Pentecost • May 24, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 • Psalm 104:25-35. 37 • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 • John 20:19-23
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pentecost—fifty days after the Resurrection. Originally a Jewish feast held fifty days after the Passover, it celebrated the ecstatic experience of the disciples after Jesus ascended into the heavens. The ecstasy described in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is wonderful—the sound of a roaring wind in their ears, their vision clouded with a red mist such that fellow disciples looked as though they had flames over their heads, and spontaneous, babble sounds ushering forth from their mouths, speaking in tongues.
Group ecstasy in church was apparently common in the early church—Paul speaks of it frequently in his letters, as though it were an ordinary part of Christian worship—but it died out fairly quickly. Revived at the end of the Nineteenth Century in America, several varieties of “pentecostal” churches were founded, and in the 1950s the Pentecostal movement spread to some Episcopal and Roman Catholic parishes. It seems to have died out now in the liturgical churches, but the Pentecostal Church itself remains alive in America and is growing very strongly in Latin America.
So, on that first Pentecost, the disciples spilled out onto the street, still babbling away in their ecstatic language, which some strangers took to be their own native languages, and the scoffers sneered, “They are full of new wine! A bunch of drunks, and early in the morning, too!” But Peter did what the Early Church frequently did—he referred back to the Hebrew Scriptures, saying that this was the fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Joel, chapter 2, verse 8. In it, God declares,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
The teachings of Jesus struck devout Jews as being novel, radical even. So the Christians in the first Century tried to gain legitimacy by seeing the events that occurred as being foretold by the prophets, by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Joel. As it turned out, this practice was quite useful, for they forever tied the Hebrew Scriptures to the Christian experience. And what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, are not only the foundation of our faith, but a rich heritage stretching back thousands of years, connecting us with our forebearers in a powerful way.
The Spirit which moved the disciples on Pentecost was no new thing. The Bible opens in the Book of Genesis with the creation of the world. In the beginning there was nothing, “…a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word in Hebrew for wind is also used for spirit—ruach—and this passage is frequently translated as “the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” Ruach is also used to mean breath, so that wind, spirit, and breath are all pretty much the same.
You and I have a spirit. To have a spirit is to have breath—we are alive, and spirit is a word to describe life. Groups have a spirit. Good Shepherd has a spirit that is larger than any of our individual spirits, a spirit a bit different from any other Episcopal parish. Large, casual groups have a spirit—in a great stadium, when your side wins, you are impelled to rise from your seat with a great shout; you are moved by the spirit of victory. Spirit, of course, is not a thing; it is aliveness of one kind or another. On occasion, there are evil spirits, an aliveness intent on destruction and decay.
And then there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Paul says, in Galatians, that the fruit of the God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is a pretty good description of how one behaves when the Spirit of God abides in a person.
And in the Gospel for today, Jesus come into a locked room—this is following the Resurrection—and after greeting them and saying that he was sending them out just as the Father had sent him out, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ He gave them God’s Spirit, which is the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
So we celebrate the Spirit of God today, and give thanks for that spirit of forgiveness and truth, which yields in us a disposition to be better to those around us, so that we are a blessing to them, and they to us.