Today is Pentecost Sunday, often called the “Birthday of the Church.” It comes 10 days after the Ascension and 50 days after the Resurrection, which is why it’s called Pentecost. But it also is one of the holidays that come originally from the roots of our Hebrew traditions, a fact known to very few Christians even though we should acknowledge the borrowing and even the overlapping of two very important holidays.
The Hebrew name for this holiday is Shavuot, the Festival of “weeks,” specifically the 7 weeks from the second day of Passover until the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai on the 50th day after the Exodus from Egypt; thus in Judaism the day of Shavuot also is known as Pentecost. Theoretically the two celebrations, Jewish Pentecost and Christian Pentecost, should occur in close proximity. The first Christian Pentecost, as recorded in Acts, apparently coincided with Shavuot, as we will see. But calendars being what they are and have been, in 2016, for example, Shavuot will be on June 12 while our Pentecost is on May 15. As it happens, this year Shavuot falls on a Sunday, so we will be able to celebrate both days separately!
We all know the basic story of what happened on the first Christian Pentecost as described in today’s reading from Acts. But the understanding of precisely what occurred and how it relates to the experiences of 21st century Christians varies widely. We have a whole branch of the Christian Church that calls itself Pentecostal, believing that what happened in the second chapter of Acts was just the tip of the iceberg and is normative for today’s believers as well. Here is yet another area where we can celebrate the diversity within the body of Christ without needing to be critical of those whose actual experiences differ from our own. But this also is an area where there can be spiritually harmful consequences in trying to insist that everyone’s experience should be exactly the same as our own.
Obviously all good Christians should be Anglicans: they should love liturgical worship; recite the creeds; genuflect, bow, kneel and cross themselves; love chanting, incense, ancient hymns and sophisticated sacred choral repertoire; wear vestments; say the Lord’s Prayer in Elizabethan English and come to the Holy Eucharist at least as often as we do. Most of our charismatic friends who, as Pentecostals, name themselves after today’s holiday, would disagree on every single one of these points. Yet there are charismatic Anglicans, charismatic Catholics, charismatic Lutherans, charismatic Methodists and there must even be charismatic Baptists, though I’ve never met one. In that broader sense of the word, the persons who call themselves charismatics and Pentecostals tend to be those who focus on one or two gifts of the Holy Spirit, not necessarily to the neglect of others, but often with an emphasis so strong as to suggest that those who do not possess the same gifts as they are somehow less than fully Christian. No doubt most of you have encountered such persons. We certainly have.
So what really did happen on the first Pentecost Day when the Church was born, and what should we learn from it that is normative and applicable to our own experience? Notice that the language Luke uses is similar to the language to which John resorts in Revelation when trying to describe spiritual phenomena that defy typical descriptive categories. The disciples were all gathered together in one place when they heard a “noise” like a violent rushing wind and they saw something that resembled “tongues as of fire” and they began speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. The international crowd, Jews who lived in Jerusalem as well as pilgrims from throughout the Roman world who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Shavuot, were astonished that these Galileans could speak in many languages without taking any Berlitz courses. Some said that they must have been drunk, an unlikely condition for enabling one to speak a foreign language or we might all try it.
Here as often Peter roots what is happening in the prophetic word of the Hebrew Scriptures, in this case from the prophesy of Joel that God would pour out His Spirit on all mankind, including sons, daughters, young men, old men, even on God’s male and female bondslaves. Joel added that there would be accompanying apocalyptic signs in the sky and on the earth, and that these events would occur in what he called “the last days,” leading many to assume that his prophesy began to be fulfilled at Pentecost but remains to be completed at some future time. We are well advised not to push prophesy beyond the limits of its specificity, but to wait to see how God will bring about in His time the things that cannot be described with the sort of concreteness that we would love to superimpose.
What we do know for certain is that this Birthday of the Church was a supernatural event that seems to be without parallel in the history of Christianity. We know of no other occasion when large crowds of persons heard a band of minimally educated Christians speaking in multiple known languages simultaneously. Some have suggested that the crowd simply heard the disciples in their own languages; but what the text really says is that they heard them speaking in their own existing languages. We cannot speak to this with any certainty other than to acknowledge that the phenomenon occurred in a way that was beyond any human explanation.
These very limitations apply to many things regarding the Holy Spirit and its work. What does the Holy Spirit look like? Like a dove? Like “flaming tongues?” Of course we can presume that, being a spirit, the Holy Spirit can assume many forms or, more often than not, no form at all. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is a Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
What does Jesus say about the Holy Spirit in today’s Gospel? We have looked several times recently at the breadth of meanings for the word Jesus uses: “Paraclete,” one called alongside to help, one Who is our advocate, counselor, comforter, intercessor, care-giver and resident tutor. Jesus calls Him “the Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot receive;” yet He will abide with us internally and permanently. He will teach us all things and remind us of Jesus’ own teaching. And immediately after articulating these promises, Jesus tells us that He is leaving with us a peace beyond any that the world could ever give, an incomparable peace that drives away human fear.
What does Paul say about the Holy Spirit in our epistle reading from Romans? That He leads us, just as God the Father leads us beside still waters and in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. He leads us just as God the Son leads us as our Good Shepherd Who knows His sheep and is known by them. So it is that we are led by the entire Godhead. “All who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” And Paul, like Jesus, also relates the leading of the Holy Spirit to freedom from fear. Rather than fearing God or anything else in our lives, the Spirit encourages us to address God in the intimate language of the family as “Abba,” Daddy. The Spirit further affirms our family relationship to God by assuring us of our adoption as God’s children; and, says Paul, “if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” though Paul promises that this may entail some suffering with Him as well as ultimately our glorification with Him: a spiritual form of “no pain, no gain.”
When we combine what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit with what Paul writes, we have a picture of an incredibly special relationship with God that brings us comfort, peace, instruction, guidance and familial intimacy. This is precisely what Jesus meant when He assured His disciples that He would not leave them as orphans.
My former rector at CHSLF writes a weekly blog that he calls “Monday Matters.” This past week he mentioned that on a recent birthday his wife gave him a Fitbit. Strapped to his wrist, it tells him how far he has walked, how many stairs he has taken, it shows his heart rate and his calorie intake, and it shows how well he sleeps. It made him wonder what a spiritual Fitbit would look like. He never mentioned the Holy Spirit in his blog, but it seems obvious to me that the Holy Spirit is our built-in spiritual Fitbit. If we’re paying close enough attention, the Holy Spirit will measure every aspect of our Christian walk and our spiritual health. But unlike the Fitbit, the Holy Spirit can be a difference-maker!
Among the many meanings of the word Paraclete is “one who exhorts.” We’re not wired to like exhortation all that much, but we all need it on a regular basis. A true friend or spouse will feel compelled from time to time to issue exhortations to us. And if that’s true, then certainly the Holy Spirit will be about the business of periodic or even frequent exhortation. We may call it “the voice of conscience,” but for the Christian that voice is indeed the voice of the Holy Spirit who enlightens our conscience and calls us to holy living.
And so, on this Pentecost Sunday, I am not calling you to focus on the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but on the daily ones: not to ecstatic prophetic utterances in unfamiliar tongues or to miraculous gifts of healing, important as those may be. I am calling you instead to be better listeners to the voice of the Paraclete that God has given to you at the request of His Son: the voice that comforts and consoles, the voice that teaches and gives counsel, the voice that advocates and intercedes for us; and the voice that exhorts us to live our lives after the example of Jesus Christ, in accordance with His teaching and according to all that the Holy Scriptures command us to be and to do. When we do that, we will come to understand better those mysterious words of Jesus, “he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these will he do; because I go to the Father.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen