What Does Pentecost Mean?
How many times have you had a conversation with someone where they were talking extensively about things that you didn't understand? But then, when you realized you didn't grasp the core concepts of what was being discussed, you felt too embarrassed to ask. There are a few ways out of that situation. Maybe you keep listening, hoping that you'll catch on. Maybe, if it's not work- or family-critical, you hope it won't be something that comes up again after this. Or maybe, you swallow your pride and ask the questions you should have asked, "Ok, before we go on, could we back up to what you said before? What does that mean?"
That's a solid Lutheran question. Those of you who went through Luther's Small Catechism as children or adults will remember that repeated question, "What does this mean?" It accompanies each of the Ten Commandments, each of the parts of the Lord's Prayer, each article of the Apostles' Creed, and so forth. Luther's goal in writing those short explanations to those sections of Scripture or of the Christian church's confessions is to make sure that we didn't miss the core concepts of the faith. He hoped that we wouldn't just nod along, oblivious to the true meaning of God's Word, but dig in to understand what God has said and promised on a fundamental level.
Of course, Martin Luther was not the first person to ask that question. We have it here on Pentecost, some 1500 years before Luther worked. The people gathered around the apostles that day and saw and heard some dumbfounding things. The sound of a wind blowing with no actual wind, tongues of fire over the apostles' heads, and these mostly uneducated men speaking in many different world languages that they had never studied. So many asked the question everyone there was thinking, "What does this mean?"
"Pentecost" is the Greek word for fifty. It was a Greek name for the Feast of Weeks outlined in the Old Testament because that festival occurred fifty days after Passover. This Jewish festival was one where they spent time thanking God for the early harvest that had just come in.
The account before is not the one and only Pentecost, but it is the first Christian Pentecost. This festival is why godly Jewish men from every nation under heaven were in Jerusalem. Undoubtedly there were more permanent residents of Jerusalem there to see and hear these things. Some people had come to this festival alone; perhaps others had come for Passover and stayed for Pentecost.
We don't know, but we do know that people from all over the world gathered in this one central location. But why do we observe this festival? Is it anything more than the birthday of the Christian church? As we see this account freshly again this morning, we're left asking, What does this mean?
Firstly, Pentecost means Jesus' work on earth is done; salvation is ours. Jesus is no longer preaching, teaching, and healing. He's finished his work. His work wrapped up at his resurrection. He had suffered and died to pay for the sins of all people, and his resurrection was the seal of victory, the assurance that the Father had accepted his sacrifice. He spent time proving his resurrection to his disciples so that there was no doubt of his victory. At his ascension, Jesus made it clear that he was passing the torch of his proclaiming work to his disciples. And Pentecost is the beginning of that work.
Pentecost also means Jesus' promises are trustworthy. As we consider the crowd gathered there on the first Christian Pentecost day, we can't help but remember what Jesus' directions were. We heard last weekend at his Ascension that Jesus told his disciples they would be his witnesses, "beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47). Here it is. Here's the start—a crowd of people worldwide to hear the gospel message. The Holy Spirit allows the confusion of Babel to be undone, at least for a time. And as these people went to their homelands, some would undoubtedly share what they had heard from Peter and the others. This message would spread from Jerusalem to the surrounding regions and worldwide.
But there's an even more significant promise here. Jesus had told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to them. He would come to be their comforter, to remind them of everything that he had said, to speak through them the words God had for them to share. Here Jesus fulfills that promise too. The Holy Spirit transforms these men from nervous people hiding in locked rooms to boldly proclaiming the good news about Jesus to the world. The Holy Spirit turns Peter's impuls iveness into confidently sharing Jesus' forgiveness with all.
That, too, is what Pentecost means. Pentecost means that God wants others to know what he's done for them. It was never the point for God's free forgiveness in Jesus to be a secret, known only to a select few. It was never the point that only the disciples, or only the Jewish people, or only those living in the years that Jesus did his work would know the salvation God provides.
No, from the first promise in the Garden of Eden, God's work was always meant to be shared. For generations, the temple in Jerusalem stood as a beacon to all nations to come to hear God's Word from those to whom he had given it. Now, at this first Christian Pentecost, the focus shifts, and now instead of the temple being a beacon drawing people to the truth, we are to be the beacon for the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us. Christians are sent into the world to share this truth everywhere.
And this, then, is what brings us to today. For Pentecost's shift in direction is the reason that any of us are here, that any of us know anything about Jesus at all. Pentecost means that we can be confident of the Holy Spirit's power for us. We are here today because the Holy Spirit has worked faith in our hearts. That faith clings to Jesus as the certainty of our eternal life. The Holy Spirit makes us ever-confident that Jesus' work is completed, that Jesus' work is for the whole world, and that Jesus' work is even for us. Even if we feel all alone in the world around us, we are never alone. Our ascended Savior is ever with us, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom he promised and sent, is with us as well.
The Holy Spirit may not always come with outwardly impressive signs among us today. But that doesn't mean that he is silent or absent. He is active in our Bible classes as we gather around His Word to learn and grow in our faith. He is active in our worship, as God's Word is proclaimed to us and the sacraments are given to us. Here the Holy Spirit brings his comfort. Here the Holy Spirit reminds us of everything that Jesus has said and done for us
And just as the Holy Spirit was with Peter and the other apostles as they began this massively important work, so too he is with us today, as we live our lives to glorify him at the grocery store, as we invite someone to come to church with us, as we explain ever-so-briefly the core of our Christian faith to a curious coworker, Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He's there, working through us. As he uses us to point people to Jesus, the Holy Spirit's work means that the words Peter shared from the prophet Joel are true., "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
What does this mean? This whole scene at the first Christian Pentecost day, the whole of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, means one eternally important thing: we will be with our God and Savior forever! Thanks be to God! Amen. Come Holy Spirit. Stir us up, shake us up, and thrust us out of this building into the world of those who do not know of Jesus' work. Salvation can be yours.