Day of Pentecost · Acts 2:1-21 · May 11, 2008
By Leopoldo A. Sánchez M.
Some have referred to the Acts of the Apostles as the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” However, neither tide does full justice to the focus Luke wants to give to the risen Christ as the mediator of the Spirit of the Father to the apostolic church and through her to all the nations. Nor do these tides point us to the Lukan interest in the risen Jesus as the agent and aim of the apostolic proclamation to the whole world.
At the very beginning of Acts, Luke gives us a picture of the risen Christ who is taken up to heaven “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles” (1:2). From the start, the Spirit is not seen as an independent agent who does and speaks things apart from the risen Christ and His words to the apostles. Luke wants us to contemplate the unity of Christ and His Spirit—their joint mission—in the passing on of the saving words of God to the apostles and through them to all peoples.
Luke sees Pentecost as the fulfillment of the Jordan, providing us with a vital link between the mystery of Christ and the mystery of the church. The Spirit with whom the Father anointed Jesus at the Jordan river “to bring glad tidings to the poor…to proclaim liberty to captives.. .and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19) is now given through the risen Christ to the church, so that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:47). The one anointed with the Spirit of the Father at the Jordan to proclaim glad tidings now becomes the one who baptizes the disciples with the Spirit on Pentecost to preach His name.
The activity of the Holy Spirit in the anointing of Jesus and the baptism or clothing of the church with “the promise of [my] the Father” or “power from on high” (Lk 24:49; Ac 1:4, 8)—two ways of describing the Holy Spirit respectively as gift and action—are completely oriented towards the preaching of the Word that leads to Baptism and faith in Christ. Accordingly, the language of receiving “power” only serves the purpose of identifying the apostles and their associates as “witnesses” to Christ (Ac 1:8). Similarly, from Pentecost onwards, the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is not an experience subsequent to faith in Christ but precisely the initiation of repentant sinners everywhere into the name of Christ through Baptism in water for the forgiveness of sins (Ac 2:38). Note then that the promise and gift of the Spirit serves the proclamation of Christ that leads to Baptism in His name and faith in Him.
The reading for this Day of Pentecost assumes the continuity of the Holy Spirit’s activity through the words of Christ and His apostles. However, the emphasis falls on the beginning of the universal extension of this message in Jerusalem. The universality of the gift of the Spirit of Christ on the last days foretold by the prophet Joel begins to be fulfilled on this Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem (Ac 2:17-21). From that day forward, the Spirit will only come through the word of those who shall speak “of the mighty acts of God” in Christ (2:11) and “shall prophesy” concerning Christ (2:17-18)—there is no other form of speaking or prophesying for Luke—but the Spirit will also come “upon all flesh” (2:17) so that “everyone shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord” (2:21, cf. 2:39).
The most striking note of universality in the account of the giving of the Holy Spirit upon the Jerusalem disciples lies in their spoken witness to Christ “in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Ac 2:4). This multilingual display of the Spirit through the proclamation of Christ in the “native language” of Jews living abroad (2:8; cf. 2:6: “in his own language,” and 2:11: “in our own tongues”) makes clear the divine intent for the church in mission. The promise and gift of the Spirit of Christ cuts through and breaks down ethnic, cultural, and linguistic barriers. The universal call to repentance and the forgiveness of sins are for all people without distinction.
We live in a North American society that is increasingly diverse both in terms of ethnicities and languages, and yet it is not uncommon for North Americans to insist on a monolingual identity. Many cry out, “English only!” (Unfounded fears? The reality is that the majority of immigrants and their descendants consistently learn the dominant language of the country where they live and work.) There is a real problem when an absolute claim to monolingualism gets in the way of the church’s mission and service “to all those far off” (cf. Ac 2:39). Some say, “Why don’t these Mexicans learn English?” When Christians in the United States make learning English a condition for bringing Christ to the nations and the nations to the church, we have lost the lasting significance of Pentecost for us today.
So the text for the Day of Pentecost can function as a call to repentance for the church. It is also an invitation for an English-speaking church to live out her mission gladly in an increasingly diverse United States as the Spirit of Christ continually brings her out from her immediate sphere of service into the speaking of the Gospel in the many tongues of their neighbors. The Gospel promise lies in the universality of God’s gift and promise to the nations, one that excludes no one on the basis of culture, ethnicity, or language.