Imagine: You are gathered together with friends and colleagues. It is the day after a double holiday- the Feast of Pentecost and the Jewish Sabbath. Together with others you have followed a man called Jesus, a wonderful person who taught mercy and compassion, and who healed the sick and raised the dead. You have come up from your village with him to Jerusalem, expecting the coming of the Kingdom of God. Instead, here, in the holy city, Jesus is arrested and put to death by the Jewish religious and the Roman civil authorities on trumped up charges of blasphemy and sedition.
At Jesus’ death you fled, and perhaps you returned home, fearing that the authorities might punish you for having followed this wonderful teacher and miracle worker. However within a few days marvelous news spreads, that Jesus has been raised from the dead, that he lives. He appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He appears to Saint Peter. He appears to ten of the Apostles, and later to the eleven. Saint Paul reports that he appeared to a gathering of more than 500 people. So perhaps you also are witnesses to his resurrection, and saw him after his crucifixion. (1Cor15:3-8).
Now you are gathered together again at a house in Jerusalem. Jesus has gone to the Father who sent him. You are bereft, but he has promised something which you do not fully understand, a consoler, a comforter. Suddenly, a sound like a violent wind comes from heaven and fills the whole house. You see what appear to be tongues of fire resting on all, and you begin to speak. More amazing, you speak and are understood by men who speak other languages, and they apparently hear you speaking in their local language. What a marvelous occurrence! What does it mean? What did it mean to the Apostles and to those others who experienced it? Is it at work in our time? Is it available to us?
Let’s put this feast of Pentecost, which we celebrate today, into its original Jewish context. Pentecost, or Shavuot in Hebrew, is celebrated 50 days after the second day of Passover. This past Thursday and Friday, observant Jews around the world celebrated the feast of Pentecost. For Jews around the world, Thursday sundown marked the beginning of Shavuot. It ended at sundown on Friday, and then the regular Sabbath began. We celebrate the Feast of Pentecost forty nine days after the Resurrection of Jesus, who is our Passover.
What is the feast of Pentecost in the Jewish tradition? It is a number of things. It coincides with the end of the winter grain harvest which has now been gathered in. In Jesus’ time, new grain offerings were traditionally offered at the Temple in Jerusalem during Shavuot. Pentecost/Shavuot was one of the three mandatory pilgrimage feasts, together with Passover and Purim, when observant Jews were encouraged to visit Jerusalem and to worship at the Temple. This is reflected in the reading this morning from Acts, where the author tells us “there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven”.
However the greatest significance of Pentecost for Jews then and now is that Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah (the first five books of our Bible) to Moses. In Jewish belief the Law as contained in the Torah was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. The ten most important laws were given inscribed on stone tablets, but in addition another 603 laws were also given. Jewish tradition classifies these as consisting of 248 positive commands (do this), and 365 negative ones (don’t do that), for a total of 613 commands.
As Christians we have taken the Old Testament feasts, and we have imbued them with new meaning. We have done so in part using texts from the Old Testament. Saint Peter explains what has happened that morning of our first Pentecost by quoting the Prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy
and your young men shall see visions
and your old men shall dream dreams. (Joel 2, 28)
What was prophesied by Jeremiah 600 years earlier has also come to pass:
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31,33)
The Advocate, the Counselor, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth promised by Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading, has come. The promise foretold by Jeremiah, by Joel and by Jesus himself has been fulfilled. Now his disciples find themselves filled with a tremendous power of communication, a power which will enable them and their disciples to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to every corner of the known world.
In St. John’s Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that he must leave in order for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of a new covenant (Hebrews 8, 13). The old covenant of the Law is abrogated, reduced to its two essential commands. Jesus has given us two commandments, the two great precepts which summarize all of the Jewish Law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”(Matthew 37-40). We have of course also kept the Ten Commandments, but the other 601 commands have been allowed to lapse.
