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Pentecost Sunday, Cycle A

The Holy Spirit, the church, and outreach. Historically the church has also commemorated its origins on this festival. Sermons on the Holy Spirit and the church are especially appropriate for this festival.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
This is a hymn to God the Creator, with praise for his providential interventions. It has similarities to the Egyptian hymn to Aten. The verses considered focus on the multiplicity of creatures that God has created (vv. 24-25). God is said to have subdued all the things of the sea, including the monster of chaos, Leviathan (vv. 25-26; cf. 79:12-17). Providence and the creating role of the Spirit [ruach, also translated "wind"] are stressed (v. 30; God as the one who gives food and other good things [vv. 28-29]). All living things depend on him. These themes could also be related to the ecological agenda or to justice. The lesson concludes with praise of God’s awesomeness (vv. 32ff).

Application: The Psalm affords several sermon possibilities. Sermons on creation, providence, and the unity of all living things in the midst of their diversity are legitimate directions. Care for creation and human unity also legitimately emerge as themes (Social Ethics) as well as the Spirit of God’s life-giving and sustaining role — a construal of the Trinity most suggestive of Pentecost and its word of the Spirit giving life.

Acts 2:1-21
We could not begin the Pentecost season without a report of the first Pentecost from the second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). We note again that there is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case, the author’s stress on the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so an effort to validate Paul’s ministry reflects in this lesson.

The attention given by the book to recounting the gift of the Holy Spirit to the faithful (and the origin of the church) at Pentecost is hardly surprising given the author’s concern to stress the work of the Holy Spirit (Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p. 221).

Jewish tradition held that the law was given on the day that Christians commemorate as Pentecost, fifty days after Passover (Leviticus 23:15-21). Luke often says that all faithful were together in order to underscore unity of the community (2:44; 4:24; 5:12). This theme is emphasized in this lesson. The gift of the Holy Spirit (baptism of the Holy Spirit) had been promised by John the Baptist (Luke 3:16). Reference to the Spirit’s appearance as tongues of fire (v. 3) is reminiscent of references to the tongues of fire issued by Old Testament writers to suggest God’s presence (Exodus 19:18; Isaiah 66:15-16, 5:24). Luke reports that John the Baptist had promised a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16; also see Jesus’ promise in Luke 24:49). The report of speaking in other languages and the ability to understand each other (vv. 4-11) is a reversal of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and another mark of the unity of the community. This experience of actually understanding foreign languages may be different from the Pentecostal experiences reported by Paul about the Corinthian church, which seems to have manifested not in foreign languages but in ecstatic, incoherent forms of speech (1 Corinthians 14:1-33). The skepticism of some, accusing those who had the experience of the Spirit of being drunk (v. 13), is a reference suggestive of the Pentecostal experience noted in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Consequently, the first Pentecost seems to have been an ecstatic experience.

Peter is reported to stand to defend the validity of the experience that those filled with the Spirit are not drunk (vv. 14-16). His sermon, based on Joel 2:28-32, follows (vv. 17-21). It teaches that the pouring out of the Spirit on all (even on slaves and women, v. 18) is a mark of the messianic age. The sermon based on the Joel text underlines the eschatological nature of the text. Peter then proclaims Justification by Faith (v. 21).

Application: The text invites sermons on the church (its multicultural unity which counteracts how the Tower of Babel experience has divided us), on the Holy Spirit (as a sign of the end times in which we live [Realized Eschatology]), or about charismatic/Pentecostal experience (see the discussion above of the different kinds of manifestations of tongues in the New Testament).

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
This is likely one of the authentic epistles of Paul written by the apostle from Ephesus to a troubled Greek church that he had founded (Acts 18:1-11). Relations had become strained between him and the church, largely over doctrinal and ethical issues that were dividing the flock. In this lesson Paul offers teachings on the varieties of spiritual gifts. Noting that before Christ the Corinthians had been led astray to idols that could not speak, Paul observes that no one speaking by the Spirit curses Jesus. Only by the Holy Spirit can we proclaim that Jesus is Lord (vv. 1-3). (Jesus is Lord is one of the earliest creedal affirmations of the faith [2 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:11].) The same Spirit gives the variety of gifts, and the same Lord gives varieties of service, and the same God activates varieties of activities (vv. 4-6). To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (v. 7). If gifts do not build up the common good, they are apparently not gifts of the Spirit. Various gifts [charisma] are listed — it is with Christ. In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews and Greeks, slaves and free (v. 13).

Application: In this lesson we are afforded opportunities to proclaim that all we have, all our gifts, are given by God through the Holy Spirit. We are no longer our own as a result, for all we have belongs to God (Pneumatology and its implications for living the Christian life [Sanctification]). Another possibility is to proclaim the unity and harmony of all the faithful (Church) or to discuss charismatic/Pentecostal experience (see the discussion above in the analysis of the first lesson concerning the different manifestations of tongues in the New Testament).

John 20:19-23
We note again the well-known fact that this is the last of the gospels to be written, probably not until the last decade of the first century, and so not likely by the apostle John but by a follower of his. These verses, accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and the beginning of the story of Doubting Thomas, embody the gospel’s primary concern to encourage its readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). This focus on faith is evidenced by the fact that the word “believe” [pisteuo] appears far more in John than in any of the other gospels.

The text begins by reporting on a gathering of disciples on the first Easter, locked in a house for fear of the Jews. The risen Jesus enters and gives the faithful a peace greeting. The disciples rejoice (vv. 19-20). He came to those with weak faith. Jesus is then said to commission the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit as well as the power to forgive and retain sins. There is a reference to Jesus “breathing on” [enephusao] his followers, the same phrase used to describe the communication of natural life (Genesis 2:7). The author thereby expresses that what the risen Jesus does is to give new life (vv. 20-23). The role of the Holy Spirit among the faithful in the church, a central Johannine theme (16:1-8), receives testimony.

Application: The text affords an opportunity to proclaim the power of the keys, the church’s mandate to offer forgiveness to the world. This gift is given despite our weak faith (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). The nature of faith as trust could also be explored. Regarding the role of the Holy Spirit, so central to John’s gospel, the sermon might develop the theme noted in the preceding paragraph about the life-giving character of the Spirit, how it is as essential to the Christian life as the air we breathe (Pneumatology and Sanctification).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen