we never dreamed possible?  The disciples were willing, the gift was given, the people heard the Good News, 3,000 people came to believe in the Risen Christ as Savior and Lord and received into the community of believers, and the church was born.  If God could do that through them, what could God do through us if we would accept the gifts he has for us?

    God gives us the gifts God needs us to have, in order that we can do through God what we could never do for God on our own.  Let us be open to God’s work in our lives through the Holy Spirit, and faithful in using the gifts he gives us to accomplish his purposes.  Amen.

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