It’s a common gag in slapstick movies and viral videos: unwittingly, someone catches their hair on fire, and the people around them watch in astonishment until they finally realize what’s wrong.
But this is the image of the church’s birth at Pentecost. Here is how it is told in Acts 2:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel. (Acts 2:1-16)
Peter goes on to relay the scriptural background of what is happening, quoting verses from Joel and the words of King David. And the once skeptical onlookers are moved:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:37-42)
Those once bewildered and afraid of the fire of the holy spirit, yearn to join it once they understand it.
This is the birth of the church: a room full of people with their hair on fire. And the observers watch with doubt, confusion, and concern: “Are they drunk? Do they realize that their hair is on fire?”
But we know that this was a different sort of fire. Not a fire that burns the flesh, but the fire of the burning the bush variety, the fire of the holy spirit: inspiration, the revelation of God, eureka.
Suddenly, everything that normally divides us fell away: cultural and language barriers toppled, inhibition extinguished, and gender roles dissolved. All spoke, men and women, and though they spoke in their own language, everyone understood one another, because they were speaking the language of God.
This was the church as it was meant to be: undivided by the factors that we have invented to divide ourselves, unhindered by social norms that keep people in their “rightful place,” undaunted by cultural divides that seem unbridgeable to others.
The scripture says that the onlookers were “cut to the heart,” and asked simply, “what should we do?” They simply had to be a part of the what they were witnessing.
This Pentecost, the Church should strive to look like a group of people with their hair on fire. To the outside world, the church should seem crazy, bewildering, maybe even frightening, in its devotion and obedience to God’s ways of justice and love, rather than the world’s ways of selfishness and hard-heartedness.
“This corrupt generation,” as Peter puts it, doesn’t always understand what it means to love our neighbors, let alone our enemies, but the church must.
Our world doesn’t always understand the way of nonviolence or what it means to love radically, but the Church must.
The world doesn’t always put relationship and community over rules and law and social norms, but the Church must.
The world doesn’t always put care for God’s creation and his created beings over corporate and personal profit, but the Church must.
These are the things that the holy spirit empowers us to do if we just go out and do it. And we might look crazy doing it. When we act as God’s agents of peace and justice, when we become vessels of his love for the world, when we refuse to participate in the world’s ways of selfishness and cruelty, we might look to the world like people with their hair on fire. But when the world sees that this fire is the fire of God, who is love, they might just want to join us.
Emmett Eldred is a senior Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter@DunkerPunks and on Facebook.
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