If Pentecost is a harvest festival, where is the harvest?

This Sunday the lectionary invites churches to reflect on Acts 2:1-21. J B Phillips, in his paraphrase, divides the chapter under five headings: (1) “The first Pentecost for the young Church (1-4),” (2) “The Church’s first impact on devout Jews (5-13),” (3) “Peter explains the fulfilment of God’s promise (14-36),” (4) “The reaction to Peter’s speech (37-40),” and (5) “The first large-scale conversion (41-47).”

The book of Acts is the first history of the church. Its author is Luke, author of the Gospel which bears his name. Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, the non-Jews. Neither Luke nor Paul were among Jesus’ special friends and students, the twelve who lived and moved and breathed with Jesus for three years.

At the human level, the first twelve chapters of Acts centre on Peter, and the later chapters, ending at chapter 28, centre on Paul. But there are brief mentions of the apostles or deacons Thomas, Philip, and Stephen. At the divine level, Acts is “the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit of God.”

The Jewish name for Pentecost is “feast of weeks.”[1] “Pente” is from the Greek word for “50.” Fifty marks the passing of seven weeks or 49 days after Passover.

It was 50 days after the first Passover – in Egypt – that God gave the Israelites His Law, on Mount Sinai. Pentecost commemorates that day. It is also the day on which the Israelites celebrated the Spring Harvest. The church celebrates Pentecost 50 days after Easter.

The public ministry of Jesus began when the Holy Spirit came down upon him. This happened very publicly, when Jesus persuaded John Baptist to baptize him in the river Jordan.[2]

The public ministry of the church began when the Holy Spirit came down upon 120 people, including apostles, in Jerusalem, on the festival day of Pentecost.

On festival days in Jerusalem, Jews fasted until they completed morning worship at the Temple. After their Temple visit, they returned to their lodgings to pray before taking breakfast.

While the 120 were praying before breakfast, in the upper room of their lodging, there was a mighty sound, like a wind. Something visible settled on each one of them. It looked like flames. And each one began to speak in a recognizable foreign language. They called the speaking “tongues.”

It was about 9:00 am. The noise was so loud that it drew the attention of people on the streets. The people crowded around the lodging.

Luke stresses the diversity of the people who made up the crowd. He names the countries they had come from: countries in all directions, both near and far.

We often forget how far Jewish people had spread. Strabo, a geographer who was a contemporary of Luke, wrote:

“The Jews had already penetrated into every city, and it would not be easy to find a place in the world where this race had not arrived and taken possession.”

The foreign Jews were visiting Jerusalem as pilgrims. They were wealthy. Interestingly, Syria is not in Luke’s list of countries. This is a surprise because, as one commentator has noted:

“In Syria the Jews formed a larger percentage of the population than elsewhere, and there was a most numerous community of Jews in Antioch who possessed the full rights of citizenship.”

Some scholars have suggested that Syria is not in Luke’s list because Luke quoted from a list he got from a Syrian who had been in the crowd.

It’s important that they were devout Jews, wealthy, and foreigners.

As devout Jews, they knew the Jewish scriptures. They knew of prophecies about a Messiah. And they knew that ecstatic utterances could be signs of the presence of God.

As foreigners, they would take, and spread across vast areas, what they saw and heard.

As wealthy, their listeners would know they were not the types who are easily fooled. This sadly, is no longer true. There are many wealthy people today who are easily scammed. But I will not go down this road.

I return to the story. A crowd gathered. Peter saw an opportunity. An opportunity to bear witness to the plan of God in Jesus. An opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, to give a eulogy for him. An opportunity to bear witness to the wrongs done to Jesus.

Let’s recall who Peter is. A few weeks earlier, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter ran like a chicken when he feared those who arrested Jesus might discover that he was a friend of Jesus.[3]

Fifty days earlier, Peter had received a special message from Jesus through the women who saw the empty tomb. They told him Jesus said he wanted to meet him.[4]

Jesus did meet him. At one of their meetings, Jesus gave Peter the job of caring for those who would become Jesus’ disciples. And Jesus told Peter how he would be killed.[5] That conversation transformed Peter.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter was no chicken. He was a lion. He walked from the Upper Room to the Public Square. He spoke boldly. He opened up the scriptures. He referred to the books of Joel and the Psalms. He explained the noise, the tongues. He explained that the scriptures were being fulfilled that very day.

Peter preached to what must have seemed a random crowd. He preached without invitation, without preparation. He outlined the gospel: Jesus was accredited by God; Jesus was wrongly put to death – but what men meant for evil, God turned to good; God raised Jesus from the dead; God exalted Jesus to a place of power.

Peter’s hearers asked, “what must we do?” Peter said they must separate themselves from “this crooked generation.” He facilitated that separation by offering to baptize them. They accepted his call to separate. 3,000 of them were baptized on that day.[6]

What does the account of the church’s first Pentecost mean for us today?

Pentecost tells us that we are gathered together by God, not by our own decisions. Pentecost tells us that when we gather together to pray and worship God, others sense that God is at work. Pentecost tells us that God has chosen to continue adding members to his church through witnesses; through us, through words and actions spoken and done by us.

Pentecost challenges us to ask the question “are we bearing fruit?” Are we? Have we been in the Upper Room? Do we speak boldly in the public square?

Peace be with you.

[1] Shavuot, in Hebrew.

[2] Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23.

[3] You can read about this in John 18.

[4] Mark 16:7

[5] You can read about this in John 21:15-19.

[6] But Peter preached to Jews. He referred to his listeners as “men of Israel.” The first members of the church were Jews. It would only be later that Peter would explain Jesus to non-Jews, gentiles and offer them baptism. He only did it after God persuaded him through a vision. Luke tells us about it in Acts chapters nine and ten.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *