Here we are – Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:26-36; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; and John 20:19-23), the culmination of the Easter season. All that journeying through the wilderness, all that dying and grieving, all that celebrating resurrection and then exploring what it means for us to be resurrection people, and then letting Jesus ascend to the heavenly realms. And now, all this excitement and chaos – all this Spirit. What for? What now? Beyond the excitement and the colourful re-enactments with banners and triumphant hymns is the challenge of St Paul that the gifting of the spirit is for the common good.
Pentecost is such a deep mysterious, spirit filled celebration that there are many directions we can go in. You may like to consider some of the directions I have previously explored.
In 2020 I explored some of the Hebrew connections and focused on hearing God speak to us in our own language.
In 2021 I explored the different ways in which the spirit comes to us.
In 2022 I asked how we can celebrate the birth and mission of the church at a time of such disunity.
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. It is also known 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 fledging 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 speaks of 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 a time of confidence and hope and looking forward. The same Spirit poured upon the people gathered then is available to us now.
The church has gone through many cycles of courage and confidence, of relative unity and sharp divisions, of community leadership and apparent irrelevance. We continue to be called to be prophets and servants, wordsmiths of love and listeners to the unlovely, surrenderers to mystery and proclaimers of a certain hope. This is not only, or even primarily, a private responsibility and challenge. We are called corporately to dream and have visions and prophesy.
As Paul reminds us there may be a variety of gifts but the one Spirit and we are all baptised into the one body. We are gifted with the Spirit not simply as individuals for our individual benefit but as the community of Christ so that we might become blessings to one another and to those beyond our circle. The spirit given at Pentecost, breathed into disciples through the ages including us, is for the good of the communities in which we find ourselves.
If we, the church took this seriously, we would be less worried about our theological and cultural differences, and the energy we currently spend on criticising our brothers and sister in Christ could be spent on defending those who are going under the rising waters of climate change or imprisoned for loving the wrong other; we would have energy to spend seeking out those who are starving and those who appear to have it all but are dying of despair and over indulgence; we would have energy to write hymns of praise for a new age and rejoice in our tradition.
The natural conclusion of Easter, which is all about the activity of God in Jesus Christ, is Pentecost – the gifting of the Spirit as we are given the great commission to go and make disciples of others, to announce the good news of God’s love to all. We are given the Spirit so that we might bear fruit and be a blessing to others. We are given the Spirit for the common good.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come stir up the ember in us with your Spirit.