Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17
Today marks the end of the Easter Season, we have remembered and celebrated the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and 10 days ago we celebrated His glorious ascension into heaven. In today’s reading from Acts, we see a big shift in the behaviour of His disciples. After the crucifixion, they had locked themselves away, hiding in fear and not really knowing what would come next. Pentecost sees them in the same place, but with a very different way of thinking. They have met with the risen Lord and spent 40 days with Him. Before His ascension Jesus had instructed them to wait, He has told them that an advocate will be sent to them who will guide them in all truth, to glorify Him. So, here we find the disciples in one place, devoting themselves to prayer and waiting for what Jesus has promised! At that time in Jerusalem, they were celebrating one of 3 pilgrimage festivals. It occurs 50 days after the sabbath of Passover and is called the festival of the weeks (Leviticus 23:15), the day of harvest, Shavuot or Pentecost. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word pentekostas which means 50 and the festival is a time of thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest. Every Jewish male was required to go to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices at the temple. Just as it was at the time of the Passover and Christs crucifixion, Jerusalem would have been absolutely packed with Jews, from many diverse backgrounds.
As the believers are all together, they hear a sound like a rush of violent wind, it is not wind but as so often is the case when us humans speak about God, we do not have words that come close, we can only use the words we have that describes thing we have experienced and can understand. God is much bigger and more powerful than our words! What happened that day of Pentecost is rich in symbolism and shows a fulfilment of scriptures, it is weighty with references to both the Old and New Testament and makes Acts possibly one of the most exciting books in the Bible – as we read Luke’s words, it is hard not to get swept away imaging ourselves as part of the story – which indeed we actually are! Throughout the Old Testament there are times that wind is used to describe God’s presence, either as a sign or symbol. Ezekiel 37 tells the story of the prophet’s vision of a valley of dry bones and when the breath of God enters them, they come to life and stand on their feet. They were reborn by God’s spirit. Likewise, the Pentecost wind that breathes the spirit is a rebirth for all of those who receive it. We move on now from wind to fire!
In Acts today, Luke describes a divided tongue, as of fire, all coming from one place, splitting out and resting on each of them, at which they are filled with the Holy spirit and begin talking in many different languages. Fire spreads quickly, brings light and refines. In John 8 Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” and then in In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus told His disciples “You are the light of the world” I believe the tongues of fire are symbolic, linking these Gospels to the day of Pentecost. Jesus has already spoken the words, as an encouragement for them to not hide away, and as the fire touches them, they are equipped and ready to go out and carry on His work. All power comes from Christ and with the gift of the Holy spirit, the believers will continue the work that Jesus begun. So how does all of this relate to us today? Traditionally the church celebrated this event as Whitsun – White Sunday, it is believed it was a day for those born again into the faith to be baptised, and they would wear white. Another explanation is that it derives from the word ‘wit’ which we still use to describe verbal cleverness, but which mean ‘understanding’ Pentecost was when God poured out the wisdom of the spirit. It marks the beginning of Christianity as a new community, a purposeful movement. That day when Peter preached, around 3000 Jews believed and were baptised. From that day on the believers numbered so many that they would never all fit in one room together again, it was and is the birthday of the church! The spirit was not a new thing that came just at Pentecost, we read in Genesis how in the beginning a wind from God came over the earth, just like the breath that came upon the dry bones and the sound like a violent wind at Pentecost, it was there, God was there ever present in creating and creation, wherever the spirit moves, there is breakthrough and change. When the spirit came to the believers at Pentecost, it breaks down barriers between people, barriers that had been around for many years. In Genesis 11 the people had begun to build a huge tower of Babel and God confused their language, causing separation and division, at Pentecost the confusion of Babel is reversed – they can once again understand each other, giving the opportunity for unity once more.
As the spirit fell upon the believers and they began speaking in many different languages, the noise drew people towards them, as they gathered round somewhat amazed and astonished, but as is often the case when we witness something we do not quite understand, some begin to try and rubbish it, accusing them of being drunk – a typical example of the human nature, if we don’t understand it, then it can’t be true!
At this point, Peter the same weak man, who only a few weeks back had denied Jesus 3 times out of cowardice and fear of the consequences, now stands with the 11 and speaks powerfully and truthfully about the life and resurrection of Jesus – we know that this is not something he is able to do alone, it is the advocate Jesus has sent, the Holy spirit that is flowing through him and enables him to speak – the spirit moved in him and changed the lives of others. It is the Holy spirit that gives Peter the boldness, authority, and truth. He had never possessed it until then. If the spirit can do that in one person’s life in just one day, can you imagine the power it has, day by day, week by week, year by year – in a full lifetime of living by the spirit? One of the things that really strikes me with the Holy spirit is the power it has to bring about change. As Christians we believe in the trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. For many, the spirit can be the hardest part for us to imagine or understand. Most of us have experience or an idea about the earthly identity of a Son or Father (although as we know, this can sometimes be a barrier to relating with God) yet with the spirit, how do we begin to understand that? There is nothing on earth that we know of that we can liken it to. The spirit is sent as a gift, it guides us in light and truth, as believers we are filled with the spirit, sometimes we are fully aware of the work it is doing in us, it may move us into doing big and scary things, that we absolutely know without the spirit we would not even know where to start! At other times it may be a gentle presence, that time when you think of someone and know that you need to call or visit them, only to find that something significant has happened. Those times that we often think of as a coincidence, are more often than not a God-incidence, the power of the Holy spirit working in and through us, advocating for us, guiding, helping and bringing about change. When Peter stood up and spoke, the crowds he preached to at that time would have been exclusively Jews, it will be a while before he takes the same line as Paul does and includes ALL people. But the living spirit is at work in him, and he is open to listening, and when the spirit gives him a vision during a time of prayer, he is ready to respond, even though it challenges everything he has previously believed to be right, from the foods he ate, to who he could eat them with, and most importantly how the Good News of Jesus was for. If we skip forward to Acts 10 we see the power of this change– Peter speaks and the first gentiles receive the Holy spirit. The story of Pentecost is so exciting, we see that when the spirit comes it breaks down barriers, it brings equality, drives change and is a living breathing thing. It was there before the world was created and is alive and moving in us and the church today.
Like those early believers, we too have been given the gift of the spirit and like a fire as we go out among others, we can speak about what Jesus has done in our lives and the flames of faith and truth will spread, so that others may come to know Jesus. Do we too dare to tune in and listen to the spirit, to respond to what it teaches us, perhaps changing our ways of thinking, living and being? Now, you may be wondering why you were given a candle when you came in today? Well, it is the birthday of the church and what would a birthday be without candles? Traditionally we blow candles out on our birthdays. Our breath extinguishes the fire, but the breath of God brings power and new life, our candles today are symbolic and represent the flames of the spirit, to remind us that the gift of the spirit comes from the one and is for all. Karen & Phil will use the paschal candle to light our candles, and we will let the flame spread (safely) between us like the tongues of fire at Pentecost. The flames will come from one place, divide out and spread to all – as you light your candle you may like to pray the words either out loud, or in your head, to yourself or each other – come Holy spirit.
Let us pray
Heavenly Father, we ask on this day of Pentecost for a fresh outpouring of your Holy spirit, to equip and empower us in all truth. Help us Lord to have the courage and faith of Peter, to respond to your call on our lives and to have the courage to change direction when led by your spirit. We thank you that your spirit has the power to break down barriers, heal divisions and is freely given to all who believe.
In Jesus precious name we pray.