That which Jesus said would occur is occurring; the Holy Spirit has arrived coming upon the disciples baptizing them with the presence of the Spirit. The disciples have done that which Jesus had instructed them to do; they remained in Jerusalem and waited. They waited for the coming of the mysterious and unknown Holy Spirit; they knew not for how long they would wait, nor did they know what to expect when what they were waiting for would arrive or even how they would know that which they were waiting for had arrived. But, nevertheless, the disciples exercised faith, doing what Jesus instructed trusting that Jesus had his reasons for so instructing his disciples.
Together were Jesus’ twelve apostles – twelve less Judas, but with the addition of Matthias – gathered in one place Luke recounts in Acts 2:1-13. The exact location of the place is not specified, it seems unimportant to Luke. Perhaps they were in the very same upper room in which Jesus broke bread with them during the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed. Perhaps they were somewhere else. But what is important is that they were together. In addition to the soon coming Holy Spirit it would seem that another gift Jesus sought to give his disciples was the gift of community. The disciples were drawn together by Jesus and together they waited, practicing their faith in community for encouragement, for accountability, and for support.
I wonder what the conversation was like in that unspecified room as the disciples waited over the course of their allotted “few days.” Were there some who doubted? Did some wonder why they were wasting their time forced together doing nothing but simply waiting? Were some angry? Did some resent the fact that Jesus provided too little instruction and not enough direction for the required task at hand? Who were the stalwarts of faith? Who embraced the ambiguity, confessed their unknowing and yet because of their uncertainty all the more surely clung to the promises and the words of Jesus?
Together they gathered and together they waited in that one place on that day that we now know of as Pentecost, that day we now know as the birth of the Church and the day in which we now know Jesus was to fulfill his promises to the disciples and baptize them with the Holy Spirit. But the disciples knew nothing of this when they day began. Perhaps they hoped today would be the day when the Holy Spirit would arrive with its baptizing power, but they hoped that yesterday as well.
So on that day, in the unspecified place at the unspecified hour, when the Holy Spirit did finally arrive, the disciples are at first confused and unaware of what was occurring. Luke describes the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the disciples’ awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit as a developing process of awareness. If it is possible to tell a story slowly in an unhurried fashion over the course of four mere verses of Scripture, then this is exactly what Luke does here in the his second chapter of Acts.
In the text we read that first the disciples became aware of a sound, but they are unable to identify the cause of the sound or even the nature of the sound. They are forced to use simile, relying on their past experiences of known phenomenon to describe this present unknown sound and experience. What they were currently hearing sounded like a fierce and howling wind. The coming of the Holy Spirit sounded like the deafening roar of hurricane force winds rattling windows, buffeting walls, and unsteadying roofs. But even as they were hearing this somewhat unnerving sound, if not utterly terrifying, they are still unaware of what it is that is causing this noise and what has arrived.
And this simile of a howling wind is an apt one to describe the power of the Holy Spirit. As Willie Jennings notes in his commentary on the Book of Acts, the wind is by nature uncontrollable and irregular. It is sheer and raw power, but it is unpredictable. No one knows where, when, or how the wind will blow and while a wind might be harnessed for power or even movement, it certainly cannot be controlled or dictated to. The wind blows as it will and it will do so with relentless unconcern for anything in its path. The Holy Spirit comes with this raw and unbound power. God’s presence will not be tamed nor controlled.
As Luke continues to slowly recount the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit he next notes that soon after the disciples noticed the sound of the Holy Spirit, like a howling and fierce wind, they began to also see something, something so improbable, so impossibly unlikely that again they must resort this time not to simile, but now to metaphor. Something unknown and mysterious appeared in the place they were gathered and alighted like individual, self contained flames of fire upon the heads of each disciples.
And now, once the confusing sound that sounded like a howling wind and the flames of fire alighted upon the heads of the disciples, does comprehension slowly begin to dawn upon these apostles. “Perhaps this is it, perhaps this is the moment the Holy Spirit will come upon us, is coming upon us, and we will be baptized with its presence just as Jesus promised,” the disciples must have thought. Now no simile’s or metaphor’s are needed, now the disciples are aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is not wind that makes such a noise and it is not fire that alights upon the head’s of each disciple, but they very Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God – the ruah (hebrew word) of creation, the same Holy Spirit that blew across the unformed universe in Genesis 1 as God spoke and created the world into being.
Their dawning comprehension gives way to certainty as they are all filled with the Holy Spirit, as Luke recounts in verse 4. This howling wind rushes into them, mind, body, spirit, filling their bodies, their cores with the presence of God. The Holy Spirit fills the disciples as water fills an empty vessel and now they are full. Now they are baptized. And then they begin to speak.
Imagine opening your mouth to say the words which you have formed in your mind, words that you have said before in you mother-tongue, the language you have spoken since childhood. To speak your mother-tongue is to do so instinctively, habitually and reflexively. Your mind thinks and your mouth voices these thoughts audibly with words; it is subliminal; it is routine and expected. Now imagine your surprise when in seeking to perform this very task of communicating that which you have done tens of thousands to tens of millions of times in your life, as you open your mouth and hear your voice, you are shocked to hear yourself speaking a language you have never spoken before and that you may not even understand. Such was the surprise of the disciples.
Will Willimon affirms that the first gift of the Holy Spirit given to the disciples was the gift of proclamation. As the Psalmist writes, open my lips Lord and my mouth will show forth your praise. The disciples open their mouths and out pours the proclamation of God’s loving goodness, kindness, mercy and love; out pours the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. But strangely this proclamation is not in the native tongue of the disciples. But rather spoken in the native tongue of another. Luke recounts that just outside the place where the disciples were gathered was a crowd, not a crowd specifically gathered for this event as in the crowds who gathered to follow Jesus. But the kind of crowds that gather in ordinary ways during the course of the day in large global metropolises around the world. So a crowd was gathered outside because Jerusalem is a big city and there were a number of people simply living their lives in this big city going about their daily routines on this day the Holy Spirit arrives.
And this crowd, Luke notes, gathered randomly outside the place where the disciples have now received the Holy Spirit is a crowd exclusively of Jews. But these are not Jews who dwell in Jerusalem, they are Jews who are gathered from across the entirety of the Jewish diaspora across the ancient world from Parthians, Medes, Cappadocia, and Asia, and each of these diaspora Jews speaks a different language, was raised with a different mother tongue. While this crowd was initially unaware and uninterested in the fact that the disciples were gathering and receiving the Holy Spirit they soon become aware as the proclamation of the Gospel interrupts their daily lives. They are amazed to hear the good news of God spoken in their own tongue by men from Galilee. No doubt the disciples were equally surprised to hear these languages emanating from their tongues and mouths as the gathered diaspora Jews were to hear these languages.
And if the first gift of the Holy Spirit was the gift of proclamation, then Wille Jennings, my beloved seminary professor, articulates the second gift – or perhaps the primary gift of the Holy Spirit – intimacy. The Holy Spirit gifts the nascent church community with intimate friendships with each other. Again, as Jennings reflects, to speak to someone is to enter into relationship with someone. To speak to someone is to take the first and necessary step of overcoming all that isolates and walls us off from other people. To speak is to co-inhabit shared relational space and it is the seed of community. To speak is to birth friendship. And to speak in another’s language, the mother tongue of someone else, especially when that language is not your first, is a gift of respect, mutuality, and honor. To learn a language in order to share relationship, to enter into another’s story, is to show great honor, love, and respect for another person and their culture. And so the Holy Spirit’s gift is not merely proclamation in the language the disciples already know, but proclamation the births a community and relationship of genuine, authentic, and loving submission and mutuality. Just as Jesus desired to draw the disciples together by calling them to wait in one place for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit continues this work of drawing women, children, and men together into a common community and into the friendship of mutuality, respect, honor, and respect.