A Different Kind of Power
We find ourselves today in a quiet, crowded room that will not stay quiet for long — for the Spirit is coming. On this journey of death and new life, what began in the ashes of Lent now culminates in the fires of Pentecost. Often regarded as the birthday of the church, Pentecost was originally a Jewish agricultural festival celebrated fifty days after harvesting the first sheaf of barley. Eventually the festival of Pentecost (or feast of Weeks, as it is also known) would serve as a commemoration of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai — a monumental event in Jewish history in which Yahweh imparts divine instruction to guide the Israelites in their relation to God and one another. This is the occasion for which all are gathered in our scripture for today, expecting to celebrate the giving of the Law as they are met with the giving of the Spirit.
The scene is overwhelming. In a vision of rushing wind and flames like flicking tongues, the Spirit fills every crack, corner, and crevice of the room and every heart in attendance. Reverberating the walls and rousing the gathered crowd, those present begin speaking in foreign languages with such fluency that all those who heard could understand what was being said in their own native tongue. As the festivities grew louder, the crowd grew larger — some in awe, some in confusion, and some chalking up the raucous display as evidence of intoxication. But one thing is clear: something was happening, leading to the claim that they were filled with the Spirit.
As we hear our scripture for this day of Pentecost, I would invite us to consider what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
- Influences how we relate to one another
- We are led by God and God’s will
- Unity vs division
- A breath of fresh air
- God as accessible and inclusive
A cloud of dust kicked up by shuffling feet walking the road between booths and tables is paired with the sound of venders hawking their wares and the smell of sweat, bread, and spices infiltrating the senses of the pedestrian traffic. It’s first century Jerusalem and the market is buzzing with activity. A fishmonger wraps his catch in paper and salt; jars of olive oil clank together on display; fabric sways with the breeze; and all the while, the jingle of coins falling out of leather pouches keeps the beat alive. On the coins fueling the transactional flow of the day is a familiar image: the profile of Caesar surrounded by inscriptions and other symbolic designs. On some of these coins circulating through the Roman controlled economy, you would even find flames like flicking tongues adorning Caesar’s bust as a crown adorns a head. Beyond simple decoration, these flames portrayed a not so subtle symbolism in the context of imperial rule, signifying not only royalty but divinity. The message is clear: as fire is of the gods, so Caesar is of the gods, which means so is his authority.
If you want to keep people in line, convince them that your authority is divine and your power without limits — or at least convince them that you yourself believe it is, which is just as if not more frightening of a prospect. Caesar’s reflected image bearing tongues of fire resting upon his head marked the very thing that stood between having enough food or not, having a place to lay your head or not, having enough to pay taxes or not. Currency was and in many respects remains the gatekeeper of survival. Of the many ways the Roman ruling class reminded the populace of its place, their currency impressed upon the people: the elite are in control, elevated in every way, submit to our power over you or die — for such is the will of the gods and Caesar their emissary. The vender takes the coins, hands the customer their barley flour, and both go about their day under the looming shadow of the empire to the anthem tune of its clinking coinage.
On the festival of Pentecost, Jewish travelers from near and far make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem — from Asia to Parthia in modern day Iran, from Egypt to Greece and everywhere in between. Jerusalem itself was incredibly diverse in its demographics — a diversity that was likely reflected not only at its markets but in this room of Galileans and amongst all who were gathered as witness in our scripture today. The text makes no distinction regarding who is present for the unveiling of the Spirit. In fact, the text makes it a point to say, “They were all together in one place,” and that “devout Jews from every nation under Heaven were living in Jerusalem,” (Acts 2:1, 5 NRSV). It is not unreasonable to conclude that all those gathered included people of all ages and genders, classes and nationalities. They were all present, all experience this remarkable spiritual phenomenon, all receive the revelation of the power of God.
Suddenly a booming sound like rushing wind swirls amongst the rafters and the rabble, and d tongue of fire rest on each of them — inciting a linguistic fury of miraculous quality. They all begin to speak in languages previously unknown to them, and an increasingly growing crowd of every nation under Heaven are left in disbelief when they realize they can understand exactly what is being said in their own native speech. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” one spectator asks. It’s helpful to note that Judeans looked down upon Galileans during this time. They were thought to be uneducated and of questionable lineage with a knack for disruption and protest. This question is a loaded one: insinuating that surely the power of God does not touch such lowly masses. But as we read in our text and as we know from the Christ, the Spirit does not discriminate. The flames are all inclusive, and the imagery is significant.
Fire is symbolic of the divine not only in Roman contexts but in Jewish contexts as well. Think of Moses and the burning bush; God’s revelation on Sinai; the blazing altar in the story of Elijah; the fiery chariots in the book of Daniel. When we reach the New Testament, the symbolism continues as we hear John’s prophesy of the one who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And baptized they were — not just the politicians and priests, but the poor and put down, too. All were baptized with the divine flame — a direct challenge to the image of the emperor as the sole bearer of divine authority minted on metal.
Whereas the flames adorning Caesar signified his divine privilege and power over his subjects, the flames adorning those gathered in the upper room signified divine accessibility and a different kind of power: not power over but power with as divided tongues as of fire touched each in equal measure. When it comes to the Spirit, power is not a vertical hierarchy indicating divine favor and domination but, rather, is a horizontal outpouring of divine accessibility and relation, participation, indiscrimination for all. It is an equal opportunity empowerment not to be hoarded but distributed.
It is no coincidence that the giving of the Spirit occurs on the festival of Pentecost — a time in which Jews commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai so that they might live according to God’s law of love. It’s a day of remembrance of what it means to be a child of God and to live in right relationship with the divine and with one another. It is a reminder that God grants us the capacity and resources to live in love — a power that does not call us to rest in our reception of it but to take action in its giving away to all.
There is a tongue of fire resting on each of us for we are all filled with the Spirit. What are we going to do with our power?