This is a day of great celebration. It’s one of the greatest birthdays in human history. It celebrates one of the most remarkable births among God’s Holy People. It’s the day when Jews traditionally celebrate the birthday of King David. This is why in his Pentecost sermon, right after the part that’s in today’s reading from Acts 2, Peter quotes from several psalms of David and contrasts the Resurrection of Jesus with the death of King David.
In Hebrew, Pentecost is known as Shavuot, the Festival of “Weeks.” According to Jewish tradition, Shavuot marked the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai 7 weeks or 50 days after Passover. It’s a day when Jews eat cheesecake, though no one is certain as to why! The best explanation, from a spiritual point of view, is that cheesecake is a milk product, and milk is the food substance that sustains infants in their physical development; correspondingly, the Torah, the Law given to Moses, is what sustains God’s people in their spiritual development. Originally and historically, Shavuot was observed by religious Jews by staying up all night praying and studying Torah, with the thought that the people of Israel might have been more receptive to the Torah had they been in spiritual preparation for it. But even today, many more Jews indulge in eating cheesecake than in observing an all-night study of Torah. And never fear: we do no better! It was the ancient practice of the Eastern Church to hold all-night vigils not only on the eve of Easter but on the night before every major Christian holiday, including Pentecost. Today very few Christians in the western Church will even carve out a mere two hours to attend Easter Vigil services.
For Christians, Pentecost is also a highly significant birthday. We, too, consider it to be one of the greatest birthdays in human history, celebrating one of the most remarkable births ever recorded: it’s the day when we celebrate the birth of the Church. Just as Shavuot was the fiftieth day after the Passover, the end of the Jewish season of Passover, so in the Christian Church it’s 50 days after Easter, or the end of the season of Eastertide. It’s the day that fulfilled Jesus’ promise to His disciples, the day He told them to anticipate prayerfully. In our reading last Sunday from the first chapter of Acts, we read that “they went up to the Upper Room where they were staying. These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.” They were given over to intense spiritual preparation (Acts 2:13, 14).
They only had to wait 10 days until the Jewish feast of Pentecost came. And then it happened: We read, “Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). As always, God’s timing is perfect. While there already was a rather cosmopolitan and eclectic population living in Jerusalem, the festival brought pilgrims from far and wide to celebrate Shavuot. This is why Luke tells us that there were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs all gathered in Jerusalem. And every one of them could hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages! Not even at the United Nations could one hear anything in so many languages simultaneously!
But soon the response of some turned from amazement to mockery, as they said, “They are full of sweet wine” (Acts 2:13). It was this false accusation that got Peter started on his sermon, first declaring that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, then going on to deliver one of the most compelling presentations of the Christian message ever given by anyone. I suppose many evangelists could save themselves and their listeners some time by simply reading Acts 2 aloud and then giving an invitation. Certainly the results speak for themselves: 3,000 persons responded to Peter’s message and were baptized (2:41)!
If we’re inclined to wonder whether this was the same sort of mass hysteria and group response we sometimes see today when a charismatic speaker delivers a stirring message, we only need to read the verses immediately following to see the depth and the reality of these conversions. We looked at these verses a few weeks ago when they were part of our lectionary readings, and we saw that Luke lists 7 things that characterized those who responded to Peter’s preaching:
- They were continually devoting themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer
- Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe
- All the believers had all things in common
- They met together every day with one mind
- They took their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart
- They were praising God and having favor with everyone, and
- They were growing daily as the Lord added to their numbers
What if we were to harness the power of the Holy Spirit that was in evidence at Pentecost? What if we were to discover what Jesus meant immediately before His Ascension when He said, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses” (Acts 1:8)? He had made this same promise in one of His post-Resurrection appearances as recorded by Luke in his Gospel, “I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high" (24:49). Paul writes to the Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (15:13). Later, when writing to his son in the faith, Timothy, Paul wrote, “I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (II Timothy 1:6, 7). In all of these verses we find the same Greek word for “power,” dunamis, from which we get our English words “dynamite” and “dynamo,” among others. It expresses the idea of serious power, and this is the power that Jesus promised to make available to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The thing about Holy Spirit power is that it’s limitless and it’s available to all believers. It also issues in more power through the message of the Gospel. Sometimes we become apologetic about the Gospel message and seem determined not to embarrass ourselves by sharing it with others. But Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe” (Romans 1:16). And to the church at Corinth he wrote, "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power" (I Cor. 2:4). This is the Gospel message that Paul said had been entrusted to him (I Thessalonians 2:4). This is the same message that has been entrusted to us; it’s a sacred trust that we’re responsible to share with others.
We need to quit thinking about Pentecost as a fascinating one-off that has historical interest but that’s irrelevant to us today. It may be highly unlikely that we’ll see anything identical to Pentecost in our day. But the power that was unleashed on that day remains available to the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century through the gift of the Holy Spirit that still is given to us when we come to Christ.
And God has promised that something equally amazing remains yet to come. In his Pentecost sermon Peter quoted the words of God from the prophecy of Joel, where He says there will be a time when “I will pour out My Spirit... I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. And it will come about that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:29-32).
That day is coming, and from these prophetic words we can anticipate that it will be a day so dramatic as to leave Pentecost in its shade. Perhaps it will come in our own lifetimes. Meanwhile it’s our responsibility faithfully to proclaim the message entrusted to us and, like Paul, to do it unashamedly in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when it comes to our performing that sacred trust, “we have today.” We need to have that same sense of urgency in proclaiming the Gospel that Peter and the other disciples displayed at Pentecost. May we use the time that we have to share the Gospel message with everyone among our friends and family, in the Name of the One Who came not only to give His life for us, but Who continues to come to us in the Person and power of the Holy Spirit, Who makes us one with Him.
Come Holy Spirit, and ever with us stay; Come Holy Spirit, and never let us stray.
Come Holy Spirit, and lead us in the Way; Come Holy Spirit, and guide our feet of clay.
Come Holy Spirit, and shield us in the fray; Come Holy Spirit, and always be our stay.
Come Holy Spirit, and make us one today; Come Holy Spirit, and guard our souls we pray.
Come Holy Spirit, and keep us from dismay; Come Holy Spirit and drive all fear away.
Come Holy Spirit, and help us to obey; Come Holy Spirit, and Your great power display.
Come Holy Spirit, and teach us how to pray; Come Holy Spirit, and heal us day by day.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen