Listen! Acts 2:1-21

Listening is love

Listen! Acts 2:1-21
Artist unknown

Acts 2:1-21
In his post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus promises to send his followers a "Comforter," or the "Holy Spirit." On Pentecost, that promise is fulfilled.

Why on that day in particular? Why, because it's Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks, in the Jewish calendar, and on that day the Jews remembered the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai to the tribes of Israel.1

The disciples—who are supposed to be a new Israel—receive something even better, in Luke's view. Rather than the external law, they are given the internal Spirit. That has particular effects on them, which we'll get into in just a minute.

When the Spirit comes, it is a sound like "the rush of a violent wind," and like "tongues of fire," but Luke is very careful to make clear that it is not wind, nor is it fire. Presumably, that's to make a distinction between wind and fire and the actual presence of God in the Holy Spirit.

We also know that mighty sounds, winds, and fire are very commonly associated with God's self-revelation in the Old Testament. Luke, as always, is making the case that both Jesus and the disciples can be understood as continuations of God's work in Hebrew scripture.

One other thing to be clear about is that when the disciples begin to speak in "other languages," it's not what's called glossolalia, or the "speaking in tongues" we're used to hearing about in other parts of scripture. It means they're actually speaking in other languages: Greek and Persian, perhaps Arabic or Egyptian, and so on.

Pentecost is thus a miracle of speaking. But it's also a miracle of hearing, in that the Jews gathered around hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages. So: I know this guy can only speak Aramaic, but I'm hearing him in Greek! How can this be?


All of this is big enough and disturbing enough to require some explanation and defense from Peter. Some of the crowd say "These folks have been drinking." The word translated here as "new wine" is gleukos, literally "sweet wine," or as we would know it, rotgut, cheap hooch, or spodee-o-dee, take your pick.

But Peter stands up and says, No, no, no! Not the case. Now, remember as he speaks that the last time we heard from him in Luke's gospel, Peter was denying Jesus to the servant girl on Good Friday. Yet here he is, a changed man, ready, willing, and able to stand up and speak in defense of Jesus.

Peter tells the crowd that what they've heard is not the result of an epic drinking binge. The Green Bay Packers did not in fact have an early game that first Pentecost morning. Instead the people see fulfilled a prophecy from Joel, which Peter helpfully outlines for those listening. We don't need to say much about it.

Everyone a prophet

The upshot is that God says through Joel that he will make everyone prophets—young and old, men or women—and he promises that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." According to Peter, all of that prophecy comes true because Jesus was resurrected, and now gives his Spirit to his disciples.

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved

So there's the short version of what happened. Now, what does it all mean? Three things:

First, that as Peter says, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." The promise of salvation offered through the risen Christ is universal, no exceptions, no, not even for them.

Second, Pentecost reminds us of "who we are, and whose we are," as my parents used to say. The disciples are called together to be in community. Not just any old group, either, but a new and strange kind of community called the church.

We don't have time to really dig into this point, but the word we translate as "church" is ekklesia, which originally referred to a gathering of citizens, as when a town council came together. The disciples and we their successors are empowered citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, free to do the work of the Kingdom as equals with one another.

But we are more than that: we are the very Body of Christ, his physical reality in the world. Where is Christ after his resurrection and ascension? Why, he's here, in you and me. Last but not least, this new community, this ekklesia, is brought together for the purpose of speaking and showing the truth of the gospel.

The church exists for a reason, in other words, and it's not just so you have somewhere to go on Sunday morning.


Third—and this is the point I want to spend the most time on—Pentecost tells us that part of our work as the church is to listen. Remember how I said Pentecost was a miracle of both speaking and hearing? That's what this means. The word for "hear" in the original Greek can also mean to listen or pay attention to.

The disciples hear what one another have to say in their own languages not just because God translates for them, but because the Spirit empowers them to listen to one another carefully. Not surprisingly, I think we should do the same. When we talk to one another, we ought to listen for how our faith informs what we have to say, and what we want to do.

There is something to be said for what's called "active listening" as a faith practice. If you're not familiar with that idea, it's the kind of listening counselors do. Active listeners put away distractions and give full attention. Rather than thinking ahead to what they're going say next, active listeners pay close attention to things like body language and how the person speaks to form a full understanding of what they're trying to communicate. And when the speaker is finished, the listener reflects back to them the listener's understanding to make sure it's accurate. "What I hear you saying..." "If I understand you correctly, you mean..."

Active listening necessarily involves validating the person speaking, if not the content of what they're saying. Practicing this kind of listening sends the message that I hear what you have to say, and think it is worth considering and trying to understand on a deeper level.

Listening is a form of love.

In the same way, because active listening often involves listening for the feelings behind what is being said, it also validates the speaker's emotions. "It sounds like you're really anxious/angry/sad/happy about something. Can you tell me more about that?"

I think you get the point. When we listen to one another, when we really listen, it's a way of honoring one another. It's a form of love, in other words. And in that sense, it's worth encouraging in our life together as Christians.

However, and as always, there is more to being a Christian than being nice to one another.

These are the days of signs in wonders

Peter quotes Joel to the effect that God "will show portents in the heaven above/and signs on the earth below." Another way of saying that is that God will show us "signs and wonders." That's a phrase Luke often uses to describe prophetic characters in his story. It's also language that's associated with Moses and the Exodus story, as God slowly reveals his will to the people of Israel. The church is meant to be a prophetic people: we are meant to speak the gospel. We are meant to listen for it in the world, to be alert to the "signs and wonders" that God leaves for us.

I have been thinking about that point lately. My job puts me on the road a lot. It's not uncommon for me to spend two or three hours a day going from place to place. I don't have a lot of time to catch up on things when I'm home, so I listen to a lot of news and politics podcasts while I'm in the car.2

Or half listen, anyway. I zone out and have to back up a lot to make sure I understand.

Now, understand, I enjoy politics. In fact, I write about it fairly frequently. But I have noticed a change in myself recently. For one thing, I often find myself asking, Is what I'm listening to really more worthwhile than sitting in silence for half an hour? Letting your mind wander where it will go is actually a great way to listen for God, and the car turns out to be a great place to do that. (Especially on US 151 between Columbus and Fond du Lac, which may be one of the most boring stretches in Wisconsin.)

But it's also true that the breathless headlines and trumped-up controversies seem less and less real to me. I don't mean to suggest that what we hear about on the news isn't important. We are at multiple major turning points in the world.

The Real

It's just that when you spend your days sitting with elderly dementia patients as they struggle to make themselves understood, campaign season doesn't seem so meaningful. You sit and you hope and you wait for some echo of good news to come through. That's real. News and politics pale in comparison.

There's nothing really special about my job that makes this happen. The same thing can be said about coming alongside children as they try to grow into themselves and make sense of the world. You could say it about hospitals too, or prisons. Anywhere we listen for the whole person in order to help them become whole, we are listening for God. We are listening for how God is at work in the world, how God is on the move.

That's the message I would like to leave you with this morning. At Pentecost, Christ called together his scattered disciples into a community based in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed. They were meant to be prophets in speaking about the new life promised in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But they were also meant to be imaginative and attentive listeners for the ways in which the Kingdom was breaking into the world around them. We today may not have all the fireworks, all the winds and tongues of flames that the first disciples had on Pentecost. But we, like them, are powered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the mission we have been given. We are called to proclaim the good news in word and in deed, and we are called to listen together for God and for one another. Let us practice that calling in how we listen, and in who we choose to listen to. Amen.


1You knew this, right? Of course you knew this. 

2So far, my favorite is "The Daily Blast with Greg Sargent." After's a bit of a struggle.


What I think of when I say "Listen!"