The Real Miracle of Pentecost

Readings for Sunday, May 27, 2012 

Acts 2:1-21     Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27     John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pentecoststory is a miracle of flash and fury. Who wouldn’t be impressed! Roaring wind. Flaming tongues. Miraculous translations of the apostles’ words. People who only two months before had screamed “Crucify him!” were convicted and transformed. Thousands of people receiving Christ and joining the tiny group of about 120 people who had spent the previous weeks mostly in hiding. It was astounding and overwhelming.  All that excitement could have been the beginning and the end. Many is the community that has been caught up in the excitement of a flashy personality and good showmanship for a few days, only to see the excitement dwindle and the “profound changes” wither into dreary sameness after the show folded up and left town. If the miracle of Pentecost had become a faint memory and an annual celebration where the church gathered to remember the fire and bemoan the ashes it had left behind, Pentecost would be nothing. 

The real miracle of Pentecost is not simply that it happened. The real miracle is that it did not die away. Many people were sure it would do that. After Pentecost, the uproar percolated throughout Jerusalem as the original group of 120 and the thousands who came to faith at Pentecost simply refused to shut up. It was a problem for the priests and other Jewish religious leaders who had expected the Jesus problem to go away after he was crucified. They discussed the problem, they tried arresting the pesky Galileans, and they gave orders that the name of Jesus was not to be mentioned. Nothing worked. In one of their meetings, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a famous teacher in Jerusalem, tried to calm things down by reminding everyone that they had dealt with upstarts before, and those upstarts were hardly remembered any more. Then he said something important, something that must have come back to haunt him over and over after one of his own pupils became caught up in the frenzy. Gamaliel said to the assembled Jewish leadership team, “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God.”  

This wise advice was ignored. The attempts to shut the disciples’ mouths continued, and those attempts were completely unsuccessful. Like hundreds and thousands of flaming sparks they flew around Jerusalem striking up fires wherever they went. The book of Acts records that their numbers increased daily. Yet the effort to contain and squelch this fire continued. Dismay became rage, and rage became fury, and the fury propelled a hail of stones against the yielding flesh of one of the deacons of that early church. His flesh yielded, but his spirit stood firm, and Gamaliel’s student Saul stood watching, protecting the cloaks of the attackers from becoming blood-spattered as he watched the insolent deacon Stephen die. Gamaliel’s student Saul, according to the book of Acts, approved of the whole proceeding. He and all those who participated in the execution obviously believed that the fire roaring around Jerusalem was not of God, and they believed that God approved of their work on his behalf. 

Gamaliel’s student would be the most obvious evidence that Gamaliel had it right. Saul had studied to be a Pharisee at the feet of Gamaliel, as he would later testify, yet he paid no attention to Gamaliel’s warning, either. He joined enthusiastically in the persecution that followed Stephen’s death. Saul worked hard in Jerusalem to shut down the upstart Galilean cult, and when he learned that cult members who fled the persecution in Jerusalem had set up shop in other places, he went to the high priest and obtained documents authorizing him to act as a temple policeman in Damascus. Saul departed Jerusalem in high dudgeon that a bunch of ragtag fishermen had presumed to assault the ancient faith of the children of Israel. On the road to Damascus he discovered that his teacher had been right all along.  

Nearing Damascus, Saul was virtually struck by lightning. A bright light blinded him. A voice spoke. The voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Gamaliel was right. Those who persecuted the movement were served notice right then and there that they were fighting against God. In the person of Saul, everyone was destined to discover that persecuting Christ’s followers was absolutely fighting against God. In fact when God sent someone to help Saul understand what had happened, God’s message was, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Saul, who became famous under his Roman name Paul, suffered a great deal for the sake of Christ, and he is the best known example of the fact that the flaming tongues of Pentecost did not burn out and crumble into a heap of ashes. 

Paul is only one of the miracles of Pentecost. There was Peter preaching to a Roman centurion. Philip preaching to an Ethiopian official. Barnabas and Mark, the second missionary team in Asia Minor. There were all those visitors to Jerusalem who went back home with the message of Christ. The Farsi church in Persia. The Coptic Church in Egypt. On the day Jesus ascended to heaven, he had told his followers, “You will be witnesses …to the ends of the earth,” and they were.  

That is the real miracle. There are few places in the world today where the name of Christ has not yet been proclaimed. If the Pentecost flame had been mere pyrotechnics that died away and became only a dim memory of temporary excitement, the death and resurrection of Christ would have become known as a myth no more significant than the events that were the basis for the Bhagavad Gita. The flame did not die out. The flame is still burning bright in the hearts of people to the ends of the earth, as Jesus foretold. In fifty countries there are governments that still fight against God. In all countries there are cultural pressures that attempt to quench the flame, but it simply refuses to die away. 

It never will die away. Along the way, there have been a few instances when individuals failed to carry their light anywhere, but that has not stopped God’s flame. The flaming tongues of Pentecost are still afire and still completely oxidizing the power of evil in people’s lives. The flame of Christ’s love still envelopes people like the bright light that transfixed Saul on the road to Damascus. The flame burns brightly today, and we can count on it to continue into the future. When the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation he was given a vision of our reason for hope in every age, a vision that when time and space come to a bitter end, the flames of Pentecost will still be burning bright in an eternal and infinite light-filled world.  

The real miracle of Pentecost is expressed in every person today who claims the name of Christ. May each of us be faithful to burn brightly and to pass the flame along to everyone we meet.

 

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