29 May Pentecost: A Season of Renewal and Hope
We are entering the season of Pentecost, a season in which the church recalls and celebrates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit following Jesus’s resurrection and ascension. Pentecost was originally the name of a Jewish festival held on the fiftieth day (hence the name Pentecost) after Passover. In Hebrew the festival was called Shavuot and marked the conclusion of the grain harvest (See Lev 23:9-32). Pentecost was an acknowledgement and celebration of God’s provision, a grateful recognition that God who is the giver and sustainer of all life has responded again to his people’s prayer for daily bread. Today it is celebrated among Jews to commemorate the giving of the law. It is important to remember this connection with Israel’s story, for in recalling it we are reminded that Christianity is rooted in Israel’s story and that the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob, Naomi and Ruth, has been at work throughout history, giving and sustaining life and forming a people to be his witness.
At the time of Jesus, people came from far and wide to celebrate the Pentecost festival. In Acts 2:9-11 we are told that they came from Egypt and Mesopotamia, from Cappadocia and from Rome. The festival was thus a cosmopolitan gathering of the world’s peoples who came to give thanks for the harvest, for the annually renewed blessing and provision of God.
In amongst them, at the first festival after Jesus’s resurrection, was the small community of Jesus’s disciples. According to Acts 2:15, they numbered about 120. These first ‘believers’ were, I imagine, still somewhat awestruck by what they had recently witnessed. Having been traumatised by the experience of Jesus’s crucifixion which brought to an end their hopes that Jesus was the longed for Messiah, the disciples then had the joyous and overwhelming experience of discovering that he had been raised from death. The giver of life and of all that sustains it had overcome the powers of sin and death and had confirmed decisively his promise that his people shall have life. Not even the grave now stands in the way.
But what were the disciples to do now? They had heard the commission that Jesus had given them: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matt 28:19-20). But, other than replacing Judas by installing Matthias as one of the twelve apostles, they had not yet devised a strategic plan. ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, the risen Lord had said to the disciples, and before they knew it, the nations had come to them. Acts 2:5 confirms the point: gathered in Jerusalem, there were Parthians, Medes, Elamites Asians, Libyans and many more. On account of the festival, they had been joined by visitors from Rome, by Cretans and by Arabs (Acts 2:10). God, it appears, had his own strategic plan. It involved, however, not merely the gathering of people from all nations, but also the gift of his own presence through the Spirit so that the disciples might be given the gifts and the inspiration to proclaim the news with which they had been entrusted.
As the festival crowd thronged through the streets of Jerusalem, suddenly there came a mighty wind from heaven, which filled the house where the disciples were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and they began to speak in other languages. The commotion quickly attracted a crowd, and many who had come to Jerusalem for the festival heard the disciples speaking in their own languages. Empowered by the Spirit, the nondescript, largely uneducated bunch of Galilean disciples were speaking in the languages of all the nations who had come to Jerusalem for the festival (Acts 2:9-10).
The reactions of the crowd were various: amazement, bewilderment, and the sneering scepticism of those who claimed that the disciples were filled with new wine. There is, of course, an irony here! The mockers may not have known it, but new wine is a biblical symbol of abundant life.
Amidst the commotion, the apostle Peter got to his feet and began to explain what was going on:
“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:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your 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 prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'” (Acts 2:41-21)
Just as Jesus, following his resurrection, explained to the disciples on the Emmaus road that the Scriptures, and so all of Israel’s history, were now to be seen in a new light on account of what had happened in Jerusalem, so Peter, here and in the remainder of his speech, links the dramatic outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost to the whole sweep of human history, beginning with creation, and looking forward to ‘the Lord’s great and glorious day’ when God will finally bring to completion his purpose for the world. What has happened here today with the coming of the Spirit is the working out, Peter proclaims, of God’s plan for history as a whole. It confirms and brings to fulfilment God’s purpose made clear at the dawn of creation that the creature shall have life. We are not talking here of mere biological existence, but of abundant life–life lived in communion with the Creator.
Let me explain. The word spirit is the same as the word for breath or for wind. And so we read of ‘a mighty wind’ coming upon the disciples. In Greek the word used is pneumatos; in Hebrew it is ruach, in Latin spiritus and in English, of course, the word spirit is the root of words like inspiration and respiration. Spirit, breath—the word does double duty in all these languages. And so Peter’s sermon about the pouring out of God’s Spirit takes us back to the story of creation itself, when, first of all, a mighty wind, a ruach, blew over the face of the deep; God’s Spirit was at work bringing forth life, and bringing order from chaos. Later, in the account of creation in Genesis 2, we read that ‘God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). Again, the same word is used: God breathed into the man’s nostrils the ruach or spirit of life.
