Well, it’s finally here, Pentecost – the Eighth Sunday of Easter, one of the four great baptismal feast days of the Church year, the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the Church. This is a wonderful day, a joyful day – but it’s probably not a day you starred on your calendar and have been anticipating for weeks; that’s not surprising.
First of all, the world around us can’t even pronounce the word Pentecost, let alone understand what it means. That’s OK, Jesus prepared us for that; we heard him say in today’s Gospel that the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, because it neither seems him nor knows him. So if the world can’t know the Spirit, we’re not going to have any help in paying attention, getting excited about or looking forward to this day.
A second reason you may not have starred Pentecost on your calendar is the fact that the Holy Spirit is hard to pin down, often unexpected, can’t be put in a box. We have so many names and titles for the Spirit: Comforter, Advocate, Wind, Guide, Spirit of Truth, Counselor, Intercessor, Convicter of Sin, Witness, Teacher, Spirit of Life, Breath of God – and Jesus told us earlier in John’s Gospel that “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
There is an apocryphal account of a Japanese man struggling to come to an understanding of the Holy Spirit when he first encountered English missionaries more than a hundred years ago: "Honourable Father, very good; Honourable Son, very good; but Honourable Bird I do not understand at all." I think a lot of us can resonate with this sentiment – the Holy Spirit is hard to predict and often surprising; no wonder it may seem hard to get excited about Pentecost. And yet, the account of the giving of the Spirit in the Book of Acts is tremendously exciting!
After Jesus’ resurrection on Easter day he appeared numerous times to the disciples in his new resurrection body over the course of forty days. Just before the Ascension, Jesus’ return to heaven, he told the Twelve to stay in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power from on high – not to return to Galilee. So for the next ten days the small band of Jesus’ followers continued to meet, to pray together, to worship God. They chose Matthias as a replacement in the circle of the Twelve for Judas who had betrayed Jesus, and they waited for whatever would happen next.
And then on the Jewish Festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, the Spirit arrived with power and swiftness. Shavuot in ancient Israel was the final thanksgiving for the grain harvest, seven weeks after Passover. It was also the celebration of the giving of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, by God to the People through Moses on Mount Sinai, and so anyone who could make the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to do so, to give thanks to God for the gift of the Law and to renew their covenant with the Lord. So Jerusalem on Shavuot/Pentecost was filled with faithful, observant Jews from all over the Empire; Jerusalem was abuzz with activity and people and worship and celebration.
And as the disciples were gathered in prayer on that day, a the sound of a wind came and blew through the house, the energy of God filled them so intensely that it looked as though flames of fire rested on each person’s head, and each one began to speak and praise God in languages they had never spoken before. This all must have gotten pretty loud and boisterous, because people in the street heard the noise and began to gather in a crowd; and then they began to recognize their own languages being spoken, telling of God’s great deeds of power – not exactly a calm, quiet, meditative group. It seems like the disciples’ prayer meeting must have spilled out into the street, because people in the crowd began to accuse them of being drunk.
It was then that Peter and the leadership circle stepped forward and began to make it clear that what was happening was what had been spoken of long ago by the prophet Joel: that the Lord would pour out his Spirit on all people – young and old, male and female, slaves and free – and they would prophesy, speak with direct and intimate knowledge of the goodness and glory and purposes of God. Jerusalem had probably never seen anything like it!
This is what the disciples had been waiting for; this is what Jesus had said would happen – the coming of the Holy Spirit to strengthen, guide, energize, enliven, unite, and counsel that small band of Jesus’ followers. The Spirit set them on fire with spiritual fire, holy energy, so that they had the power to tell others about what God had done in the death and resurrection of Jesus – and even more; the spirit gave Jesus’ followers the power and the divine energy to carry out Jesus’ mission even more fully – to heal the sick, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, give sight to the blind, to bring healing and wholeness and restoration and new life to God’s people and God’s creation.
And we are still living in the power of the Spirit – for the Holy Spirit was not just given once, way back in the first century, like a dose of time-release medicine that was supposed to last for two millennia or more. The Spirit is given to each one of us in our baptism, and affirmed and strengthened in each one of us at Confirmation – that’s how it starts, but there’s so much more, and those words are far too neat and tidy. The Holy Spirit blows through our lives when and how God directs, bringing new life, new ideas, new energy. The Spirit bursts open the fences and chains we try to place around God, filling us with joy and peace and intimacy with God, just in the way that each one of us needs, according to the way the Lord made each of us.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the Holy Spirit is that we are each given Spirit-inspired gifts that are unique to us, but they are given for the good of the whole, for the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ – each gift and each person working in cooperation and interdependence with one another. And all of it is so that God’s mission of loving the world and it’s people and bringing God’s Kingdom to fruition on earth as it is in heaven, can be done through us and with us as God’s partners.
So, this day, this Pentecost, ask the Spirit to show you your gifts, and how you can use them, and how God can use you to be his partner in bringing joy and wholeness to the world. And then, don’t keep it to yourself! Tell someone about it – tell your spouse or your friend, tell the person who sits in the pew next to you, tell me, tell someone who needs to hear what the Holy Spirit is doing in you and through you for the glory of God. Happy Pentecost! Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
May 19, 2013