From time to time I find myself in places where people are speaking languages different than English. Even though I do not understand, I enjoy hearing how the language is expressed. Some languages are more guttural and forceful than others. Other languages just sound expressive and filled with emotion.
Jerusalem had lots of languages in it already due to the Jewish festival of Pentecost. People from all over the diaspora made their pilgrimage to the Holy City of David to worship, offer sacrifices, to pray, and to reconnect with their spiritual heritage.
But today is unique because of who was affected as well as how the Holy Spirit arrived. The arrival is theatrical: a mighty wind, sudden and strong enough to get every one’s attention; tongues of fire resting on the Apostle’s head. We don’t see that every day.
Acts 2:4 tells us that on that day the Holy Spirit filled the apostles with an ability to speak in other languages. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
As much as I enjoy having a language immersion, it does not really do for me what language is supposed to do. I hear the words, the cadence, and they way it is expressed, but I have no understanding. Language is about communication. Language is about being understood. The real miracle of today is that people understood what the Apostles were saying.
Acts 2:6 “And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. … verse 8…. and how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Speaking and hearing is one thing; understanding is quite another. The Holy Spirit made both of those things happen. People spoke and they were understood. Because of the work of the Holy Spirit, a lot of devout Jews in Jerusalem that day heard the Good News of God. They already knew that God had done marvelous things. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish festivals celebrate this: Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; The rescue from the bondage of Egypt; The giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Now, they are blessed to hear about God’s own Son Jesus – he comes for all the world. Jesus is the final paschal sacrifice. His sacrifice is on the cross. Jesus is risen from the dead. His is ascended into heaven. He will come again. We are told that people received the Good News that day and were baptized.
The Holy Spirit made sure that language did what it is supposed to do: communicate, connect people, bring understanding from one person to another. Today, God spoke through the Apostles to communicate the news of Jesus – crucified and risen for the forgiveness of their sins.
The Holy Spirit’s activity is not limited to the Day of Pentecost or the conclusion of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is alive and well and active.
In his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther expresses the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. He writes this as a summary of Scriptural teaching and the experience of the Church:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
The reason that we have faith and that our faith has understanding is because of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the world. The reason that we receive the forgiveness of our sins and may cling to the promise of everlasting life is because of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the world. The reason we have a community of faith, rather than a congregation of one is because of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
Today, we rejoice that the Holy Spirit has brought us into the faith. Through the Holy Spirit, we received faith and forgiveness and the promise of everlasting life when water was poured upon us in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit made sure we encountered the grace of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit works forgiveness in our hearts as we receive the Holy bread and wine of Communion.
Today the Holy Spirit gives us understanding of the life of Jesus: He is born for us, dies for us, rises for us, ascends for us, and will return for us.
All God’s people say…Amen.