Pentecost Sunday: What Does This Mean?

Scripture can be found here...

Dateline: Jerusalem, almost exactly 1,988 years ago. Ten days have passed since Jesus left this earthly plane, and now it is the Jewish feast of Pentecost!

What does this mean?

Like all the great festivals of that era, it was an occasion for a pilgrimage. God’s covenant people from all over the known world were traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate. “Pentecost” is the Greek name of the festival, a word meaning “fifty”: its Hebrew name is Shavuot, which means “weeks,” because that’s how it’s counted: seven weeks after Passover, plus one day. The festival commemorates many things. Originally it was a harvest festival, a festival of the “first fruits,” the first beautiful and fragrant stalks of grain, and the sweet grapes that spring forth when the time is right, when the seasons have turned in precisely the necessary way, when it is just warm enough, just rainy enough and just sunny enough. The festival was commemorated with grain and bread offerings in the temple, bread being that necessary food, from ancient times, to sustain life.

And then another layer of meaning was added: the festival also commemorates that moment when God’s covenant people stood at Mount Sinai and received the covenant, the Torah, the first five books of what we know of as the “Old Testament.” They received it from God. And you can see the connection. The giving of the covenant is a kind of “first fruits” of the relationship between God and God’s people. The Torah is as necessary to life as bread, as basic as food. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” says Rabbi Jesus, quoting Moses. The Jewish festival of Pentecost, stands in the tension between these very universal human needs: the need for bread, and the need for God. The need for sustenance of the body and of the spirit if we are to live in this world.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” [Acts 2:1]. On other Pentecost Sundays I have shared with you that it was a tradition, from ancient times, to celebrate Pentecost by spending the night in study of the Torah. So, of course the family, friends and followers of Jesus would have been together, studying scripture all night long. And this helps us understand the connections between the original Pentecost and the one we celebrate today.

What does this mean?

Pentecost is a harvest festival; and the coming of the Spirit is the beginning—only the beginning—of what will blossom in the wake of the life and work of Jesus.

This is a festival of “first fruits,” and scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit bears fruit as well: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23].

This is a festival commemorating the receiving of the covenant between God and God’s people, and Jesus has described the Spirit as being a kind of advocate—one who stands beside us, who accompanies us.

All these layers are present in this moment when a mighty wind sweeps through the place where Jesus’ friends and followers are gathered, when fire seems to fall on them, when they are moved to go out into the city, out amongst the thousands and thousands of pilgrims, and speak out, speak the word, stand up and tell the story of Jesus.

Something astonishing happens out there. Something unexpected, and unequalled. Jesus and his friends and followers are all Galileans. That means their native tongue is Aramaic, and they are no doubt preaching in their native tongue.  But people are gathered from all over the world… Parthians, Medes, Elamites and so forth. I’ll use the modern names for the countries all these empires stretched across 1,988 years ago. There were people from the places we know as Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Libya. People who had traveled from all these places heard the friends and followers of Jesus speaking, and they understood them, just as if they were speaking their very own languages.

What does this mean? It means that the Holy Spirit has given the people a miracle of communication. A miracle by which regions and languages and races are able to understand one another. Some have suggested that this is a reversal of what happened in the Tower of Babel, when God created many languages. But that’s not really so, or else the Spirit would have given everyone one common language. What we see and what they heard in this miracle of communication is God embracing many languages, God embracing diversity, and telling us: even if we’re not the same, we can still learn to understand each other.

What does this mean? Peter stands up to give his understanding of what it means by sharing a gorgeous passage from the prophet Joel.

In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young shall see visions,

    and your elders shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

        and they shall prophesy.            

~ Acts 2:17-18/ Joel 2:28-29

God promises to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh. This will take place without regard to the things that usually divide us. And the ancient world certainly had people divided up very carefully. Women were separate from men, in proximity, in the work they did, in the clout they did or did not carry, in their ability to be considered witnesses in a court of law. Children were separate from adults, in the rights they had or didn’t have, in their value or lack of it. Slaves were separate from those who were free, with slave-owners having the control of life and death over their slaves, just as they did more than a thousand years later here, in our own country.

But here is what will happen when God pours out the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will be poured out upon men. The Spirit will be poured out upon women. The Spirit will be poured out upon the young... in fact, we will witness our young people standing up and taking on a prophetic role. The Spirit will be poured out upon our elders… the dreams they dream will be important to us, a vital part of life in this Christian community. The Spirit will be poured out upon slaves, which in our modern context means, any humans who are treated like they are not people at all. The ones Jesus calls “the least of these…” The poor. The hungry. The thirsty. The sick. The immigrant (whom the bible calls, the “stranger” or the “alien”). The imprisoned. Every one of those of whom Jesus said, whatever you do to them, you do it to me. Folks who our society seems to have forgotten or forsaken, like the people of Flint Michigan who are still under orders to drink (and cook with and bathe in) bottled water, three years after lead contamination was uncovered. Or the people of Puerto Rico, where 22,000 people are still without power, and the power grid remains fragile and undependable nine months after the tenth strongest hurricane in history tore through this US territory. Or the nearly 1,500 migrant children who have disappeared in the last year, after being placed in the homes of adult US sponsors. The Holy Spirit of God is poured out upon all, because the work of Jesus must continue.

What does this mean?

This means the Spirit is poured out on us, too. This means that we are a part of God’s work. More than five hundred years ago a Spanish woman penned these words:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

                                                                        ~ Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Jesus has left this earthy plane on which he lived and moved and had his being. But we are here, we who call ourselves the body of Christ. We are here, and we have bodies and eyes and hands and feet and voices. And we have something else: we have the power of the Spirit poured out upon us, for the sole purpose of continuing Jesus’ work.

Ours are the ears that can learn understanding for one another, even though we are different.

Ours are the eyes that can look with compassion on those who are struggling, suffering.

Ours are the feet that can go, and take the good news with us.

Ours are the hands that can be used in blessing, in kindness, in reconciliation, and in service.

Just before the final hymn today, we would like to offer you an opportunity to come forward, for the blessing of your hands, for yours are the hands with which he blesses the whole world.

What does this mean?

Christ has no hands on earth now but ours. Let us receive the Spirit’s blessing, and do this work.

Thanks be to God. Amen.