When Peter quotes the prophet Joel who says of God, ‘in the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’ we should be attentive to the echo of Genesis. God is bringing about his new creation, setting the world again on its trajectory toward fullness of life in communion with God. God is breathing new life into his people. As was made clear at the beginning of Israel’s story, this fullness of life, this blessing, is intended for all nations. It is intended for ‘all the families of the earth’ as Genesis 12:3 puts it.
Now it is clear why Peter interprets what happened at Pentecost as the breaking in of the last days. ‘The last days’ signify the final realisation of God’s purpose for creation. Through the pouring out of his Spirit at Pentecost, God is giving to his people a foretaste of how things will be at the end, of how things will be when God’s purposes are realised in full.
What will life be like then? Acts 2 gives us plenty of clues. In the last days those things that divide us will be broken down. Language and race and cultural difference will divide us no longer. People will speak to each other in language that they can understand, and no more will there be suspicion and enmity between the peoples of the earth. Pentecost is a foretaste of that day, an anticipation of things to come. We discover further when we read on in Acts that all who believed devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). They gathered together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all who had need (Acts 2:44-45). This is what God’s new creation looks like: through the transformative work of the Spirit we are enabled to share in intimate communion with God, and to praise him freely; the walls that divide us will be broken down; the needs of all will be met. These are the kinds of thing that happen wherever the Spirit is at work.
All of this is contingent of course, as Peter goes on to explain, on the death and resurrection of Christ. It is Christ who overcomes death and is raised to new life. Because he acts in our place, and on our behalf, we too are released from death and given new life by the Spirit. The apostle Paul makes the point by saying that Jesus is the first born of a new creation, a forerunner of the new humanity that God fashions from out of the old. This overcoming of death and the beginnings of a new creation are represented, of course, in the sacrament of baptism. The water of baptism is a symbol of cleansing; it is also a symbol of drowning, of dying with Christ, so that we may be raised to new life. As John the Baptist declares, Jesus baptises not only with water but also with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt 3:11). For this reason, the early church considered the season of Pentecost to be an especially appropriate time for believers to be baptised. The English term ‘Whitsunday’, which is an alternative name for Pentecost Sunday, is derived from the image of the white garments worn by the newly baptised.
As I noted earlier, not everybody present on the day of Pentecost understood the reality that was before their eyes. Some were sceptical and resisted any suggestion that God was at work in the events that took place that day. These disciples of Jesus are drunk, they said; they’re mad; they’re out of their minds. That reaction to the work of God is still prevalent amongst us. It may be that for us too there are times when we have been unable or reluctant to see the presence of God among us.
The church has been entrusted with the message that the God who is the creator and sustainer of all things does not live in remote isolation; he is not an impersonal, dispassionate, and unapproachable power. Rather, the God who made all things stoops low to meet us, comes among us in the form of a servant, bears our burdens, and reaches out to us in love. This God is ever present, breathing his own life into us, and coaxing us through his Spirit to enter into the abundance of life that is his purpose for us.
That still takes some believing. It’s easier to dismiss the gospel, to look upon new life with scepticism, to put it all down to drunkenness, or to a kind of delusion. Disbelief has evidence on which it can base its claims. But there is also the evidence of people whose lives have been changed by the breath of God’s Spirit. There is the evidence of those whose lives are lived in such a way that the love, the grace, and the mercy of God appears through them. Such lives are the Spirit’s gift. They are lives in which the Spirit is at work. The season of Pentecost is a reminder that God neither desires, nor expects, that we should live our lives without him. It is a reminder that fullness of life is possible only when the life-giving Spirit of God works within us, transforming our hearts and minds, and gathering us into the loving communion that Jesus enjoys with his Father. We are not able to live such lives in our own strength, by drawing only upon our own resources. But we are enabled to live such lives; we are enabled by God’s presence with us through his Spirit.
Pentecost is an opportunity to celebrate the harvest. It is an opportunity to celebrate the bountiful provision of God. For the Spirit of God is still at work giving hope to the broken-hearted, interceding for us when in shame or in sorrow we are lost for words, and opening our eyes to the reality of forgiveness so that, trusting ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, we may be set free from our bondage to sin and death.
That’s the evidence that draws me to worship in this season of Pentecost; for in our lives too, in amongst the disappointments, and the failures and the wounds of our own history, there are signs of God’s blessing. In our lives too the Spirit of God has been at work, fashioning his new creation. Sometimes we wish that God would move more quickly, and more obviously, but the Spirit does not always blow like a mighty wind. Sometimes the Spirit blows quietly and softly in order to do his transformative work among us.
When Peter gets to his feet at the first Pentecost and explains the mysterious wind and the speaking of the disciples in languages not their own, he asks his hearers to think of the big picture, stretching from the very beginnings of creation to the fulfilment of God’s purpose in the last days. See what is happening now in the light of that big picture, Peter says, and understand that God does not leave us without his aid, but breathes into us the Spirit of new life. What you see before you, Peter says, is a foretaste of that day when all flesh shall see it together, and God’s purposes will be complete.