In our first lesson from the Book of Acts Luke describes what we now call the day of Pentecost in vivid detail. This story is not about Christianity being introduced to gentiles, but rather to devout Jews. Some may be visitors to Jerusalem, but the disciples are primarily speaking to Jews from all over the Mediterranean who were immigrants to Jerusalem. Pentecost was originally the celebration of Shavuot, a harvest festival. In contemporary Judaism it is a day of thanksgiving for the gift of the law, the Torah, we aren’t sure if that was also part of the festival in Jesus’ day. Shavuot took place fifty days after Passover, hence the Greek name, Pentecost, which Christians appropriated as a day of thanksgiving for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Luke describes the followers of Jesus as being gathered together in one room when suddenly there was a loud sound, wind, and fire. This coming of the Holy Spirit was not a gentle or quiet experience, it was loud and dramatic and confusing and probably a bit frightening. It was so loud that a large crowd of people who had been milling about Jerusalem rushed to the place where the disciples were gathered to see what was going on. They spoke many languages which reflected the vast cultural diversity of Judaism in that time. To their surprise, Jesus’ followers suddenly found themselves able to communicate in many languages with those gathered. Some were amazed, others were skeptical and some were downright critical. “Have they been drinking?”
Then Peter began to address the crowd, explaining that this dramatic event was the fulfillment of the prophesies in Hebrew scripture. He quotes a passage which they would have been familiar with from the prophet Joel. The promise of the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit has now taken place, and the signs were there – the blood of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the fire and smoky mist that marked the presence of the Spirit among them.
We do not live in the first century, and we do not experience Jesus in the flesh. But we still need the assurance of God’s presence in our lives. On April 4, 1991, in her column in the New York Times, Anna Quindlan told this story about a day care center in Jersey City called “The Nurturing Place. The Roman Catholic sisters who ran it welcomed children whose families were homeless. One day the sisters took the children to the Jersey shore. The 3 and 4 year olds scrambled up the sandy dunes, falling and giggling their way to the top of what must have seemed like mountains to their little legs. When they got to the top, they could hardly believe their eyes: water as far as they could see – more water than they had ever seen. They slid down the dunes and ran to the edge of the water. They dipped their feet in and chased the waves that broke on the shore. Then they went for a picnic in a nearby park. After lunch, they begged to go back to the dunes. One little boy named Freddie outran the rest and climbed his way to the top. He looked out, then he turned to the others and shouted, “It’s still there!”
In his short life, so much had disappeared, so to Freddie it was quite possible that the ocean could have disappeared during lunch. We are older and wiser and more privileged, we know that the ocean is there even when we aren’t on the beach enjoying looking at it. But what about other things? Don’t we sometimes feel as though we are scrambling on sandy dunes, trying to find a place that will give us a sturdy foothold? Jesus’ disciples surely must have felt as though the very earth was slipping out from under their feet at the thought of being left alone without him.
They had experienced a roller coaster of emotions since the day they entered Jerusalem with him. There was hope, fear, the devastation of death and then the unbelievable happened – he was no longer dead but alive! But they knew he was not going to stay. He even spoke as though he wasn’t actually there – “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…” That must have been confusing, wasn’t he right there with them? Luke tells us that just like on the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened their minds to understand scripture and interpret the meaning of everything that had taken place. Then he promises them that he was sending what God had promised, a power from on high, an advocate who would stand by them. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Thanks to their witness, we are here today.
Today Henry will be baptized, and will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He will be given wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear – meaning being in awe – of the Lord, and the spirit of joy in God’s presence. That looks like a tall order for such a little guy, but that is exactly what Jesus promised the followers he left behind on earth and it is what he promises each one of us. Even during those times when we might feel alone, we know that God’s Holy Spirit is still with us, ready to comfort us, to guide us, to give us strength for whatever challenges we may face. The Holy Spirit is timeless like the ocean, better still, the Spirit is an eternal presence in our lives.
Today Henry’s parents and sponsors will promise to bring him to church, to teach him scripture and the beliefs and traditions of our faith, so that just as Jesus did for those first disciples, so Henry will be able to understand and interpret God’s intentions for us. As we witness in our children as they sing and make their joyful noises during worship, Henry will experience the spirit of joy in the presence of God. And not just here, in this building, surrounded by people who will promise today to help nurture him on his faith journey, but as he faces the many challenges of everyday life in our time and place.
We welcome Henry into the family of God and we pledge to stand beside him, along with the Holy Spirit, as he grows and matures in faith. Amen.