Sermon for Sunday 23 May 2021
What was the feast of Pentecost? If you ever ask a biblical scholar and they tell you they know, don’t believe them! The truth is that nobody knows exactly how the Jewish feast of Pentecost worked at the time of Jesus. Ancient Jewish texts are full of enormous arguments about when and how this festival was supposed to be celebrated.
The word itself comes from a Greek term that simply means “the fiftieth day.” But fifty days after what?
The origins of the feast seem to lie in a harvest festival that commemorated the bringing in of the grain each year. This connection with grain gradually linked it with Passover. It became a point when the sheaf of leavened bread could be offered again to God in the third month of the year, fifty days after Passover.
Now because the ancient Israelites had reached Mount Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt, a second connection developed that the feast of Pentecost was about commemorating the gift of the Law to Moses.
The main point of what I’m trying to say with all this slightly dreary donnish detail is this. What had started as a harvest festival appears to have become the feast in which the giving of the Law was commemorated. It was a festival of renewal – renewal of the covenant relationship between God and man, and a celebration of his law given as gift to Israel.
The Pentecost we hear described in Acts was a feast of new beginnings, fresh starts, and renewal of relationship and covenant.
It should come as no surprise that Luke saw deep connections between the gift of the Holy Spirit and the day on which it happened. For this spectacular entry of the Holy Spirit into human existence is about the renewal of our covenant relationship with God.
But it was a Pentecost with a twist. The old Pentecost celebrated the covenant of Moses. This Spirit Pentecost saw the fruits of a new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood. And just as the old Pentecost celebrated the gift of the Law of Sinai, this Spirit Pentecost saw the inclusion of many nations in Christ’s new law of love.
What luck that this is the Sunday on which a new priestly ministry should begin in this parish. For whatever lies ahead of us in the years to come, I hope we can live out together the mystery of the gift of God’s Spirit that we see described in today’s readings.
The celebration of Pentecost is about the deepening and renewal of relationship – our relationship with God, our relationships with one another, and our relationship with the world. And the only way we can do that is in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
The story we hear from the Acts of the Apostles is one in which a disparate group of people present in Jerusalem realises that despite differences of culture, language and outlook, they are all united by hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed to them.
Throughout that book, God’s Spirit prompts an extraordinary engagement with the world as disciples of Jesus Christ take his message and his presence to the corners of the known world. Those who were excluded find they are included. Those who were voiceless are given a voice. Those who were sick, poor, and unclean find they are made whole in Christ.
The challenges the apostles faced in Acts echo, it strikes me, very closely many of the challenges this parish described in its recent parish profile. A need to grow and reach out to new people, a yearning to be more outward facing, a longing for an easing of tensions and divisions over a number of issues. As we move forward and live and grow together, it strikes me the solution to many of those issues is exactly the same solution we see in Acts – a deepening of our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It begins by each and every one of us renewing our covenant relationship with God, and trusting more fully in the capacity of God’s Spirit to transform our lives. And if that happens, a natural deepening of our relationships one with another and with the world comes about I think almost automatically. We see one another first and foremost as brothers and sisters in Christ. And the world becomes a place enchanted by God’s presence which we do not need to be afraid of. It becomes a place where we can make a difference in Christ’s name.
I’ve always thought one of the most important details in the entire Pentecost story is this. Those listening to the apostles thought they were drunk. “They are full of new wine,” they said. The Holy Spirit had so transformed him and he was so full of joy that he seemed inebriated.
I am not arguing that hitting the bottle is the solution to our parish’s challenges, but there is something to be copied here in Peter’s carefree joy. An openness to the Spirit that is so complete that it flows over in joyful proclamation of Christ. For it is by joy that we know God’s true presence and not fear. It is in generosity and giving away of ourselves that we grow. And it is in God’s power and not our own that we must trust.