The meaning of Pentecost
Pentecost (literally the 50th day) is the Greek name given to the Jewish festival called Shavuot or The Festival of Weeks – so called because there were a total of seven (a special number) of weeks between the festival of Passover and the festival of Shavuot. Seven times seven days is forty-nine and so, including the first Sabbath day of Passover, the festival fell on the 50th day.
The festival had its origins in a harvest festival – the festival of the First Fruits or Bikkurim. Part of the celebration of Shavuot included reading the Old Testament book of Ruth with its story about the Moabitess gleaning grain in the fields of her mother-in-law’s kinsman.
While Passover marked the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, Shavuot marked the giving of the law on Mount Sinai – the beginning of the institution of the Jewish religion as such it was one of three principal festivals of the Jewish calendar – Pesach ( Passover) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) being the others – on these special feast days all adult Jewish men were expected to be in Jerusalem to worship and sacrifice in the Temple (Dt. 26:1-10).
The international element of the story of Ruth helped characterise Shavuot as a cosmopolitan festival attracting to Jerusalem God-fearing people from all over the known world.
The First Pentecost
So this is the festival that brought to Jerusalem ‘Jews from every nation under heaven’ (as the writer of Acts puts it – giving a list of countries which is like a compass dial centred on Jerusalem – ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’). This is also the festival which brought the 12 disciples together in Jerusalem for the first time since Jesus’s crucifixion.
Let us spend a moment thinking about what that meeting might have been like as they shared their different stories, their experiences of meeting the risen Christ – a funny thing happened to us on the way to Emmaus …
As they talked – as they remembered – they had an increasingly strong feeling that something quite remarkable had happened. Something that caused them to break out into shouts of joy – that this was not the end but just the beginning
Indeed it was the very birth of church, of the Christian religion – Peter went out from the house where they were staying and preached to the visitors in Jerusalem. When he finished he had converted 3,000 people – imagine what would happen if my effort today (and those of all of my fellow preachers through Christendom) had the same effect, each of converting 3,000 new believers!
The experience of Pentecost
What was that experience that Peter and the other disciples had in that room? What galvanised them into action – gave them courage to preach the Gospel to the world?
Where we might now use psychological language, the writer of Acts expresses it in figurative terms – terms which would have had a profound resonance to the first readers.
First there is the sound of ‘roaring wind’ and then ‘tongues of flame’ appear above the disciples heads, then ‘they were filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in different languages’.
The English word ‘spirit’ is from the Latin word for breath (spiritus) which also means life. It is a translation of the Greek pneuma (from which we get pneumatic and pneumonia) which is itself a translation of the Hebrew ruha – ruha is the highly onomatopoeic word used to describe the spirit of God which hovered over the waters at the moment of creation in Chapter 1 of Genesis. As at creation the rushing wind is a sign of new life – of the vital force of God in the world.
Secondly the disciples see ‘divided tongues as of fire seated on their heads’. Together these tongues would make a small bush of fire – as they do in the icons of the Feast of Pentecost like the one above. This recollection of the burning bush at the beginning of the story of Moses (Exodus 3) is surely no accident.
The metaphor of fire warrants some further elucidation. Fire may be seen as a force for destructive rather than positive transformation. However, for people in centuries before electricity fire was crucial for life – for heat to keep you alive at night, for light to see and ward off wild animals and for cooking. A recent reality show, 10,000 Years BC, showed just how difficult it is to maintain a fire – it required concentration becoming a full time job for a dedicated person.
Furthermore fire was used in agriculture to clear land and prepare it for the planting of new seed.
Finally, they are able to speak in a variety of languages so they can take the gospel to the whole world. The disorder which followed the Tower of Babel has been reversed. In Genesis chapter 11, man strove to become God resulting in chaos and war. In the Gospel stories God became man and the result (or at least the ultimate objective) is international communication and peace.
The Holy Spirit in John
The coming of the Holy Spirit was promised by Jesus in John’s Gospel (John 4 and then 14-16), John even includes his own story of Pentecost where Jesus endows his disciples with the Spirit directly (John 20:22).
The Spirit is described once as a force of life (John 6:63) but elsewhere the Spirit is described in legalistic language as ‘the spirit of truth’ and the paraclete or ‘advocate’ which intercedes. This legal advocate was someone who speaks on behalf of an accused person at a trial. Thus the Spirit has a nuanced meaning as both a supporter or defender but also as a witness to the truth. When Christians were persecuted for their beliefs they could rely on the Spirit to give them strength but also as a witness to the truth of the Gospel.
I think this has great resonance for us today. As people who are increasingly persecuted for our beliefs, we are supported in our troubles and strengthened in our belief that we are on the right track by our experience of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
Our experience of the Holy Spirit convinces us of the merit of Christianity – makes us all witnesses to the resurrection of Christ and disciples of His Gospel.
What does the Holy Spirit mean to us?
For me it is that warm feeling when you feel right with yourself and the world and in particular when you are at one with others. It is the opposite of the cold you feel when you frightened and alone.
In science we know that things get hot, that energy is released when bonds are formed – when elements form compounds – when discrete elements form more sophisticated, more stable structures. So it is when we form stable relationships like families, like communities, like a church.
Similarly we huddle together for warmth – like those Emperor penguins in the natural history films – we can take confidence and assurance from our shared beliefs and objectives. We can look after one another and keep each other warm. Having begun to form a group then we can begin to grow.
So like the first Disciples, this morning we have come together to share in the spirit which changes and transforms
And our mission is to be like Peter – taking that Spirit into the world to bring warmth into the cold lives of others
To bring flesh back to the valley of the dry bones
We are the people charged with keeping the fire alight in this community.
And so we leave St Andrew’s this morning we should leave it as witnesses to the transforming love of God through his son Jesus Christ as exemplified in our lives
And Imagine – just imagine that we would be so inspired by our experience of God’s love here this morning that we would seem to others to have flames on our heads.
Let us pray that for us all
Chris Hancock, St. Andrew’s Box Hill, 24th May, 2015