Today is Pentecost, or in BCP-speak Whit-Sunday. In the Jewish religious calendar it’s the fiftieth day after the Passover – that’s what Pentecost is in Greek. It was a time to celebrate God’s gift of the harvest by coming together in Jerusalem, if you could. You made a symbolic offering of the first-fruits of the harvest. You know when you haven’t tasted something you really like or even crave for a very long time – the first bite or sip can seem like a taste of heaven. Look at people in bars and restaurants having their first glass of champagne in Old Amersham after lockdown at ten in the morning. So you were in theory offering the best you could.
But just as Jesus’s death and resurrection inverted everything that had gone before, so did the first Pentecost. Instead of being a time when people brought token gifts to God, the first Pentecost was a time when God poured out among them a new gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit.
How would Peter and the other disciples, and all the others who heard and saw this outpouring have understood it? Without all the theology that has since built up over the centuries?
I’ve got two tanks to park on Rev Sue’s lawn. Here’s the first. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, breath or wind. When God created Adam, He put breath into this inert creature to bring it into life. At the moment of birth, a baby takes their first breath as an independent living being. In the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel, it’s breath, the wind from every corner, that makes the otherwise complete human forms stand and move. We can’t see breath or wind, but we can see its effects. The Spirit is something that’s life-giving.
In the Old Testament, the coming of the Spirit was a sign of God’s presence and power. Not for self-advancement, but for the glory of God. Sometimes this was quite forceful. Don’t think that the Spirit is so gentle as to be always biddable. The Spirit, like the other Persons of the Trinity, is always to be reckoned with and taken seriously.
Again in the Old Testament, Spirit and word often went together. My second tank on Sue’s lawn: the Hebrew word for “word” is dābār. It can also mean “thing” or “action”, the result of something spoken. It could be a word from God of prophecy, or a word of proclamation. The Spirit gives the word its dynamism. Take Isaiah 61.1:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.
Words spoken by Jesus at the start of His public ministry in Luke 2.
The presence of the Spirit is a gift for service. Again from Isaiah, this time chapter 42:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
And the Spirit was God’s gift to the kings of Israel, even if most of them trashed it. But there was always hope that a new king would one day emerge and deliver Israel from all its problems, moral as well as social. The presence of the Spirit would be a sign that these hopes were at last being made real. The coming of the Spirit would be a sign of a new and restored relationship between God and humanity.
And between them, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Joel all foresaw a day when the Spirit of God would be given to everyone, and not a few special people. Again, a sign of a new and different relationship with God.
As we heard in our Acts reading, the disciples were gathered in a room. We don’t know exactly where. Perhaps even the place where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus. The disciples were given the gift of speaking in different languages. But they didn’t just sit there in mutual admiration, “Oooh look, Peter’s speaking Greek, Thomas Persian, and James Latin.” No – it all had to spill out onto the streets and bump into all those who were gathered for the Pentecost festival. Again, whatever the disciples were saying in whatever language wasn’t chit-chat, “You’ve got a nice basket of fruit there.” It was about what God had done through Jesus:
in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.
Spirit and word, ruach and dābār.
“What does this mean?” It can only mean one thing – a confirmation that through Jesus a new way of being with God had dawned. As Paul puts it, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God … When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
Where are we gathered today? Yes, in our churches. Yes, virtually online. We are also gathered at a particular time. Not this time which happens to be on a Sunday morning or in streamed catch-up. But at a time when the world is in a particular situation and starting to pick its way out of the pandemic.
What is the Spirit saying to the church? Is this a time for boldness? Is this a time to discover the Spirit of service, rather than entitlement? How will the Spirit guide us to bear witness to our life-giving relationship with God through Christ?