Summary: Racial unity within the church is our calling, our mission and in many ways our message, for it is through our multi-coloured yet integrated community of love that the world...
What is it that strikes you when you hear this passage? It was the accusation of drunkenness that first struck me, and indeed I focused on that last time I preached on this passage, noting that drunken and wild behaviour is not the sort of thing that the church is normally accused of nowadays (more‘s the shame).
The other aspect of the passage that always captured my imagination was the ‘tongues of fire’ that came down and ’rested’ on each of the disciples. What were these ‘tongues of fire’? In classic art the disciples generally look like a set of candles on a birthday cake, with each one sprouting a flame from the centre of his head!
What were they? Luke, the author of the book of Acts, doesn’t tell us, just as he doesn’t give much attention to the accusation of drunkenness levelled at the disciples, and this is significant, for really the important question, when we approach this or any other passage from the Bible, should not be, “what do I find interesting here?”, but “what is this passage trying to tell me?” And the lack of time and detail given to the issues that interest me should indicate to us that the author (unlike me) did not consider these to be particularly significant issues.
What then did he consider important in this story? What was Luke trying to tell us? Well, if we take as a key indicator the number of words devoted to a particular aspect of the story, we would have to say that the variety of the nationalities represented at the Pentecost gathering was a significant issue.
"Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”, the crowd said, “How is it then that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians - we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God."
That’s three verses out of the thirteen verses in the passage, focused purely on listing for us seventeen different nationalities that were represented there at Pentecost! How many countries were there in the known world at that time? Not a lot more! Indeed, it seemed to Luke that the whole world was there on that Pentecost morning - people from ‘every nation under Heaven’ (to use his own phrase), and this seems to have been very significant to Luke in his retelling of the story.
Why is that so important? Was it just that the presence of the global audience helped to mark this as a great event? It did do that, but there’s more to it than that. Is it because the gathering anticipated the Gentile mission? That must be a part of it
If you’re not familiar with the book of Acts, the bulk of it chronicles the missionary work of St Paul and his friends - travelling the known world and setting up churches in far-flung places that most of Luke’s initial readers had heard of but never visited.
The gathering of the nations together for the formation of the church is an indication of where the whole thing was moving! All the nations were there that day, and from that day forwards the disciples started of going out into all those nations!
Pentecost foreshadows the great missionary endeavour that becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Acts, and so this long and turgid list of nations reminds us that this work of spreading the Gospel, without regards for national or ethnic boundaries, was divinely conceived! God had ordained that the whole world should hear the message of Christ, and so God arranged it such that representatives of all those nations were represented when the church was formed.
Keep in mind that this work of the early disciples, and of St Paul in particular, of moving the Gospel of God beyond the nation of Israel and into the pagan world, was the most controversial thing they ever did.
We take it for granted now. Indeed, we’ve grown up in a world where Christianity is considered a white man’s religion (even though the average Anglican today is female and black). Even so, it would probably never occur to us to think of our faith as simply being a branch of the Jews-only religion of our ‘Old Testament’. But for Biblical people of the 1st century, following God had always meant being Jewish. And the idea that people outside of Israel could also be members of the ‘people of God’ was something that most first century Jews took a while to warm to.
The early church leaders, at the Council of Jerusalem, did indeed ratify very early on that non-Jews should be allowed in as full members of the church, but we know full well from Paul’s letters that this did not put the matter to rest.