What Does This Mean?
by Timothy J. Mooney
Such few words to describe an experience beyond words! How could Luke have done that? What happened that day changed the course of history! And all it receives is one section of one measly chapter!? If I would have written this I would have…
Oh, sorry. Forgive me. I so rudely interrupted without introducing myself. My name is Timaeus. I’m from the city of Corinth in the province of Achaia. I’m a business man. A good one. I sell tools, leather goods, and dyed fabric. But that’s neither here nor there. What you need to know about me is that I was there. At Pentecost. Yes, that Pentecost.
It was more than thirty-five years ago now. I was a young man working for my father. It was the first time he let me travel with him to the Festival of Pentecost. Jerusalem at Pentecost – now that’s a sight to see. No, more than that. It’s something to be experienced! It’s like Rio at Carnival, or like your New Orleans at Mardi Gras. People of all colors, shapes, sizes, and descent, were draped in the vibrant colors of the rainbow, like a vast field of wild-flowers waving in the breeze under the Palestinian sun. It was a feast of smells and tastes: the bite of oriental spices, the sweetness of incense, the fat of tender Lebanon lamb. The market was in a frenzy and I was working my tail off, pulling out roles of fabric, demonstrating our tools, arguing over prices, and trying to communicate with strangers from strange lands. Lots of hand motions. And with all that was going on, the presence of the Roman soldiers with their sharp swords at the ready, just faded into the background. As did the rumors about some would-be Messiah named Jesus. What concern was any of that to me? I was a wide-eyed, ambitious young man in Jerusalem at Pentecost!
By the third watch of the day – I think you would call it 9:00 a.m. – the market was up to its eye-balls in business. I could barely hear myself think! Just as I was telling a prospective customer that his offer was an insult to my father and my family, the sound of a rushing wind was heard above everything else. Captivated by the sound, I followed it, drawing my money bag close to my side, just in case it was a planned distraction. As we drew close – I know this sounds crazy – I saw people with what seemed to be tongues of fire dancing on their heads. Then the surge of the crowd pushed me closer and I thought, “That’s odd.” I heard people speaking in my native dialect. And I recognized other languages as well.
What was going on here? Some kind of circus act? At first I was curious, but I quickly became confused and frightened. Someone said, “They’re just drunk.” Strong drink can lead to some strange behavior, but not this. Besides, it was too early! Drunkenness wasn’t the answer. But what was? I wanted someone to tell me what was going on. I yelled out, “What the hell does this mean?!” It just so happened that everyone else in the crowd at that moment decided to take a collective breath. My words rang out over the silent crowd like a bell. Yes, yes, yours truly is quoted in scripture by the good doctor Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. But I’m glad to see Luke cleaned up my language a bit. I found out later that it was the Apostle Peter who took my loud question as his cue. He quoted from the prophet Joel.
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophecy.
I can’t remember the rest. But I was convinced. My heart was laid bare, cut to the quick, convinced that this Jesus, was raised from the dead, and that the gift of the Spirit had been given to all.
Two thousand years separate you and me. But we’re not so different. You, too, have been convinced about Jesus. You have confessed him Lord, been baptized, and received the Spirit. Or maybe you’ve got questions about all that. But let me ask you: What does it mean to receive the Spirit? You must admit, Pentecost is hard to swallow. Surely you have questions about it. I was there, and I have questions about it! Your questions come from a 21st Century, scientific, and – post-modern I think you call it – mindset. My questions come from doubting my own memory, doubting my own life. But the questions are the same. Was there really a sound of rushing wind? Was it real fire that danced on people’s heads? Did people really speak in foreign tongues they’d never spoken before? It seemed so. Now? I’m not so sure.
But the biggest question for me is, what did it all mean anyway? What are the results? What was the outcome? My father taught me to always ask those questions and it has made me a good businessman. What was the bottom line of this outpouring of the Spirit?
You and I have heard many incredible stories about people empowered by the Spirit. So after my Pentecost experience, I expected to slay Goliaths, turn blank parchment into eloquent Psalms, exude charismatic leadership. But it didn’t happen that way. Some of the people who spoke in tongues let it go to their heads. They thought they were the only ones with the Spirit. Some became persuasive evangelists and traveled around the Mediterranean. Some became healers, their prayers and touch making others whole. But none of that happened to me. I seemed to stay the same old Timaeus. It was like that for many of us who were there at that first outpouring of the Spirit. Isn’t it like that for many of you here? No tongues of fire dancing on your heads, no sound of a rushing wind, no speaking in tongues, no special effects of the Spirit. It makes us doubt sometimes that we have the Spirit. No, you and I, we’re not so different. My question that day, still remains for me and for many of you: What does this mean?
The Spirit enables us to listen, understand, and speak the language of the heart, no matter what country you are from or what language you speak.
