Lesson: Acts 2:1-21
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17`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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ “
The book called “The Acts of the Apostles” was written around 85 to 90 CE by the anonymous author of the Gospel According to Luke. The first 15 chapters of Acts are a didactic “history” of the early Jesus Follower Movement starting with the Ascension of the Christ and ending at the so-called Council of Jerusalem where it was agreed that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and keep all the Kosher dietary laws to become Jesus Followers.
Chapters 16 to 28 of Acts are an account of Paul’s Missionary Journeys, his arrest, and his transfer to Rome – and the stories are not always consistent with Paul’s letters.
The Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles see the Holy Spirit as the driving force for all that happens. The events surrounding today’s reading exemplify this.
Today’s reading was set in the early days of the Jesus Follower Movement in Jerusalem. The Jesus Follower Movement remained a sect within Judaism even after the Destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Today’s reading is an account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles on Pentecost. It is presented as a fulfillment of the promise made by the Resurrected Christ in Acts 1:5 just before the Ascension.
Pentecost (or the Feast of Weeks) was a well-established Jewish Festival occurring 50 days after Passover (Deut. 16:9). The Feast of Weeks celebrated the spring barley harvest and also remembered the giving of the land (Deut. 26:1). In the Second Century CE, the Feast was changed by the rabbis to a celebration of the giving of the Law at Sinai. The Apostles (as devout Jews) came together for the Feast of Weeks, along with Jews from many nations.
The account uses two of the customary images for the Holy Spirit – wind and fire (vv. 2 and 3). The image of God acting by wind is based on Gen. 1:2, and the theophany of God as fire is found in Is. 66:15.
According to The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Galileans (v.7) were frequently regarded as ignorant by persons in Jerusalem.
The ability of listeners to hear the Apostles in their native languages (v.8) directly reverses of the impact of the Tower of Babel Story (Gen. 11) in which people could not understand one another. The list of the nations foreshadows the spread of the Jesus Follower Movement, and the listing is generally from east to west, but (somewhat surprisingly) did not include some of the areas that were discussed in Acts such as Syria, Macedonia, Cilicia, and Achaia.
Peter was presented as the spokesperson for the Apostles (v.14) and stated that the coming of the Spirit was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s description of the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:28-32). The technique of having a person give a speech appropriate to the circumstances was characteristic of Hellenistic accounts at the time.
Epistle: Genesis 11: 1-9
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah also called the Pentateuch (“five books”) in Greek. Genesis covers the period from Creation to the deaths of Jacob and his 11th son, Joseph, in about 1650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
The Book of Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated by scholars to about 950 BCE and some of which were developed as late as 450 BCE. Since the late 19th Century, Biblical scholars have recognized four major “strands” or sources in the Torah, and these sources are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
The Book of Genesis comes mostly from two of these sources, one called “J” (for Yahwistic) and the other called “P” (for Priestly). The two sources present God very differently. In “J” materials, God is presented anthropomorphically (God speaks directly with Adam and Eve, walks in the Garden, smells burnt offerings, and has human-like feelings, as in today’s reading). The name used for God in the “J” materials is YHWH, and this is translated in the NRSV as “LORD” in all capital letters.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are called the “Primeval History” and presented ancient sacred myth-stories that “explain” the origin of realities such as the presence of suffering in the world and the multiplicity of languages described in today’s Tower of Babel Story. Moreover, the story preserved a perceived divine-human boundary, a boundary set in Gen. 3:22-23 when YHWH drove the humans out of the Garden.
The story is curiously placed. In Chapter 10, post-flood humanity was already divided into nations each with its own language (Gen. 10:31-32). Nonetheless, this story attributes the multiplicity of languages to YHWH’s confusing (or confounding) their language. The Jewish Study Bible says this an account of how Babylon got its name, and that making a tower “with its top in the heavens” (v.4) can be compared to the prideful boast of the king of Babylon in Is. 14:13.
As an anthropomorphic God, YHWH needed to come down from heaven to see the tower and the city (v.5). As in Gen. 1:26, YHWH acted as a heavenly court (“let us go down”) to confuse the humans’ language (v.7).
YHWH showed human qualities when YHWH was concerned that the people would “make a name for themselves” (v.4). In the next chapter, God promised to “make his [Abram’s] name great” (Gen. 12:2), reinforcing the view that God controls all that happens.
Gospel: John 14:8-17, 25-27
8 Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
The chronology of events is also different in the Fourth Gospel. For example, the Temple Event (“Cleansing of the Temple”) occurred early in Jesus’ Ministry in the Fourth Gospel, rather than late as in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, but in the Fourth Gospel, it occurred the day before the first day of Passover so that Jesus (described as “the Lamb of God” in the Fourth Gospel) died at the same time lambs were sacrificed at the Temple for the Passover Seder that was to be held the night he died.
Most scholars agree that the Gospel was written around 95 CE, at a time when the “parting of the ways” between the Jesus Follower Movement and Rabbinic Judaism was accelerating.
Today’s reading is part of the “Farewell Discourse and Prayer of Jesus” that begins at 13:31 and continues to 17:26. There are numerous themes in the Discourse, and a substantial amount of repetition. Scholars suggest that some of the themes in the Discourse reflect the situation when the Gospel itself was written in the late First Century. Most agree that the Prayer in Chapter 17 constituted a separate unit.
Generally, the lengthy Discourse is divided into four units: (a) announcement of the hour and farewell; (b) exhortation to the disciples about the community in the face of external hostility; (c) consolation for the sorrowing disciples; and (d) Jesus’ prayer for the disciples.
Today’s reading is part of the exhortation and follows Jesus’ statement “I am the Way, the Light and the Truth” (v.6) and the affirmation that Jesus is the true revelation of the Father (v.7).
In understanding the words “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (v.9), The Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests: “To ‘see’ Jesus is not a visual experience but one of personal knowledge; therefore to know Jesus and to understand his life is to understand and know the life of God.”
In addition to affirming the connection between the Father and the Son (v.9), the gospel writer extended that connection so that all who believe in Jesus as the Christ by following Jesus’ example of love will share the connection to the Father and will do works even greater than those done by Jesus (v.12).
In The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, Spong paraphrased verses 8 to 15 as follows: “God is not an external being that you must locate and recognize in some place. Look at me, Philip. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. God works in me; God speaks through me. That is your destiny also. The secret, however, is for you to keep the new commandment. You have to love, not for gain, but for love’s sake. When I am gone, the spirit of truth will come to you. This will be God dwelling in you and you dwelling in God.”
The promise of the Advocate/Paraclete/Comforter which is the “Spirit of truth” (v.17) is a force which will abide in true believers. The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that the image of the “spirit of truth” is found in Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) texts.
Spong’s understanding of verses 16 to 26 is instructive:
The spirit of truth, which proceeds from the Father, will come to stand where I have stood. This spirit, called the Counselor, will bear witness to me. As I abide in God …so you must abide in me.
What Jesus is describing here is not redemption of the fallen, but transformation of the open. There is and will be no separation in our oneness. God is part of you; you are part of God. The same life and love that flow from God through the vine of Christ will flow into God’s people who are the branches. There is now a mystical and mutual indwelling that will create a new humanity. Mutual indwelling is not to be understood as an authority-subject, a master-slave or even a savior-sinner relationship. It is rather a startling new way by which we are to understand the divine. We have abandoned the God from above the sky. That God has now entered life. We met this God first in Jesus, and now the world will see that God in those who will some day call themselves the “body of Christ.”
In interpreting verse 27, Spong offers: “The spirit will be the source of peace – not peace that is the mere absence of conflict, not peace as the world gives, but peace that is beyond the world’s conflict. It is the peace of being that which one most deeply is, the peace that enables one to bear pain, conflict and even death while knowing that nothing can finally destroy that person.”