Evangelism at Pentecost and beyond


Scripture: Genesis 11: 1-9; Acts 2: 1-41

Peter’s evangelism at Pentecost set the Christian era in motion. Unlike Paul and Barnabas, who reached out to Gentiles, Peter set belief in Jesus Christ squarely in the arc of what Christians call Old Testament Judaism.

The Tower of Babel and Pentecost

The lectionary compilers made today’s readings like a pair of bookends to sacred history. The myth of the Tower of Babel attempts to explain why people speak different languages. In the story, humanity tried to reach God by building a tower up to heaven. God could not allow that to happen, because,“That’s only the beginning of what they might get up to,” said God. So God scattered all the people across the world and made them speak different languages. Now they could not understand each other, and gang up on God. The New Testament story overturns the Tower of Babel story. On Pentecost Day it was as if everyone could speak the same language and understand each other. It restored the dream of unity. In the words of the old hymn, Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways: “Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one.”

I described the Ascension story last week as the TV cliffhanger between “Season 1″ [Luke’s Gospel] and “Season 2″ [Acts of the Apostles]. The disciples couldn’t possibly have known how things would turn out – that the promised Holy Spirit would really arrive. Luke told the Pentecost story very dramatically. It was like the sound of a great rushing wind. It fired up the disciples (literally).  They were so excited that it was as if a tongue of fire sat on each of their shoulders. They were so enthusiastic that people outside understood what they said, even though they spoke many different languages.

The Holy Spirit coming with fire makes another pair of bookends

We find the opening bookend right at the beginning of the Gospel story. John the Baptist had told the crowds that he baptized them with water, but someone coming after him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And so at Pentecost repeats those same motifs.  The Holy Spirit came as if with tongues of fire. Luke tells us that Pentecost fulfils the earthly ministry of Jesus.

What did Peter say to the crowd?

Our video presentation took the story further than the lectionary, which stops when Peter gets up to address the crowd [Acts 2: 21]. But it does not tell us what Peter actually said. Peter’s excitement was because he and the other disciples had experienced the Resurrection personally. At first, people didn’t believe him.  They thought he had been drinking. Peter responded, “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning.” Some years ago, I was stopped by the OPP for a “sobriety test” one Sunday, on my way to church. I don’t think the officer would have just said, “OK, you can go,” if I had argued that it was only a quarter to eight in the morning.

Peter spoke so persuasively that eventually there was a mass baptism. It was like an altar call at a revival meeting. But you need to have a Bible with explanatory footnotes to understand what Peter was doing. He quoted from several pieces of Hebrew Scripture. The crowds, remember, were all Jewish. At that time, Christianity (though the name didn’t yet exist) was part of Judaism. The Apostles were a somewhat off-beat group of Jews, who considered that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. As an evangelist, Peter had to convince the crowd that Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were compatible with mainstream Judaism.

The people in the crowd spoke different languages, because they had come to Jerusalem from across the Roman Empire for the festival of Shavuot.  Shavuot celebrated bringing in the barley harvest, which had been planted at Passover. The harvest at Shavuot fulfilled the agricultural work begun at Passover.  Likewise, the Christian Pentecost fulfils Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Peter’s evangelism at Pentecost

In modern language, we would say that Peter evangelized the crowds. Coincidentally, the speaker at our Clergy Conference this past week [Bishop Stephen Cottrell] spoke in part about evangelism – bringing people to Christ. Very few people have a sudden conversion experience, like Paul did on the Road to Damascus. Most often the journey and the time between first encountering Jesus’ message and committing to a faith community is long.  It often takes 4-5 years. We shouldn’t think that one conversation with our unchurched neighbour will bring him or her to church next Sunday. Indeed, Bishop Cottrell said that the question, ‘How can we get more people to come to church on Sunday?’ is almost irrelevant.  We should stop asking it.

We have to walk beside people on their coming-to-faith journey. Bishop Stephen used the analogy of the walk to Emmaus, which we read a few weeks ago. When the two disciples encountered the stranger they were going home, away from Jerusalem. The stranger didn’t say, “Hi there, I’m the resurrected Jesus.” He asked, “What are you talking about?” Their reply shows that they knew the whole story. Jesus was a mighty prophet. They had thought that he was the Messiah. But the chief priests arrested him and crucified him. Yet that very morning, some women reported a strange story.  They couldn’t find his body had disappeared, but they saw angels in its place.

Just like Peter at Pentecost, Jesus on the Road to Emmaus explained Scripture. The disciples finally understood who he was when he broke bread in the same way as at the Last Supper. Thus the Emmaus story shows that the two disciples gradually came to faith. Jesus walked beside them.  He answered their questions, which led them to faith.

Pentecost: graduation day for the disciples

After Pentecost, the disciples were n longer Jesus’ students. Now, they went out on their own to spread the Gospel message. Significantly for us here this morning, they took the ‘Jesus message’ to all the known world.  That is unlike the Gospel stories which take place entirely in the Holy Land. St. George’s exists today because Paul and Barnabas managed to persuade the Jerusalem Church that followers of the Christian ‘Way’ did not need to convert to Judaism. The energy of the new movement was found principally in those Gentile converts.  It is radically different from Peter’s evangelism at Pentecost.

An Apostle is “someone who is sent out”

The Latin Mass ended with the words, “Ite, missa est” which means “Go, the dismissal is [made].” The response is, “Deo gratias”: “To God [be] thanks.” The word “mass” for the Eucharist is actually derived from the word “missa”. We use almost the same formula for our own dismissal each week. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We respond, “Thanks be to God.”

Every Eucharist is like Pentecost, because we are “sent out” each time, like the first apostles. Our task is to embody to the best of our ability the communal spirit of Pentecost – let me call it caring and sharing – and the evangelical excitement of those first apostles.  They took the message of Jesus into the world, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit. So at the end of this service, “Go out in peace to love and serve the Lord!”