That first Pentecost must have been thrilling – exciting, noisy, up lifting, energising! What some of us wouldn’t give for the freedom to have a gathering like that now. But those that were there were not only excited and entertained for an hour or so but were transformed by the experience. (Acts 2:1-21) Those who only weeks before had been in hiding behind closed doors thinking it was all over were emboldened and liberated in such a way that they set the world on fire just as their hearts had been set on fire.
We often imagine Pentecost to be a Christian festival – the day the church was born. And so it became that. But first of all it was in fact an ancient Jewish festival, one of the three great pilgrimage festivals. That is, it was so important that people were encouraged to travel to celebrate it with others. Pentecost (Greek for 50th) falls fifty days after Passover. It is also known as the Feast of the Weeks, an occasion to celebrate the harvest. And as the time to celebrate the coming of the divine Law on Sinai. Legend has it that on that occasion a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation on earth. All could understand but only Israel promised to keep the Law.
All of this symbolism was no doubt in Luke’s mind as he shaped the story of what happened that first Pentecost after the death and resurrection of Jesus as the fledgling Christian community (not even yet called Christians) gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival. Indeed Luke tells things in quite a different order to John or Paul so we can assume that the symbols and the order of the story are very important in conveying what Luke understands to be the significance of this event.
So Luke describes this scene of wind and fire. The God of Sinai is present and acting in the world again. The promise of the abundant flow of God’s Spirit is being fulfilled. God’s Word, God’s Law, is being declared. The followers of Jesus gathered are the true Israel. This is emphasised by there being Jews from every corner of the empire present. And later in chapter 10 the same blessing becomes available to all people of other nations – Jews and Gentiles.
This is a scene of confidence and hope. Only weeks before these same disciples hid behind closed doors afraid and decimated by the death of Jesus. Now there is a gifting with the Spirit. Jesus has finished his earthly ministry and gone from them but the Spirit now given is accessible to all. They were not to be left with just a memory of a good and godly man but they are given his continuing presence. The Spirit, the Presence of God, which we celebrate in Jesus, is present in human community. And we have the beautiful description in the gospel of John of Jesus breathing the Spirit into the disciples.
And so it can be for us. Pentecost is not just a time of looking back to when the church was born but it is time that requires us to look forward, even in this strange uncertain time. The same Spirit poured upon the people gathered then is available to us now. Our world may be uncertain in different ways but no more so than way back then.
So of all that excitement way back then what remains these two thousand years later for us of any great relevance? I wonder if the true miracle of that day was not that each person present experienced the Spirit of God in their own language. Now we know that in a lingual sense this is part of the story but spiritually I find it electrifying and affirming that each of us is told that we can expect to hear God in our own language. Not simply at the level of Hebrew, Greek or English, Swahili, Farsi and every dying dialect of every overlooked tribe and people but that we can hear God in the language that our own particular hearts and minds and spirits can discern.
Now this is wonderful and thrilling if it is true. That means that we can each hear God in our own way: for some of us this includes in the language of karri trees dripping with rain and in glimpsed bird flight and song; for some of us in ancient chanted and danced words of the great wisdom traditions; for some of us in the life long study of the nuance of ancient words that surfaced in another culture and recorded in another language and yet still ringing true; for some of us in the journaling of our dreams and the whispers that come to us in the silent pauses of our prayers of petition and praise; and for some us even in our early morning fears and tears. God speaks to us where we are, through who we are and through what is going on in our worlds – internal and external.
And if this is so then it is both wonderful and dreadful. Wonderful that all that we are and could be is precious and being called forth into fullness and life. And for the same reason we might be full of dread because if the divine one takes us this seriously then where are we to hide? And let’s admit it, many of us want to hide at least some of the time and have an excuse for not being who we know we are called to be. I’m not talking about reasons why we cannot or do not want to be who what others dictate we should be but that human tendency to avoid our dreams and our calling for fears sake.
And of course if it is true that God speaks directly to us in our own language then the church, and every other organised orthodoxy, might get a little – or very – nervous because truth is a commodity as well as a freedom. A commodity (or a 'thing') that people want to control.
Now while I humbly apologise for some of what the church has done and not done, I do not apologise for being part of the church, indeed I celebrate my belonging, because the church, at best, does have a great and beautiful and liberating gift at it’s core. And that gift is the good news that throughout human experience - including all the truly dreadful and shameful and hopeless and boring experiences – God, the divine source of all life and love, has ever been reaching out to us and speaking our name with beckoning love. And we in the Christian church believe that God reached out most surprisingly and perfectly by becoming one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And when Jesus the resurrected one ascended and left us then he gave us the gift of belonging in spirit in a deeper and expanded way to God our Source and our destination.
God I believe comes to us as we are and where we are. And I believe that God calls us by our true name – beloved one. And our true name affirms our preciousness, our growing and our fading strengths and gifts, and our eternal spirit that neither waxes nor wanes.
If you take nothing else from this annual celebrating of the coming of the Holy Spirit please hear that God loves you beyond whatever boundaries you thought there were, and the Spirit of God seeks you out in truth and beauty and urgent love where you are right here and right now and recruits you to be a conduit of that truth and beauty and urgent love for the sake of our broken yet utterly loved world.
Even so, come spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Beloved.