This passage from Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival celebrated fifty days after Passover, when Jesus’ disciples were all together in one place. In the midst of this festival, there is a great interruption. A loud sound “like the rush of a violent wind” comes from heaven, and “tongues, as of fire, appeared among them” (v. 2, 3). The author of Acts writes that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages. “Devout Jews from every nation,” also gathered to celebrate the festival of Pentecost and heard these Galilean disciples speaking, each in their native languages. This provokes great question. The author writes, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another ‘what does this mean?’” (v. 12). Others, however, questioned whether those speaking were simply drunk.
Peter addressed the crowd, however, clarifying that they were not drunk. Instead, he tells the crowds that they are witnessing the fulfillment of the prophecy written in the book of Joel, the vision of God pouring out the Spirit “upon all flesh” (v. 17). Peter tells them of the prophecy’s promise that “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams,” and that all who share in the Spirit will prophesy.
In this passage, we find the disciples waiting for the spirit Jesus promised them would come. The Spirit, however, does not come in the way they expected, but, rather, makes a clamorous entrance during the celebration of a Jewish festival. In this way, we see a spirit that comes at an unpredictable time and interrupts us in the middle of life.
The Spirit grants the disciples gifts beyond their ability (speaking in other languages), and the workings of the spirit call into question how we organize our world. Onlookers are beset with questions: their paradigms challenged and their perceptions called into question. “Amazed and perplexed,” they ask each other “What does this mean?” (v. 12). The Spirit also challenges the boundaries between “us” and “them.” Indeed, other “amazed and astonished” onlookers ask “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (v. 7, 8). In other words, how can we understand those people who are different from us? How are they able to speak to us in our own language, share things with us that we understand, and reveal something to us more clearly than we’ve ever experienced?
Preaching on this text, preaching scholar Anna Carter Florence underlines the way in which Galileans were seen with particular suspicion and contempt in this context. She likens Galileans to “people I might dismiss because of where they live, or how they talk or where they went to school…if they went to school.” She explains that “the reason people didn’t take Jesus seriously at first was that he was from Galilee. And in the New Testament ‘Galilean’ is short hand for hick….‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ That’s what Nathaniel asked.” The fact that these Galileans are filled with the Spirit and that they are able to speak clearly to the “devout Jews from every nation” upends expectations, subverts power dynamics, shifts our perceptions, and transforms whose voices and experiences are important. Carter Florence reminds us that we all still have Galileans in our lives too: “people we would never expect to know more than we do about certain things. People we don’t expect to relate to as peers, colleagues, equals because of where they come from, or how they talk, or what they have to teach me that I don’t already know.”
This text challenges us to reimagine our relationship with those people and to see them as potential bearers of truth, as people who can reveal God to us, and as potential instruments of the spirit. Carter Florence preaches, “if that’s what Pentecost is, well that totally changes the whole picture for me. That means I am going to have to go home and rethink everything I thought I knew…about God, and the world, and our place in it, and everything else actually.” She concludes her sermon on the text with a theological vision of what this text – marking the birth of the church – tells us about how the Spirit works in church. She preaches, “Maybe the church is born again every time we gather together in one place to hear what we know, only to be addressed by what we never imagined.”
In working for social justice or doing good in the world, we often think that we are bringing justice or love or hope or care to others. This text challenges us to reform our understanding of “us” bringing good to “them.” It challenges us to attune ourselves to the truth and love and the work of God in places that are unexpected. Places that we think need our help or our truth may in fact be places where we need to learn or be helped. In approaching something like the plight of LGBTQ people in Africa, who are regularly discriminated against, persecuted, and victimized by violence; this text challenges us to rethink the notion that “they need our help,” “they need our prayer,” or “we need to learn about them.” This text challenges us to acknowledge the way the Spirit works and thus to engage at a deeper level, to enter into relationship with them, and to make that relationship a mutual one. We are challenged to envision how we can justly learn from them, how they may be the ones who bear truth to us, and how the Spirit may be working through them. We are called to witness their lives and to respond to the realities that they face, but we should be leery of crowning ourselves as their saviors or seeing them only as people who need our help. We can instead seek to enter into honest relationship, seeking to uplift their full human complexity, ready to be addressed by what we never imagined, attuned to the voices of the metaphorical Galileans in our lives, prepared for the Spirit’s violent interruption into what we think we know. It may be helpful to keep this wisdom in mind as we work for justice.