Today is a celebration of the day when God’s promise to the followers of Jesus was fulfilled. Luke tells us that before he ascended to be reunited with the Father, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to encourage and empower them, to inspire them and give them wisdom. According to Luke’s timeline, Jesus ascended forty days after Easter, after having made numerous post-resurrection appearances to them. Those appearances served not only as proof of his resurrection, but also as opportunities to teach them how the prophecies of Hebrew scripture had been fulfilled through his life, ministry, death and resurrection.
Before he ascended, he asked them to remain together and wait patiently for the gift of the Spirit to come. Luke describes that event, which took place ten days later, in vivid detail. Devout Jews from many countries all over the Roman Empire had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, which was originally 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. The people came from different cultures and spoke different languages, what they held in common was their Jewish identity, expressed through their faith in God and their reverence for the Torah.
Luke tells us that “all of the followers” were together, waiting as they had been instructed by Jesus. That means not just the eleven remaining disciples of the inner circle, but others as well – probably Mary, the mother of Jesus, his brothers, the other women who were at the tomb and various other people. Suddenly, there is a sound of rushing wind and flames as of fire appear on the heads of the followers. Wind and fire help to convey the dynamic power of the Spirit and the idea that the Spirit cannot be contained, yet at the same time is not meant to be chaotic, there is meaning and purpose to how, when and where the Spirit chooses to act.
We learn later on in the Book of Acts that apparently only the disciples actually perceived the flames of fire, but it is clear that everyone present discerned that something powerful and remarkable had occurred. People from many different places heard the story of Jesus from his followers in their own languages, which is a miracle by itself. They asked, are these people not mainly from Galilee, where they speak Aramaic? How then can they converse with us in our native tongue? There is also some comic relief – some accuse them of being drunk, but Peter points out that it is only nine o’clock in the morning, presumably too early to have imbibed too much wine.
The message is made clear when Peter quotes the prophet Joel, who prophesied that God would pour the Spirit upon “all flesh,” making no distinctions according to rank, authority, or position. Children, both boys and girls, speak the word. Women and men alike receive the gift, people who are both slave and free. The Spirit tears down all the walls of respectability: age, gender, and status alike. For these are the last days that Joel prophesied about, and the Spirit is surrounding “all flesh” with its gifts. Everyone who calls upon God is being saved.
Compared to Luke’s description of the day the promise of the Spirit was fulfilled, our gospel story seems pretty tame. It is John’s recollection of how Jesus promised to give the gift of the Spirit to his followers, during that time right before his death when he was determined to explain as much as he possibly could to them. Jesus outlines the critical role that the Spirit will play both in the Christian community and in the world. In John, Jesus’ preferred term for the Spirit is the Paraclete. This word is notoriously difficult to translate and so we use the title “the Spirit of Truth” whom Jesus calls to accompany his followers as helper, counselor, advocate, and guide. As part of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit is sent by Jesus, but goes out from the Father.
The Spirit of Truth testifies to the truth incarnate in Jesus and empowers Jesus’ followers to become witnesses to his mission. The Spirit speaks through the community of disciples, teaching us to bear witness not only with our words, but with our lives. As Jesus himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” The most compelling witness that any disciple can bear is to love others as Jesus did, through our words and actions.
Today, we are celebrating not just the gift of the Holy Spirit but also a very special day for Makayla and Khloe who have been waiting to receive their First Holy Communion. Every Sunday we come together as a family of God to take part in a special meal. The bread and wine we offer as gifts to God will be given back to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We never do this alone, we always share this meal together. Today marks the first time you will receive communion, yet it will not be the last. As the years go by and you grow into teenagers and then adulthood, this meal we call the Eucharist will be an essential part of your growth in faith. We call it the Eucharist, a Greek word, because it means thanksgiving, and we are thankful that God comes to us in this meal.
As you grow you will face many challenges, but your faith in God’s love for you will keep you strong and able to face those challenges. The Eucharist is the sharing of God’s life with us out of love. The food that Jesus gives us helps us grow strong in love of God and others such as parents, teachers, relatives, and friends –even people we do not know. The most important message that Jesus says to us through the Eucharist is that God loves us and cares for us. When we come to God’s church and share the meal, we are being made strong in His love.
Pentecost is not just a one-time only celebration of the Holy Spirit, it is a reminder that the gift of God’s Spirit is always with us. The Spirit accompanies us through life, inspiring us to do things we thought we could only dream about. The Spirit breathes new life into each one of us and through us, into our congregations and the wider church. The Spirit’s imagination is always at work, bringing a holy disruption to our everyday lives. Let us follow the example set by our children, who articulate their trust in God so well, and let the Spirit guide, inspire and empower us so that our dreams of a compassionate and just world may become reality. Amen.