Today is Pentecost Sunday. It falls on the same day as Jewish festival of Shavuot celebrating both the wheat harvest and giving of the law on Mount Sinai. The word ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek for the 50th day, because Shavuot was 7 weeks and a day after Passover Sabbath (Lev 23vv15-16). The festival was also called the Feast of Weeks (Deut 16v10) and the Feast of Harvest (Ex 23v16) and the Day of Firstfruits (Num 28v26). The disciples would have been celebrating this festival in Jerusalem when the Spirit fell on them.
For Christians, Pentecost is the day on which the Spirit was given to the church. God’s Spirit had clearly been around before this, generally in the world, with God’s people, and with the prophets, but in some special way this marked the start of God dwelling in his people. It had been promised in the Old Testament, it had been promised by Jesus, and it marked a significant moment in the Churches history, and a fundamental shift in the way his disciples viewed what it meant to be a follower of Christ. Jesus had gone back to the Father, but the Spirit was sent to be with us in his stead.
Going back to the Ascension, Jesus had said to the disciples: I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. And after he was taken up into heaven Luke says: Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24vv49, 52). Christine pointed out in her sermon for Ascension Day how normally people are sad when someone close to them leaves. But here the disciples rejoice. Finally, they appear to have understood what Jesus was telling them.
Then, ten days later, the believers were gathered together in a house when the Spirit came. The wind and fire were classic signs of God’s presence in the Old Testament. But what other people noticed was that they started speaking in other languages, praising God so that foreigners living in Jerusalem all heard someone speaking in their own language. It attracted a crowd, so Peter stands up and explained what was going on. He started with the prophecy from the book of Joel (2vv28-32) in which God promises to pour out his Spirit on his servants.
As a red herring here, Richard Croft was talking to me a couple of weeks back about a vision he had had, and I thought it necessary to check with him whether it was a dream or a vision. Because, young men see visions, but old men dream dreams…
After Peter’s explanation of the Spirit coming, his talk has a structure that becomes the template for many subsequent sermons in the New Testament. Peter recounts the story of Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection and exaltation, and concludes with a call to repentance and baptism.
What is happening at Pentecost? Jesus had told the disciples that the Spirit was coming. “It is better for you that I go away, because if I do not go, the Helper will not come to you.” (John 16v7). God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and here we have the Son asking the Father to send the Spirit (John 14v16), and it is the Spirit who makes Jesus known.
Preparing this took me back in my own experience. When I was at school and college, the church was being influenced by the Charismatic Movement. Pentecostal churches, which had tended to be black, had long emphasised the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the Charismatics moved this into the mainstream churches – Catholic and Protestant. They talked of being filled with the Spirit – Baptism in the Spirit – and emphasised the gifts of the Spirit from 1 Corinthians 12vv8-10: healing, prophecy, speaking in other tongues, discernment and suchlike. I found this movement very helpful at the time, it led me to a much deeper relationship with God. I know others in the church found the same. Like many movements, it had a lot of positive mixed with some rather quirky, weird bits, but it did help to re-establish a recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit as a normal part of Christian life.
Things move on, and emphases change. The Charismatic movement tended to focus on the Holy Spirit and the more spectacular gifts. The Bible always talks of the Spirit pointing to Jesus, rather than calling for us to worship the Spirit separately. St. Paul recognises, and encourages, the more unusual gifts of the Spirit, but he stresses that love and action and order are far more important (1 Corinthians 12-14). So I can see why, having served as a reminder and a wake-up call to the church, the Charismatic movement has faded.
Nevertheless, Pentecost reminds us of the importance of the Holy Spirit. At the Ascension, Jesus had said to the disciples that they were to be his witnesses, but he told them not even to attempt this until the Spirit had come (until you have been clothed with power from on high). Pentecost transformed the church, sending it out into the world in a movement that has extended over centuries and continents so that we now sit here on a Sunday and call ourselves Christians. The early Christians would have said this was due to the power of the Spirit.
Christianity is not about mere belief, intellectual assent to a proposition. It is not just an acceptance of the facts in the creed, and an acknowledgement that Jesus died for us. It is not about trying hard to do good. It is about God coming to us, being with us, being within us.
Here language becomes inadequate. Many of you will know what the presence of God with you means, but it is hard to explain. It is definitely there in the Bible: The Spirit dwells in us (2 Tim 1v14), Be filled with the Spirit! (Eph 5v18). The Spirit is referred to as comforter, counsellor, guide, teacher, witness (Rom 8vv9-11, Eph 2vv21-22, 1 Cor 6v19) – all of which require interaction with us, the Spirit’s presence with us.
How does this happen? It seems to be different for everyone. Some find God in noisy worship. For others it will be through quiet prayer, or meditation. It may just be a sense of God being with us in the everyday. When Christians talk of a relationship with Jesus, it is this. Knowing God is a metaphor, because it is not the same as sitting down and talking with a friend; but it does have a similar feel. I sometimes wonder if, for those of us who have been Christians for many years, if we forget what it would be like to be without God with us.
And what if you do not feel it? It may be that you have not asked, not realised the offer is there. But I have heard many people say, ‘well this might be the case for you, but I do not feel anything’. Why this is, I do not clearly know. I do not think Jesus excludes some people and accepts others. To some extent, faith may mean acting on your belief, with the realisation of what this means coming later. C.S. Lewis talked of faith coming by behaving as if it was true, until you suddenly discover that it makes sense.
The Spirit was not given at Pentecost just for the benefit of the believers. It was to empower them to be witnesses, to help them live their lives for God. And it did, dramatically. Pentecost today is a reminder of that power, that presence of God, that is offered to us to. Overwhelmingly sometimes, quietly and almost imperceptibly at other, but to give us the strength and the comfort to bring God’s love to others.
St. John & St. Stephen