The sheer number of laws will give you an idea of how heavily the Law must have weighed on the early Christian communities, and how hard Saint Paul had to struggle to reinterpret the meaning of the Law, recasting it in terms comprehensible to the many converts from paganism or from other faiths besides Judaism. For Saint Paul faith and salvation do not turn on external observance of the Law, but on the incorporation of the deepest sense of this Law into the hearts of the faithful, of those who confess that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and follow his great commandments. The author of Hebrews likewise declares that the covenant of the law has been replaced with a new covenant grounded in the death of Jesus for the atonement of our sins (Hebrews 9,15). On that first Christian Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus’ followers and fills their hearts. Indeed, it writes the new covenant in their hearts, and in ours also. Where once we relied on the law to approach the Lord, now through Jesus Christ, we approach directly, because the Holy Spirit has been sent to us to guide us and comfort us and strengthen us (Romans 8:26)
The gift of the Holy Spirit is not a gift given to a few nearly two thousand years ago. The Holy Spirit is God’s continuing presence in this world, available to all who seek Him.
He is at work in our historical processes. The Rev. Martin Luther King was not a saintly person. We know that like King David he had an eye for the ladies, despite a wife and children. Yet I believe that God used him, and other Christian religious leaders to bring an end to the shameful system of segregation that characterized parts of America into the 1960’s. Remember that the movement that Dr. King led was truly a movement of non-violence, of peaceful civil disobedience. This non violence, and the violent, often brutal response of the movement’s opponents, moved hearts and minds in America and around the world, leading to legislation that overturned the segregation, exclusion and denial of opportunity to millions of my fellow Americans on the basis of their skin color alone. I find it hard to believe that the Holy Spirit was not leading and guiding the Civil Rights movement, keeping it in the paths of righteousness, and of non-violence, until it overturned the injustices it targeted.
Do you remember recent South African history? Not too long ago, 4 million descendants of European settlers kept more than 20 million Africans, Asians, and persons of mixed race in a status of legal inferiority. The majority people were herded into small poor territories, known as Bantustans, or made to live in special townships, so that the white minority could continue to enjoy the resources and wealth of most of the nation. It seemed inevitable to many observers that there would come a time of war, in which the disenfranchised and dispossessed majority would rise up and eventually defeat and displace their oppressors. Yet this widely predicted day of doom never came. We all know who Nelson Mandela is. But do you know that he withstood 27 years of imprisonment, long parts in solitary confinement. In jail, his thinking changed; he did not allow hatred or the desire for revenge to warp his spirit or to lead him to call for armed insurrection and violence. Mandela emerged from prison to negotiate in good faith with his jailers and oppressors a peaceful transfer of power, from them to the African majority. I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding him and others around him.
More amazing is that the Prime Minister of apartheid South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, a white man of Dutch descent, was able to negotiate in good faith the surrender of centuries of privilege and power to a dispossessed majority. This took place in 1994. Again, I find it hard to believe that the Holy Spirit was not at work guiding men who should have been implacable foes onto paths of reconciliation, peace and voluntary surrender of power by a privileged minority to the majority.
You may have seen in recent weeks the outpouring of civic consciousness among Guatemalans fed up with the rampant corruption that characterizes civic life in this country. These protests have been peaceful, if a bit raucous. They have avoided violence. Could it be that the Holy Spirit has been helping and guiding the process? Let us pray that is so, and that the Spirit will guide this lovely nation towards change in a non-violent way. Time will tell whether this is the moment, or whether the dispossessed and the poor must continue to suffer.
The Holy Spirit is also at work in each and every one of us. He/She comforts and consoles us in our afflictions and sorrows. He/She encourages us to grow in God’s grace and the knowledge of Him. He/She guides us on to paths of righteousness. Do we listen; do we try to hear the Spirit? I invite you to seek the Spirit’s guidance in bringing us all into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation (B.C.P. p 852).
In closing, I invite you to turn to page 227 of our prayer books. Let us say together the second prayer:
O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen