By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
What transformed Simon Peter, last seen denying his discipleship, into a bold, courageous public speaker and soon-to-be Jesus jailbird? Luke’s exciting, even outrageous, story of the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit is always at risk of being domesticated as “the birthday of the church.” But heard in the context both of Luke’s two-part narrative and the wider scriptural “religion of creation” story, the Pentecost experience can and must be reclaimed as one of the opening salvos in the confrontation between the Good News of Jesus and the religion of empire.
Pentecost, a.k.a., shavuoth (Heb, “sevens” or “weeks”; see Deut 16.10), was an annual pilgrimage feast that coincided with the early grape harvest. Deuteronomy mandates that all males among YHWH’s people come to Jerusalem for this and the other two annual pilgrimage feasts, Passover (pesach) and Booths (sukkoth). It is in this context that Luke paints his vivid portrait of the gathered pilgrims encountering “a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2.2). This powerful Spirit-invasion initiates an astounding experience: the people gathered from around the Mediterranean all hear the disciples speaking in their home languages.
Much has been written about the connections between Luke’s scene and Genesis’ story of the tower of Babel (Gen 11), where YHWH breaks up human linguistic unity to prevent further imperial developments. We’d like to approach the story from a different angle: the four major ways that the consuming presence of the Holy Spirit liberates Jesus’s disciples from fear and toward holy, prophetic speech and action.
Let’s start with the question with which we began. Jesus rightly predicted that when the pressure was on, bound by fear of imperial consequences, Simon Peter would three times deny his relationship with Jesus (Lk 22.34). Luke draws out the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction with three, interrelated denials from Peter:
“I do not know him.” (22.57)
“I am not” a disciple (22.58)
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” (22.60)
Each of these responses expresses an element of what Peter, in his fear of the authorities, denies. Yet, less than two months later, here he is, an uneducated, small town fisherman, speaking up publically, and accusing the very same authorities of the crime of putting Jesus to death (2.22-23). It is the Holy Spirit—the very same Spirit that spoke through the prophets and was present at creation—that has banished Peter’s fear and filled him instead with powerful words pronounced with conviction and authority.
Let’s pause for a moment to ponder this radical reversal. Nearly all people are terrified of public speaking, even privileged, educated people. And yet Peter, with no education, and the recent death of Jesus to remind him of what happens when people stand up to challenge the Jerusalem authorities, proclaims the Word of the Lord for all to hear.
We’ve seen this Spirit-power regularly over the years and decades, including in courtrooms where disciples find themselves called to witness for acts of interference with empire. So often, it is the least likely persons who offer the most powerful testimony, speaking not from theological or legal erudition, but from Spirit-filled hearts and minds. Throughout Acts, Luke shows us this power at work, not just in Peter, but also in Stephen, Paul and others.
Another experience that the Spirit’s presence banishes is fear of scarcity. Running like a thread through the Scriptures are stories of people afraid to share food, clothing or other material necessities because of the prospect of “not enough.” From the manna message in Exodus 16 through prophetic texts like Isaiah 58 to the call of John the Baptist in Luke 3, “trust in YHWH” has always meant not an abstract notion of “believing in God,” but the practical, daily practice of receiving God’s earthly offerings of food, water, and shelter as divinely provided gifts. Although the lectionary slices Acts 2 in half, Luke’s full story culminates in the Spirit-filled community embodying their trust in God by selling their properties and offering the proceeds to be shared among all as needed (Acts 2.42-47). Luke’s Jesus constantly hammered home his call to inclusive and abundant table fellowship, which now, aided by the empowering Spirit, the people are finally ready and eager to practice. How often we seek to justify our own clinging to material stuff by appealing to the false notion that there is “not enough” for all? But when filled with the Spirit, we become eager to keep the gift flowing, from God to us to others, knowing that there is enough for all.
Acts also shows that the Spirit empowers us to dispel our fear of the perceptions of others when we feel led to express the Spirit’s presence through disinhibited words and actions. We see this in the very next story in Acts, where a man unable to walk from birth is, after the word and touch of Peter, found “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3.8). Walter Wink once remarked that until he began working with his dancer-wife, June, he was “an atheist from the neck down.” We need to dance, to sing, to use our bodies in wild and free ways that inspire others to live fully as part of the joyous creation itself.
Movements like the Carnival de Resistance (see photo above from the 2015 Festival of Radical Discipleship in Oak View, CA) are making wondrous, magical, “holy fools” out of otherwise staid thinkers and writers across the land. Jesus was utterly unafraid to use his body in “unapproved” ways, such as touching lepers and women, allowing his feet to be kissed and washed, and even commanding his disciples to wash each other’s’ feet. Luke reports that he was so disinhibited as to be accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” (Lk 7.34).
Sue, as a spiritual director, and Wes, as a teacher of college students, see daily the effects of a “Christianity” that excludes bodily expressions of faith and joy. On the one hand, committed “Christians” often have no sense of sacred sexuality; on the other, the denial of the body’s dynamic relationship with God and life leads so many to reject “Christianity” altogether. It’s more than past time to unleash the Holy Spirit on our constricted sense of embodiment.
Finally, Peter’s speech, quoting the prophet Joel, anticipates that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2.17). Yet we are so often afraid to experience our dreams and visions because it might make us seem “weird” to others. This has practically become an article of “secular faith,” as we see in our current presidential discourse. Someone like Bernie Sanders—or Martin Luther King, Jr.—are dismissed as “impractical dreamers.” Yet, as the ancient Proverb says, “where there is no vision, the people run amok” (Prov 29.18, our translation). Throughout Acts, Luke shows how God communicates via visions and dreams that take us beyond reason into the realm of revelation, aka “apocalyptic.”
Again, this is a thread with its original in Genesis, where a man from Ur (Abram) heard a mysterious call to leave his urban world behind, to Exodus, where a murderer on the run (Moses) encountered YHWH in a burning bush. It is so much easier to critique “what is” than to envision “what could be.” But the very core of Jesus’s own work is his vision of what he called “the reign of God,” a vision he hoped would be “caught” by his disciples. We have never needed visionaries and holy dreamers more than we do today.
Pentecost, therefore, reveals the availability of God’s power to lead us, in the words of the Marty Haugen hymn, “beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” May we, like those first disciples, receive the incoming rush of the powerful Spirit/wind/breath that blows away our fears and empowers us on the Way of radical discipleship.
 “Lyrics from “Shepherd Me, O God,” © 1991Marty Haugen.