May 19, 2013
Speaking in Language We Can Understand
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, "Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs; we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God." So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "Whatever could this mean?" Others mocking said, "They are full of new wine." Acts 2:1-13
St. Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name and he also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke’s Gospel portrays the life of Jesus, especially his ministry, miracles, suffering, death and resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles portrays the life of Jesus in the life of his Church. What happened to Jesus would happen to his Church. The life of the Church is the life of Jesus.
Pentecost marks the birth of the New Testament Church. The Church, defined as believers in the true God and in his gospel of the full and free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, has existed since God spoke the first gospel promise to Adam and Eve just after they fell into sin. The Church has always existed on this earth. There have always been children of God, called out of the darkness of sin and unbelief, into the liberty of the gospel. But the New Testament Church received the fullness of God’s grace and power. What was taught in types and shadows in the Old Testament is now vividly revealed to the whole world. This could not have happened without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The last words of Jesus that St. Luke includes in his Gospel are these:
Behold, I send the Promise of my Father upon you; but wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high. (Luke 24:49)
Wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon you. Jesus had just given his disciples their great commission to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations in the world. But they were not to go out on their own. Don’t even try to go out on your own. Without the Holy Spirit you are bound to fail before you even begin. Just as nobody ever created his own body and soul but was rather created by God; and just as nobody ever redeemed himself from sin, death, and the devil but was rather redeemed by the precious blood of Christ; just so, no Christian ever brought himself to the true Christian faith or kept himself in it but was rather regenerated by the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.
The preaching is no good without the Holy Spirit. The hearing is no good without the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us holy. Without him we are blind and dead in sin. Without him we think the gospel is foolishness. Without the Holy Spirit we are stuck within ourselves, fixated on ourselves, working frantically to justify ourselves and failing miserably in the process.
Jesus sent the apostles. But he did not send them out relying on their own power. He promised to send them the Holy Spirit and he kept his promise. It happened on Pentecost. Pentecost was a festival of the Old Testament Church. It was fifty days after the Passover. Fifty days after the Passover was when God gave to Moses the Law from Mt. Sinai.
On the first Passover, the blood of the Passover lamb marked the doors of the homes of God’s people and the angel of death passed over each family. It was the final plague God sent to Pharaoh to persuade him to let his people go so that they could serve him. After the Passover was the Exodus. God set his people free by the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground. God formed his people for forty years in the Sinai wilderness. God gave them his written Law. God himself wrote it on tablets of stone that he gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. God spoke. His people listened. That’s how their relationship was established. God spoke. His people listened.
On Mt. Sinai, God’s voice was accompanied by fire and smoke. God gave his law. It set forth his will for the behavior of his people. If they obeyed it they would be blessed. If they disobeyed it they would be cursed. The law showed them right from wrong and it showed them their sins. The Ten Commandments stand today as the moral standard for all people and as an indictment of the human race.
Fifty days after the Passover, God spoke in fire and smoke as he gave his law.
Fifty days after Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us, God spoke again. Tongues as of fire rested over the heads of Christ’s apostles. Then they spoke. God’s voice from Sinai came in thunder and lightning. The people were warned away from Sinai. They couldn’t ascend the mountain or even touch it. When God spoke his Law he spoke of the holiness he demanded of his people. The people trembled in fear. But when God spoke on the first Pentecost of the New Testament he spoke a different message. He spoke the gospel. The people present referred to it as “the wonderful works of God.” The gospel is not what God requires his holy people to do. It is his wonderful works. It is what he has done. This is the voice of the Holy Spirit.
We need the Holy Spirit. Religion that seeks out God in human greatness is vain and self-deceived. The people who built the Tower of Babel did so to reach up to God by their own powers. They wanted to make a name for themselves. By exalting themselves they imagined that they would find God. God responded to their boastful religion by confusing their languages and making it impossible for them to communicate with each other.
Pentecost undoes the confusion of Babel. When man seeks God on his own he is left confused and bewildered. As St. Paul put it, “Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7) But when the Spirit of truth comes and reveals the saving truth of the Christian religion, he enlightens you. Homemade faith is nothing but confusion and delusion ending in despair. The true faith, the faith produced by the Holy Spirit, is the saving faith that receives what Christ alone can give.
Remember what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit? He said,
But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
The Holy Spirit teaches. He teaches peace. He teaches the peace of Jesus. This is not the peace of the law. The peace of the law depends on you. It depends on your obedience. You must obey the law to find peace with God. You must love God with your whole heart and you must love your neighbor as yourself. But you don’t. That’s why no one who depends on the law as the road to God will ever find true peace. The peace of Jesus is not the peace of the law.
It is not the peace of an ecstatic religious experience. The apostles spoke in real, cognitive languages on Pentecost. There is no hint here of a special prayer language or a super-charged angelic language that brings some sort of emotional high. Not at all! The Jews who were present to celebrate Pentecost heard the gospel spoken to them in the languages of their home towns. All of these men spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. There was no practical need for the apostles to speak the gospel in other tongues. There was, however, a powerful symbolic purpose in it. By giving the apostles the supernatural ability to speak in languages they had never learned – languages from all over the Roman Empire – the Holy Spirit made it plain that the gospel was for all people. Furthermore, by speaking God’s word in the language closest to their hearts the Holy Spirit was telling them that the gospel is not a strange message – not when you are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Of course, when you do not have the Holy Spirit the gospel is strange indeed. That a man should suffer and die in agony on a cross and rise from the dead three days later should be regarded as the “wonderful works of God” makes sense only to those who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Others think that the gospel is like the mutterings of drunken fools. Nonsense! So they say. It makes no sense. Only the Holy Spirit can make sense of it for you. He shows you in his Word how Christ’s death on the cross has made peace between God and us and how Christ’s resurrection proves our sins are forgiven.
The Bible repeatedly teaches us that God works faith in our hearts through his Word. Through Isaiah, God compares the Word that goes out from his mouth to the rain and the snow that cause the grain to grow. St. Peter writes that the gospel preached to us is that incorruptible seed by which we are born again. St. Paul writes that faith comes by hearing the Word that is preached.
St. Peter preached on Pentecost and as a result of his preaching three thousand people were born from above. Who did it? Who gives the Word its power? The Holy Spirit does. He is, as we confess, the Lord and giver of life.
We need the Holy Spirit. We don’t need the signs and wonders with which he adorned the preaching of the apostles. That was then and this is now. Some things do change. Before the Holy Spirit wrote the New Testament at the hands of the apostles, he validated their word by many wonderful miracles. As the New Testament came to its completion, the miraculous signs gradually disappeared. We don’t need the gift of speaking in tongues. We don’t need special revelations. But we do need the Holy Spirit. We need the preaching of his Word. We need the Lord and giver of life. And here he is. The Church is his greatest creation.
Many of us who love the great state of Minnesota have been deeply saddened by the recent act of defiance of God’s natural law on the part of the house, senate, and governor. To call the union of a man and a man or a woman and a woman by the name of marriage is to deny marriage. This is what the state of Minnesota has done. We Christians who live in Minnesota and love Minnesota must confess that our government has committed a serious sin against God.
But the government rises no higher and sinks no lower than the people themselves. Consider this, brothers and sisters in Christ. Where will you go, where will your children and grandchildren go, to find the truth, to be guided in the truth, to be confirmed in the truth when the culture becomes increasing godless and the forces of anti-Christian bigotry have prevailed in the public square? Where is a Christian to go?
To a church where God’s Word is taught it its truth and purity! To where the Holy Spirit’s voice sounds forth! Do not think that you can avoid the corruption of this world on your own. You need the Holy Spirit. You need him to convict you of sin. The same godless pride that led the government of Minnesota into sin is the godless pride that lies within all of our hearts. We need to hear God’s law. We need to be indicted by it, as the crowd at Pentecost was cut to their hearts.
And we need to hear the gospel. You think it’s a pastor preaching to you. He’s just the fellow standing in the pulpit. When you hear the gospel that tells you all your sins are forgiven and you are at peace with God on account of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, it is no mere man telling you this. It is the Holy Spirit. You come to church. Come with your sins, your failures, and your doubts. Come soiled by the godless world in which we live. Come to hear the Holy Ghost. He’ll make you holy. He’ll take what is Christ’s and give it to you. He’ll robe you in the blood-bought robe of Christ’s righteousness and send you home at peace with God. Where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments of Christ are rightly administered every Sunday is Pentecost. Amen