A pastor was having a difficult time reading the book of Acts because
she kept thinking about the imperial context in which it is set. How is
her/our understanding of the story changed if we keep in mind that
Jerusalem falls well within the bounds of the Roman Empire?

the disciples ask Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the
kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), we remember that Jesus’ Jewish
followers were longing for a time of self-rule and religious-cultural
freedom. Given this reality, it makes sense that Peter interprets the
events of Pentecost in terms of the prophet Joel.

uses language of hearing, waking up and drunkenness—all motifs that we
see reflected in the Pentecost story. “Hear this, O elders, give ear,
all inhabitants of the land!. . . .Wake up, you drunkards, and weep. .
. lament. . .be dismayed. . . is not the food cut off before our eyes,
joy and gladness from the house of our God?”( Joel 1:1-20)

words remind me of Jesus teaching the disciples to pray, “Give us this
day our daily bread.” This wasn’t just a prayer for spiritual bread;
these people knew about trying to find bread in a place of high
imperial taxes and rampant poverty.

In the Pentecost story,
scorners guess that the people miraculously speaking and prophesying
are drunk. In Joel’s prophesy, however, the drunkards are the ones who
haven’t noticed that their land has been invaded by another nation. In
Acts, the “drunk” disciples are prophesying salvation and liberation
with the rejoicing of their tongues, as King David did in praising God
(Acts 2:26).

The disciples’ drunkenness is not a drunkenness of denial but a euphoria of hope. What comes to them as divided tongues actually draws together
people who have been scattered in diaspora. The miracle of Pentecost
happens as they both speak and hear about God’s powerful deeds. God
rushes in with wind and flame to fill the entire house, but then bursts
those house bounds by touching the crowds, which represent the larger
“house of Israel,” with the power of understanding.

They hear
and are dismayed. “How is it that we hear in our own native language. .
.what does this mean?” Miraculously, the divided tongues bring together
those who have been divided. (Compare this to the prophecy in Joel
3:1-3.) It’s helpful to read this Pentecost story in its entirety,
going beyond the bounds of the lectionary verses and ending with
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty
that God has made him both Lord (ruler) and Messiah (anointed and
chosen), this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

humans crucify, God resurrects. Though humans divide and dominate, God
communicates. God has the last word, and the word is wild. It changes
everything. It rebuilds broken community. It breaks boundaries and
enlarges the house. It makes possible understanding where before there
was not understanding.

Then, as Joel puts it, justice
prevails, and “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall
flow with milk” (Joel 3:1-3, 18). That is the “glorious day” of the
Lord that has the disciples euphoric with hope. They begin to live it,
breaking bread from house to house and sharing their goods with glad
and generous hearts.

Nanette Sawyer

Nanette Sawyer is associate pastor for discipleship and small group ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

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