From as far back as I can remember, I was immersed in the stories of scripture. At bedtime, mealtime, work, and play. Often, in my boyish imagination, I would become Abraham setting out for adventure in an unknown land. Or a young King David slaying Goliath with my sling-shot. Or Elijah the prophet, commandeering fire from heaven, and vanquishing 400 prophets of Baal all by myself. As I began to live with my experience of Pentecost, I found myself going back to those old stories. I needed to find some connections, I needed to make sense of it all.
Growing up near the Mediterranean Sea, I am no stranger to the wind. It rules the sea, makes or breaks businesses, brings rain or drought. Maybe that’s why the sound of a rushing wind caught our attention that day. We always listened to the wind. In Hebrew, the word “ruach” means wind, spirit, breath. When I began to go back through the biblical stories, the wind blows throughout scripture. In the beginning, the Spirit, “ruach,” moves over the face of the waters, giving shape to all of creation. God breathes human life into existence with “ruach.” Ezekial prophecies to a valley of dry bones: Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live – and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great host. Through these stories the wind, the Spirit, has always symbolized the creative and life-giving power of God. That wind blew in a new way that day in Jerusalem: the outpouring of God’s creative, life-giving power into all of our lives.
Those stories of scripture in which I was immersed as a child? Many of them were told to me by my grandfather around the campfire at night. He loved to tell the story of Moses. Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock when something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention: a burning bush that was not consumed! Moses turned, and found himself in the very presence of God. Not long afterward, Moses liberated the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppressive hand. And when my grandfather got to this point in the story, he would stoke the campfire with his staff. Sparks and embers whirled skyward. Then he’d tell how God went before the Hebrew children in the wilderness in a pillar of fire. You can imagine the impression that made on a young boy’s mind. Just as a campfire brings the presence of my grandfather close, I came to understand that fire, throughout the scriptures, signifies the close presence of God.
I’ve slowly come to understand that the experience of Pentecost symbolized something no one saw before. The Spirit is not given only to a few, like Moses, David, and the prophets. Pentecost signifies the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. The creative, life-giving power and presence of God is in me, in you, in each one of us. It is always there, we are not separate from it, but we must pay attention to it.
The sound of a rushing wind meant the creative, life-giving power of God. Tongues of fire meant the presence of God. But what did speaking in tongues mean? I couldn’t figure that out. But my wife did. Fifteen years ago I decided it was time for my oldest son to take up the family business, just as I had taken up my father’s business. But my son came up to me one day. “Dad, I’ve decided what I want to do with my life! I want to sail the seas and become the captain of a cargo ship.” “That’s romantic nonsense, son. It’s a hard life, and you know as well as I do, that you are going to do just as I did. I worked in my father’s business and you will work in my business. It’s our heritage!” “But, Dad, it’s what I really want to do!” “Son, end of discussion. I don’t want to hear one word more about it!” “You’ll thank me later!”
I think the title of one of your old television shows says it well: “Father Knows Best!” My son was obedient, and he began to work in my shop. Begrudgingly, of course, but I knew he’d eventually be grateful. But the relationship with my son became strained. After a particularly heated discussion with my son one day, I asked my wife, “What is the matter with that boy?” Without missing a beat she said to me, “You don’t care enough about him to understand or speak his language.” “Woman,” I yelled, and then – because I’ve learned a few things in my time – I took myself to my workshop before I said something I’d regret. But her words would not leave me. She was right. I did not need to learn his youthful lingo. What I needed was to understand my boy from the inside out. To know his hurts, his joys, his needs, his desires, to know and honor his dreams. It is helpful to speak in foreign languages, but it is necessary to speak the language of the heart. To know and understand each other’s story. So we can have empathy and compassion for one another. So we can live in harmony. Thanks to my wife and my son, I understand Pentecost even more. The Spirit enables us to listen, understand, and speak the language of the heart, no matter what country you are from or what language you speak.
But then my own learning to respect what was deepest in my son had an odd effect on me. I began to ask myself, “What’s the deepest truth in me? What would the Spirit in me say and do if given the chance?” And I realized that I enjoyed working for my father and continued his business, because I loved the artistry of the tools, the leather goods, the dyed fabrics. As I began to listen deeply within my own soul, I realized I wanted to not just sell these things, I wanted to make them. And so for the past 15 years I have created art out of wood, metal, and fabric. And I have found a deeper satisfaction than I’ve ever known, and others see it in me, just as I see it in my son, when he speaks of sailing.
Earlier I said that what you needed to know most was that I was there, at Pentecost. But that’s not true. What you need to know most is that the Spirit is here, within each and every one of us. The outpouring of the Spirit is not about high emotions which I at one time expected. And it’s not about having supernatural gifts which I also at one time expected and became angry about when I didn’t get those gifts, as if somehow I wasn’t good enough but others were. No, no, no. The creative, life-giving power and presence of God empowers us to speak and do the language of the heart, this heart. And whether you live in the 1st century, or in the 21st century, that language is love. I think you have a song where the refrain says it all. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”