THE HOLY SPIRIT
GATHERS IN THE CHURCH.
In the name + of Jesus.
The Festival of Pentecost was one of the major festivals of the Old Testament. Three times a year, the Lord commanded all Israel to gather in Jerusalem for a festival. Pentecost, one of those three festivals, was also known as the Feast of Ingathering. It was a harvest festival, marking the end of the wheat harvest. So, fifty days after Jesus' resurrection, there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. (Acts 2:5) The Lord was gathering in his own harvest—people from all nations to be gathered into the Christian Church.
A remarkable change was taking place at this Pentecost. As St. Luke had noted, the crowds in Jerusalem were mainly Jews. They were one people with one heritage and one language. God's covenant had been delivered through Moses in Hebrew. The songs of the temple were sung in Hebrew. The benediction of the priests was put upon God's people in Hebrew. God's prophets preached in Hebrew to defend the covenant and to correct the erring people. But now, the New Testament was proclaimed in the different languages and dialects which were heard in the streets of countries around the world.
St. Luke described the scene: When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
Only once before had people been given the ability to speak in unlearned languages, but that was a curse. In our Old Testament lesson, we heard how the people at Babel defied God's word to fill the earth and subdue it. In order to drive the people apart, the Lord confused their languages. This caused the people to look at their neighbors with fear and suspicion. Those with a common language dispersed to their own communities and filled the earth as God had commanded. But at Pentecost, the Lord blessed the apostles with the ability to speak in the languages of the earth in order to gather the nations into his kingdom.
The Holy Spirit gathers in the Church. The Holy Spirit unites us all into one holy church. We usually find unity with people when we find a common interest or have a common background. People bond over their favorite sports team or TV show. Parents bond with others parents because, “My kid goes to school with your kid,” or “My kid is on the same team as your kid.” If you went to Disney World and saw another person wearing a Detroit Tigers cap, you would be far more likely to greet that person than someone wearing a San Diego Padres cap. On the other hand, people who look different, act strange, or speak a foreign language are often looked at with suspicion or even derision. This leads to ignoring others, fearing them, thinking the worst of them, or even attacking them. The Lord has declared, “Love your neighbor;” but we are all guilty of putting conditions on that—withholding love from those who speak another language, wear a different wardrobe, or even cheer for the rival team. The default position of our sinful nature is: “If you are like me, then I like you. If you are not like me, then I don't like you.” Repent.
No matter what a person's skin color is, we all have a sinful flesh. No matter what country someone has come from, we are all children of Adam and, therefore, destined for the grave. No matter what language we speak, we all must confess our sins. There is no difference. All are sinners. All need a Savior. And from all of these people, God the Holy Spirit desires to gather people into his Church.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, … there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind... At this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:2,6) When the crowds had gathered, Peter preached to them. He did not tell them that being Jewish made them better or worse. He did not suggest that being religious made them better or worse. What he did proclaim is that they were accountable for their sins, no matter who they were. Our reading does not include Peter's entire Pentecost sermon, but Peter declared to these God-fearing Jews: “Hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. …Therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:22-24,36)
As great a miracle as the apostles' speaking in tongues was, even greater is the miracle that the people believed Peter's words. They did not offer excuses. They did not rely on the fact that they were godly, moral, or decent. They did not insist that the death of Jesus was not their fault. Rather, they recognized their sins and their accountability, and they feared the wrath of God. They were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-39) And on that day, the Holy Spirit gathered into his Church 3,000 people who believed and were baptized.
The Holy Spirit still gathers in the Church. Though the miraculous signs do not continue today and you should not expect to suddenly speak Arabic or some other language, the work of the Holy Spirit does continue. The Holy Spirit gathers in his Church. There is no difference in how he works, and there is no difference with people today. We are not better because we are religious, moral, or American. No one is worse because of skin color, language, or culture. We are all accountable to God because of our sins. All people hold this in common—we need a Savior from sin. Just the Holy Spirit gathered people in the Church through Peter's preaching, so he does today.
The crowds themselves testified to what they had heard: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” (Acts 2:11) The mighty works of God are the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Although we have defied our God, our God devoted himself to saving us. We have withheld love from our neighbor who is different. God is clearly different than we are, but he loves us and made himself one with us by becoming a man. Although we have assumed the worst about our fellow man, God's heart was set on seeking our eternal good. We have spoken evil of others whose speech we don't even understand. But God speaks to us in mercy, declaring us forgiven for the sake of Jesus who laid down his life to pay for our sins. And Jesus rose from the grave to assure us that we will not be cursed, banished, and scattered like the people at Babel. Rather, the Holy Spirit gathers in the Church which unites in God's praises with diverse languages and varied cultures.
The world is united in this: All are sinners. But the Church is united in this: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21) The Holy Spirit gathers in the Church and unites it in the forgiveness of sins won by Jesus and administered in your baptism. No matter what culture you come from, it has been sanctified in Christ. No matter what skin color you have, it has been cleansed in Christ. No matter what a traditional wardrobe is for you, you are clothed with Christ. In heaven, St. John saw the saints from every people, tribe, nation, and language there. They were not forced to learn one dialect. Instead, each proclaims in his own native language the mighty works of God and confesses Christ. For the Holy Spirit has converted our tongues to praise our God.
The Holy Spirit gathers in the Church. And you, who have been gathered in by him, now get to go forth and declare the praises of God. God changed sinful hearts and brought life to the dead at Pentecost, and he continues to work the miracle of conversion today. You get to prophesy, which is today, you get to proclaim the good news of Jesus. There are plenty of different languages, cultures, and people among us in our city, but there is only one Savior. We have his word. It is meant for all. And you will demonstrate no greater love for your neighbors than to declare the mercies of our redeeming God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.