Let’s talk about Pentecost. We think of it as a Christian party, but behind it lies a Jewish festival which comes fifty days after the Passover. The Passover festival recalls the exodus from Egypt. It remembers when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, when every Israelite household sacrificed a lamb, marked their doorposts with its blood, packed their bags, and roasted and ate the lamb. That very night, an avenging angel came and wrought havoc on Egypt, and Pharaoh was finally persuaded to let the Israelites go, freed from slavery at last.
Fifty days later, the Israelites came to Mount Sinai. Moses went up the mountain, then he came back down again with two stone tablets engraved with the law: and it is this which Pentecost first celebrated. It took the shape of an agricultural first fruits festival: an offering of the first harvest—the first figs, the first grapes, the first grain—which were signs of the harvest to come; and it celebrated the gift of the law, which taught God’s people how to live.
So now we have the Jesus-followers, Jewish people, gathering together fifty days after the Passover festival, that is, fifty days after the week of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s Pentecost, and some of them had just witnessed Jesus rising up at the Ascension. Our story begins here.
When the Feast of Pentecost came, all the believers were together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; even Cretans and Arabs! They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” (Acts 2:1-6, MSG)
At Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain. Then he came back, bearing the law carved into stone. This event was remembered at the Festival of Pentecost: a first-fruits festival, which was a sign of the harvest to come.
At the Ascension, Jesus went up a mountain, and then into heaven. Now at Pentecost his Spirit is poured out from heaven, writing God’s culture onto people’s hearts. And this is a first-fruits event: a sign of the harvest to come.
To those who encountered this first great outpouring of the Spirit, it was confusing and strange. It led some people to make fun of the disciples: maybe they were all drunk! But those who experienced it never forgot. They were filled with passion and power, which gradually led them out into the world to tell everyone—first friends and neighbours, then bitter enemies, then total strangers—about the good news of the reign and culture of God. And those people told other people, who told other people, who told other people, right on down through history until here we are now, talking about God’s culture in twenty-first century Warrnambool.
For the news is still good, and the Spirit keeps being poured out, again and again. Through the prophet Joel, quoted by Peter at that first new Pentecost, God says:
I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people. Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy. (Acts 2:17-19, MSG)
So Pentecost is not a story about super-special people in another place and time. It’s the first-fruits event, a sign of what is to come—and we are a part of it now. Earth is still being transformed by the power of heaven: a power which is experienced when disciples gather together to worship and to pray, and God’s Spirit fills them, unites them, and inspires them to live out and witness to God’s culture.
So now, if you would like to, there’s an opportunity for you to share a story. Tell us about a time you have seen a group of people filled by the power of the Spirit. What did it look like? What did it feel like? What did it lead to? What were the fingerprints of God?
[This was followed by congregational storytelling.] Ω
A reflection on Acts 2:1-21 given to Sanctuary on 20 May 2018 (Pentecost) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/3580235485 showing a modern stained glass window from St Aloysius’ church in Somers Town, London. Text: The Message © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.