Feast of Pentecost, Year B, Diocesan Pilgrimage, St. John’s Church, Ashwood

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17).

In ancient Greece, people went to the shrine at Delphi to get their questions answered, about what’s going to happen and what they should do. The priestess of the God Apollo would fall into a trancelike state and speak ecstatically, in a way that could not be understood by the questioner. A functionary “prophet” stood by to give the meaning of the oracle, but many of these “meanings” were hard to interpret. They could be ambiguous and misleading. In Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, Oedipus consults Apollo only to be led on to his own destruction by the oracle he receives. In spite of the hope that questions would be answered what was really revealed was the power of fate.

In ancient Israel prophecy was understood differently. Yes, the will of God was announced, just as at Delphi; but the emphasis was not on the power of fate but on the need for faithful response. When the prophets of ancient Israel spoke there was a call addressed to the People of God. The prophecy was delivered within the context of faith and trust in God’s power to save. There was a call to repentance, a note not much sounded at the shrine of Apollo; a promise of healing and reconciliation to God. Prophecy in Israel had a wholly different frame than prophecy in ancient Greece, a moral context that’s not about fate but a call for human response.

We see this understanding of prophecy worked out in our reading from Acts today, the story of the first Christian Pentecost. People are gathered for the celebration of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, an agricultural feast in its origin that became identified with the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The disciples are gathered in Jerusalem as Jesus had commanded. “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24:49). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples, in wind and fire, and suddenly they are able to speak in the languages of the people gathered for the feast. The disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, but their speech is concerned not with obfuscation but with communication. They are speaking of “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11): that is, of God’s mighty work in raising Jesus from the dead. The disciples proclaim this good news and share it with those who are worshipping at the feast.

Peter’s sermon that follows immediately after helps to interpret what’s happened. Unlike the prophets at the shrine in Delphi, his role is not to interpret what has been said but to interpret what it means. What has been said is readily understandable to the motley crew of folk from many nations who have heard the good news. After all, the whole point of speaking in many languages has been to increase understanding, not to speak in riddles. But there still remains for Peter to set the Pentecost event within its own frame, its own context.

So what does Peter say? He goes immediately to the prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). He connects the Pentecost event to the prophecy of ancient Israel, to the call of God that demands a response. God has acted in raising Jesus from the dead. The context is faith and trust in God’s power to save through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the prophet Joel prophesied, and as Peter quotes him here, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).

In terms of the prophecy, we who are assembled here today are the sons and daughters who are called to prophesy. We are called in our day to share the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Someone has opined that the average Episcopalian invites a friend to church every thirty years. I don’t know where they get these statistics but I think this one captures a truth about a growing edge for our church.

Perhaps our confirmands can help us out here. In this sacramental rite they will receive the laying on of hands with the prayer of the church assembled, for a daily increase in the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who is at work in us, kindling within us the power of God. The Spirit who is wind and fire gives us the power of God through his indwelling within us. It is the Spirit who gives us the power to speak and to testify to what God has done for us.

“Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them”, we will pray in our liturgy today. God is giving all of us, and not just them, the gift of the Spirit for the work of prophecy that lies before us: testifying to what God has done in Jesus Christ for each of us, in healing and salvation through his mighty works.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt