Tongues of Fire and Stuff

The following is the manuscript of a teaching given by Leah at Haven on April 12, 2015.  It's the first of a series on Acts, called "Now It's Your Turn".

I believe I was a sophomore in college when it happened.  I had only been really following Jesus less than a year at the point when I was invited to attend my first church conference.  The college group I became a part of was loosely affiliated with a Vineyard church, and that church was having a weekend conference.  Attending the church on Sundays, let alone for a whole weekend, made me nervous.  It was so different from the experience I’d had of church growing up that I didn’t know what to do with it. But I trusted the group’s leader, and he told me that this conference was going to be really powerful in terms of people encountering God, so I went.

I didn’t have a framework for much of what I saw that weekend.  People were getting prayer and being physically and emotionally affected in lots of ways.  I saw some people shaking; others even falling on the ground.  This was very new to me  The only churches I’d attended before were very proper, zipped-up affairs.  This seemed weird, maybe even kinda scary. I didn’t know how to understand what I saw, and I was beginning to wonder if I was really in the right place, when a gray-haired older man, probably in his late 50s/early 60s, gently approached me.  He seemed kind and grandfatherly, and he told me that he thought God had told Him something to share with me.  “You’re an artist,” he said.  “You love performing.  But God wants you to know you don’t have to perform for him.  He sees you exactly as you are.  He sees what others don’t see.  He sees you as a carefree little girl dancing in front of Him and He loves you so much.  He knows you’ve been hurt and he wants to heal the places that have been broken so that you can have the freedom of that little girl that He sees when he looks at you.”  

Well, that got my attention.  I was overwhelmed.  This man knew nothing about me.  I’d never seen him before, but the words he shared rung freakishly true.  They spoke to exactly what was going on with me, and all my questions about whether I belonged there were silenced as God used this man to speak directly to me and assure me that I was where He intended me to be.  I was touched, encouraged in my faith, and felt more free to be myself before God because another person was available to being used by God in a unique way with powerful effect.

Well, I start today with this little story because it touches on the theme of the series we’re kicking off today, which I’m titling, “Now it’s your turn.”  Thus far, we’ve spent our entire 2015, particularly during Lent, looking at the gospel of Luke.  Luke has given us an intimate, and hopefully instructive look at the life and ministry of Jesus.  We’ve seen the narrative ark of the story of a man whose birth was miraculously announced, through his pronouncement of his mission as an adult at a synagogue in Nazareth, through his years of itinerant preaching and healing, and finally through the climactic final week of his life that ended with his death, and three days later, his stunning resurrection.

But though we finished Luke’s gospel, we haven’t actually finished the story Luke was telling. You see, Luke, unlike the other gospel writers, didn’t stop his historical writings with the story of Jesus.  He went on to write a whole other book; a companion text which is meant to be read following the gospel.  That book is called “the Acts of the Apostles” or just “Acts” for short. At the beginning of this book, Luke does a pivot and the pivot is this:  the first book, the gospel of Luke, is primarily focused on the life and work of the incarnate Jesus.  The second book pivots the focus to the life and work of Jesus’ followers.  And in that pivot, we see the beginning of an expansion project that would overtake the globe.  Jesus ministers to a narrow group of people, almost exclusively Jews at one discreet moment of time, but those he trains he then empowers to continue the work and spread out to every corner of the earth. 

In Acts 1 he tells them right before ascending back into heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”  He’s predicting an event in which they’ll receive something unique, something powerful.  And once that event happens, he seems to say they will spread out beyond their borders to impact the world in which they live.  It’s an exciting charge.  

Well, that brings us to our main text for today, one of my favorite stories in Acts, in fact in the entire Bible.  So let’s look at it in Acts, Chapter 2.

2:1 Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. 

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” 12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine! ” 

Let’s stop there for now.  Already this story has taken a crazy turn, and I want to note a few things before going on.  As the story goes, these Jesus followers are praying together on a Jewish holiday called Pentecost.  The festival had been known in previous eras as the Feast of the Harvest, because Jews presented the first-fruits of their wheat harvests there.  “Pentecost” is a Greek word, transliterated into English, that means fiftieth. This feast fell on the fiftieth day after Passover. It was one of the feasts at which all the male Jews had to be present at the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. Jews who lived up to twenty miles from Jerusalem were expected to travel to Jerusalem to attend these feasts. Because Pentecost typically fell, as it does today, in May or June, traveling conditions then made it possible for Jews who lived farther away to visit Jerusalem too. So at this unique time, there are Jews from around the known world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest.  

And on that holiday while Jesus’ followers are praying and waiting for this thing Jesus said was gonna happen, they hear this wind and the way Luke describes it, tongues of fire come to rest above each of them.  Now, that’s a crazy image.  Just trying to wrap our heads around it actually happening is pretty challenging. 

I think the reality is that Luke is using human language to try and describe something that is really beyond ordinary comprehension.  So the language and the imagery are strained to capture something so unusual.  The closest he can come is that they looked like “tongues of fire”.  But what happens next is even more bizarre.  Everyone starts praising God in a foreign language.  And these aren’t just some kinda gibberish nonsense languages, these are actual human languages that were previously unknown to these Jews living in ancient Palestine.  And we know this because they make such a ruckus that the tourists hear it and gather to see what the fuss is all about.  And when they do, they begin to realize what they’re listening to.  Folks who shouldn’t be speaking their native languages are speaking them.  The effect is so strange that it causes the cynics in the bunch to sneer and claim that these guys are drunk.  Let’s go further in the story:

14 But Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and addressed them: “You men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, know this and listen carefully to what I say. 15 In spite of what you think, these men are not drunk, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel: 

17 ‘And in the last days it will be, ’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people,
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, 

and your old men will dream dreams .
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy .
19 And I will perform wonders in the sky above
and miraculous signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and clouds of smoke .
20 The sun will be changed to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes .
21 And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved

Skipping ahead a bit, Peter continued to preach the story of Jesus and how the Scriptures pointed to him as the coming Messiah.  He ended with these words:

“…36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” 

37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” 40 With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” 41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. 

So Peter stands up and starts preaching, reminding folks that not only is it too early to really assume these guys are drunk, but that wouldn’t make any sense, because they’re speaking actual languages, not drunken babble, so something else must be going on.  And after preaching a mini-sermon about who this person is that many of these same Jews ganged up on and crucified, folks hearts are touched and three thousand people become followers of Jesus that day.

What are we to make of this?  Well, it’s a meaty story with a lot we could look at, but I want to focus on just a few things.  At the heart of this story is the introduction of a new character in the Biblical story.  Many Christians would come to see it eventually as the Third Person of the Trinity, but at this point when this day happened, Jews and even followers of Jesus didn’t have that kind of theology yet. The Holy Spirit had made appearances throughout the Old Testament, but not enough that anyone really new what to expect on this day.  Jesus had given his followers a clue that something was coming, but even they were likely in the dark as to what it would look like.  But the way Jesus had explained it, it would be important and it would be good.  Before he dies, Jesus says something shocking to his followers. “You know what? It’s actually better for you that I leave.”

“But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you.” (John 16:7, NLT)

Can you imagine if you were a close friend to Jesus? You spend three years of your life with him everyday. You watch him do unbelievable miracles. If you ever have any question about your life, you can always knock on the tent and say, “Jesus, I was kind of wondering about this.” Or, “Gee, things in my life aren’t really going so well. Any thoughts?” Or even “Could you pray for me, Jesus?”

He’s there. He’s physically right there. And his answer is yes. He’d love to talk. He’d love to pray. In fact he’ll show you some amazing things and he’s going to invite you to take your place in this amazing adventure. Can you imagine? 

And then he comes to you and he says, “You know what? I’m going away for good, and it’s going to be better for you that I leave.” That, I think, would probably be a pretty hard case to make. How could it be better for them that he leaves? And his pitch is: “I’ll tell you why it’s going to be better. It’s because, unless I leave, the Holy Spirit can’t come. And that’s what all of human history has been about. Leading up to a point where people can experience God in this unique way.  And so, once the Holy Spirit comes, these benefits that you’ve been getting from me, you’re going to get on the inside. Because, even with me physically present, you still haven’t received the Holy Spirit to remotely the degree that’s being offered to you.”

So clearly this Holy Spirit is a big deal.  And as we look at the Book of Acts in this series we’re starting, it’s going to get a lot of play.  But what do we learn about it from this introductory story?  I think there are a few important things that have real relevance for us.

First, the Holy Spirit comes with power.  I don’t know about you, but strong winds - tongues of fire, people speaking languages they’ve never spoken before, these are not every day occurrences for me.  These communicate that whatever is happening is something dynamic, something transformational, something with real supernatural power. 

When Jesus was baptized, something similar happened to him.  He was with John the baptist, and as he came out of the water, the gospel stories say that the Holy Spirit came out of heaven in the form of a dove and flew down and landed on Jesus, and the voice of God spoke in booming tones: “This is my Son, with whom I take great delight.”  And immediately after this encounter, Jesus went into the desert, resisted temptation for forty days, and then began his ministry, which was filled with the power of God being demonstrated and released on behalf of others.  So the Holy Spirit seems to have a pattern of coming in powerful ways, at least in the Bible.

But what about today?  Should we expect this kind of power today?  

John Wimber was an interesting character.  He was a musician and music producer of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll generation in the 1960s when, on the brink of a failed marriage, he had a dramatic encounter with God that rocked him and his wife, Carol, and changed the direction of their life.  They both became followers of Jesus, leaving behind many of the trappings of their very secular, rock and roll life.  

Well, not long after, John and Carol visited a church.  At this point John had, on his own, spent considerable time reading the gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Following the service, John approached the pastor and asked him:

“So, when do we do the stuff?”

“The ‘stuff’,” said the pastor. “What’s the ‘stuff’?”

“You know,” John replied, “the stuff in the Bible, like healing the sick and casting out demons. The stuff!”

“Oh,” replied the pastor. “We don’t do the stuff. We believe they did it back in biblical days, but we don’t do it today.”

With a rather confused look on his face, John could only say: “And I gave up drugs for this?”

What John had just been introduced to was a concept known in the theological world as dispensationalism - basically a belief that the signs and wonders of the New Testament were for a specific era or dispensation of church history, but they didn’t happen anymore.  However, even as a young Jesus follower, John sensed this wasn’t the whole story.  He began to dig deeper theologically and experiment with experiences of the Holy Spirit, and began to see amazing things happen.  John Wimber ended up becoming a key leader in a mini-revival that took place in the 60s and 70s often called the "Jesus People".  It started in Southern California with lots of young hippies coming to faith, often as they experienced the Holy Spirit in tangible, powerful ways.  Eventually John became the catalytic founding leader of the Association of Vineyard Churches, which has built churches around the globe that make space to experience God’s Spirit in fresh ways.  It was in a Vineyard church that I came to faith and grew in ministry, as is true for many of our friends who are a part of this little church family we are in called Blue Ocean, and we’ll always be influenced for the better by the heritage we bring from the Vineyard; a heritage of openness to partnering with the Spirit to do powerful stuff.

So what does it look like today when the Spirit comes?  If we shouldn’t necessarily expect tongues of fire, what might we see?  Well, I’ll just share some thoughts from my own experience.  Sometimes this power comes in the form of physical sensation.  I’ve seen times where the Holy Spirit seems to be present in a room in such a way that groups of people experience it physically, similar to the story I shared about the conference at the beginning.  In situations like that, a lot of folks feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in a way that makes their bodies respond.  So some people shake (either a little or a lot), some people sway a bit.  Some folks it’s something small, but their eyelids flutter.  Their breathing slows or speeds up.  Maybe they feel a warmth or a sense of deep profound peace rest on them.  Some get tingles, shivers, that kind of thing.  Other people may see something more dramatic, they might even fall down.  That has happened to me a couple of times.  It generally doesn’t,  but a few times I’ve been in a particularly relevant powerful prayer time, and people have laid hands on me, and all of a sudden it felt like I was being sat on by something and I just couldn’t stand under the weight of it.  It wasn’t really scary, it was more a sense that whatever was happening to me, I needed to just surrender to, and sometimes that required a physical surrender.

For some folks, the coming in power looks like physical healing.  I have heard lots of stories over the years, and have seen some crazy things with my own eyes in this department.  Body parts become realigned.  Unhealthy lungs restored to full health.  Masses inexplicably removed.  All of these can be demonstrations of the Spirit’s power.

Often the presence of the Holy Spirit makes it easier for folks to hear the voice of God, whether through internal nudges, pictures, or words or sometimes full on visions.  Sometimes these are things people feel like God is speaking to them personally.  My story from last week about sensing that God wanted me to go to school at Northwestern was one of those.  Other times, they might have a sense that God is using them to speak some encouragement to someone else, like the gentleman at the beginning who shared a word for me.  Either way, these are more examples of the way God’s presence can come with power today.

Now while we talk about the powerful element of the Holy Spirit, it’s worth mentioning that the Holy Spirit doesn’t come in power just to shock people or impress them or give them some high.  That’s not the point of experiences with the Holy Spirit. At some people experience things more dramatically than others, and that’s ok.  It’s just part of how we’re wired.  But it’s not about having some cool high with God.  The tongues of fire came because God wanted to do something through those Jesus followers, and that kind of power was necessary to make it happen.  So the day of Pentecost, what was the Spirit doing?  It was giving the gift of languages.  And this brings us to our second point about the Holy Spirit that we gather from the story of Pentecost:  The Spirit of God is multi-lingual, and multi-cultural.

Why the gift of languages?  This is a fascinating point to me.  On the one hand, it’s easy to say that this is about communication, but it’s not quite so simple.  In this era, people throughout the known world had common languages.  Specifically, at this period of the Greco-Roman empire, Greek was the lingua franca, or common language.  This is why Peter can address the crowds and they all understand him.  He’s speaking Greek.  It wasn’t that these Palestinian Jews needed the gift of languages in order to communicate with folks from all over the world who were gathered there.  There was something deeper, more nuanced, and I would argue, more important going on.

When the Spirit of God came that day and caused people to miraculously praise God in languages that were foreign to them, it went beyond pure communication.  By translating praise to all of these native tongues, the Spirit of God was breaking cultural barriers.  The Spirit of God was affirming very diverse people groups.  And He was doing it by communicating not through the only language people understood, but by choosing the language of their native cultures.  He used the language not just of their minds, but of their hearts.  The languages they first spoke as tiny children.  The languages of their dreams.  And to hear the praises of this God of the Jews proclaimed not in Hebrew, not in Aramaic, not even in Greek, but in their native tongues would have been a profound experience.  These are the folks who are the non-majority culture amongst Jews.  The burden of the cross-cultural work for inclusion in the people of God is on them.  And in one fell swoop as the Spirit of God comes and brings worship in every cultural expression, a new era is born.  God is saying to each person gathered, “This move of God, this expansion of his family, this new day that’s dawning, this thing God is building, this includes you.  You are my people, Parthians.  You are my people, Medes.  You are my people, Elamites, and residents of Mesopatamia, and so on and so on and so on.”  I think the reason Luke gives us such an extended detailed list of people gathered is because he gets how revolutionary this is.  The family of God is no longer just about those in Jerusalem, or Judea.  This is a whole new day.  It is now a global phenomenon.  And God’s spirit is doing a work of translating his good news, translating his worship, to every cultural language.  Because God takes the initiative to speak to the language of our hearts; to the language of our dreams.

The Holy Spirit comes with power.  The Holy Spirit is multi-cultural.  And there’s a third point I want to tease out about the Holy Spirit today from the Pentecost story: the Holy Spirit empowers all Jesus followers for Jesus’ ministry.  Peter, in his sermonette, points to a prophetic text from Joel.  This was an apocalyptic prediction when it was given.  Joel imagined an end-of-time period when God’s spirit would come in an unprecedented way.  You see, in his era, God’s Spirit came very occasionally: to anoint a king, to dedicate a temple, or to give God’s messages to a prophet.  But this was a once-in-a-century-or-two kind of phenomenon.  The idea that God’s Spirit would come in a way that it would come on everyone - all of God’s people; the young, the old, the male, the female -  this was a revolutionary vision.  And this is exactly how Peter interpreted what he was experiencing as the Spirit came at Pentecost.

“And in the last days it will be, ’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

You see, when Peter looked around at what was happening, when he felt the rush of wind and saw the tongues of fire, when he felt his body overwhelmed with God’s presence, and he felt his mouth begin to utter strange sounds, something clicked in his brain.  He realized, "Oh my gosh, this is it.  The end is now.  What Joel foresaw centuries before is happening.  God’s spirit is being poured out on all people.  It’s not just for the religious elite. It’s not just for the learned.  It’s not just for the twelve who were set aside by Jesus to lead this whole thing.  It’s for everybody."

Beginning with that crazy Pentecost, Jesus was doing a new thing, empowering all of his followers to do the crazy kind of things he did - to heal the sick, to give recovery of sight to the blind, to bring freedom to the captives, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  Jesus kicked it off, but now he is sending his power and presence to dwell with and work through his followers.

John Wimber had a lot of very quotable phrases that have had profound influence in Vineyard circles.  And one of them gets right to the heart of this point: “Everybody gets to play.”  Everybody gets to play.  Every follower of Jesus is invited into Jesus’ work of ministry.  We all play a part.  We all do the stuff.  We all get to play.

This is the reason that a lot of leaders of churches or faith communities from traditions like ours tend to opt for the title of “pastor” verses “minister”.  Pastor means “shepherd”.  It’s a leadership term.  Someone who cares for a flock, or in this case, Jesus’ flock or his chuch.  Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and as a pastor, I’m trying to follow in Jesus footsteps - to protect my sheep and lead them, with Jesus, where he’s taking them.  But to say I’m a "minister", while it's not incorrect, it could set up an unhelpful expectation.  Am I the only one who does the ministry of Jesus?  Is that a job you have to go to seminary and be ordained to do?

I think that when we look at the early church, including stories like this, we have to say “no.”  Everybody gets to play.  The ordained and the unordained.  The seminary trained and those who are still figuring out which end is up in their Bible.  The ministry of Jesus is for the whole Body of Christ, the whole gathering of his followers, and if you’re following him, you should expect the Spirit to empower you and include you in that work.  Everybody gets to play.  My old pastor in Evanston liked to drive this point home regularly to his church by asking the congregation on occasion, “Who are the ministers of this church?”  And the people would respond, “We are.”  We are.  We all are.  Everybody gets to play.

Now that doesn’t mean everybody plays the same part.  That’s where the whole body of Christ image comes in - each of us is a different part of Jesus’ body, but we’re working together.  As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians:

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11, NLT)

We see that when the Spirit comes, He gives a diversity of spiritual gifts.  None of us should expect them all.  We need to work together, to be most effective, sharing what we have.    So some of those gifts might be one of these: 

  • Faith: the ability to believe for something where nothing exists
  • Administration: the ability to see the different gifts around the room and say, "you do this", and "you do that".
  • Helps: a behind-the-scenes person who sees needs and meets them 
  • Teaching: the ability to communicate clearly the concepts of God
  • Leadership: the ability to rally folks around you
  • Healing: the ability to pray for the sick and see them healed frequently
  • Miracles: the ability to believe the impossible

The point is -  this is what Jesus was talking about in the beginning, when he told them to wait for power to come.  When he told them it would be better for them for him to go, so he could send his Spirit.  He wanted them to experience joy and fruitfulness and see the world impacted for the better.  How? By Jesus followers being filled with his presence and power and gifting and be released to bring new life and hope and joy and yes, Jesus himself, to the world around them.  He wanted to see those cultural barriers broken.  He wanted to see his good news contextualized.  And he wanted his followers to be the bridge builders.  So that people would experience the good news of Jesus in the language of their hearts, in their cultural context, with their own unique lens.  And, Haven, this is needed today in the Bay Area as much as it was in Palestine 2000 years ago.  

I believe that the church that the hyper-urban, globalized, postmodern era needs is a gathering of Jesus followers that can speak a lot of different kind of languages.  Not just native tongues, but the dialects of every sub culture.  Every people group.  Jesus is building bridges and inviting in folks across racial divides, across language barriers.  He’s coming to artists, and students, hipsters, and baby boomers, tech geeks, foodies, folks on the left, folks on the right, and he’s looking to communicate to each through his followers the good news of the life he offers in the languages they speak.  The words that speak to them.  It could be through teaching. Through TED talks. Through music.  Through social media.  Through friendship.  Through food.  There are all kinds of means and all kinds of languages and Jesus is inviting and empowering all of us to play a part in this transcultural translation project and experience Jesus there.  

The question is are we willing to get in the game?  Are we willing to be equipped?  To be empowered and to play a part.  This is what we’re going to be talking about over the next several weeks as we listen to Jesus’ invitation to his followers in Acts, as he asks them, and us, “Are you ready to get in the game?  Because you've seen what I'm about.  Now it’s your turn.”  Amen.