The Coming of the Holy Spirit2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a noise came from heaven. It sounded like a strong wind blowing. This noise filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw something that looked like flames of fire. The flames were separated and stood over each person there. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak different languages. The Holy Spirit was giving them the power to speak these languages.
5 There were some religious Jews staying in Jerusalem who were from every country in the world. 6 When they heard this noise, a crowd came together. They were all surprised, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 They were completely amazed at this. They said, “Look! Aren’t all these men that we hear speaking from Galilee?[a] 8 But each of us hears them in his own language. How is this possible? We are from different places: 9 Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the areas of Libya near Cyrene, Rome 11 (both Jews and those who had become Jews), Crete and Arabia. But we hear these men telling in our own languages about the great things God has done!” 12 They were all amazed and confused. They asked each other, “What does this mean?”
13 But others were making fun of them, saying, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Speaks to the People14 But Peter stood up with the 11 apostles. In a loud voice he spoke to the crowd: “My fellow Jews, and all of you who are in Jerusalem, listen to me. Pay attention to what I have to say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you think; it is only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 But Joel the prophet wrote about what is happening here today:
17 ‘God says: In the last days
I will give my Spirit freely to all kinds of people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams.
Your young men will see visions.
18 At that time I will give my Spirit
even to my servants, both men and women.
And they will prophesy.
19 I will show miracles
in the sky and on the earth:
blood, fire and thick smoke.
20 The sun will become dark.
The moon will become red as blood.
And then the great and glorious day of the Lord will come.
21 Then anyone who asks the Lord for help
will be saved.’ Joel 2:28-32
Jesus Talks About the Spirit37 The last day of the feast came. It was the most important day. On that day Jesus stood up and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 If a person believes in me, rivers of living water will flow out from his heart. This is what the Scripture says.” 39 Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been raised to glory. But later, those who believed in Jesus would receive the Spirit.
There are a lot of stories from the Bible that I remember learning about when I was little: Noah and the Flood, Jonah and the whale, I especially remember Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. Today’s reading from Acts is not one that really stands out in my memory though. It certainly does not lack memorable imagery, it is not unimportant, and it even has humor. What makes this story disappear in the memories of my youth is that I always confused it with another story, the Tower of Babel. Both have fire coming down onto people, both have people suddenly speaking in different languages. As a kid I never realized that these were different stories and I am not the only one, we even teach these two stories together in Godly Play. The question that sticks in my mind is should we? Should these two instances of fire and language be seen as two ends of the same string? What do you think? (Read the story of the Tower from the Children’s Bible, then read Pentecost.) Are these the same story, just the beginning and the end? Did this all really occur “in the Last Days” that Joel spoke of? How can they be the last days if they were 2000 years ago, what are we in? Maybe that is part of the key. The story of the Tower comes from a time maybe 1000 years before Jesus lived, and what happened in Acts occurred just after Jesus died, so they were separated by a lot of time, just like we are from the tongues of fire in Acts. If these two stories are really the beginning and ending of one long tale and take place over 1000 years, maybe the last days Peter mentions from Joel can last for 2000 years from his time to ours.
Perhaps we shouldn’t lump the two stories together though, maybe it was a mistake to confuse them as I did. After the building of the Tower God uses the languages as a way to punish the people and to scatter them about the earth, but the Apostles are clearly not being punished, but rewarded when the fire lands on them and they are given the ability to speak new languages. The same thing is given in both instances, one as a punishment one as a gift. Well maybe not quite the same thing. After the Tower the people are given new languages, but they also lose their old languages, they are no longer able to speak to each other and communicate, but that is not what happens to the Apostles. They are each given the ability to speak new languages, but they do not lose their old languages, or the ability to speak and communicate with each other. What they receive is not a door or a wall that separates them from other people, but a passage that can be used to connect the divided people together. This is where I think the tongues of fire on Pentecost show themselves to be very, very different from the aftermath of the Tower. What happens in both is not the same thing, no more than the useful flames of a campfire are the same as those of a raging inferno that destroys a person’s home. The people building the Tower were given languages as a punishment for their own vanity and trying to outshine God, the Apostles were given languages as a gift for doing just the opposite, humbling themselves and trying to be servants to all the people.