The festival of Pentecost in the Hebrew traditions and calendar was about two things – a celebration of the giving of the law and the covenant that it established as well as an annual celebration of the beginning of the harvesting.
It is in this context that the Christian church celebrates the Holy Spirit. A time of harvest and a time of covenant renewal.
Bruce Prewer drew attention to this idea by speaking about the fruitful dimensions of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church as being prolific – extravagant, even – and we get a sense of this in the three New Testament readings set for today.
In our reading from Acts, we see the working of the Holy Spirit breaking down the barriers of language that kept people apart. Whichever way the miracle happened, everyone was able to hear and understand the gospel proclamation of those first disciples. It is also worth noting that this story culminates with a huge harvest of souls, as we might call it – thousands of people were drawn by these events into the community of faith.
But the reading from Romans has a different take on the work of the Holy Spirit. In this short passage we are reminded by Paul that the Spirit is able to step in and pray for us when words fail us – when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit steps in and intercedes for us.
Then, in the Gospel passage we read, the work of the Spirit is compared to a helper or Advocate who enables us to speak on Jesus’ behalf.
These are three very different kinds of fruit in the life of the church – fruit that all have their source in the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
When we think of the Holy Spirit in these terms, then, it is not surprising that the story telling puts these events in the context of the festival of Pentecost – a celebration of first fruits.
But what are we in our time to make of these things?
There are perhaps a couple of ideas we can develop from Luke’s words in The Acts.
If you look at this event as one of the momentous moments in the Gospel stories then it stands apart a little from some that have gone before. In that story we call The Transfiguration – when Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah – there were a select few witnesses (Peter, James and John).
But in this story no one is excluded. The tongues of fire rested on each and every disciple gathered there – not just the select Apostles – and moments later the crowd surged forward because each and every one of them is able to hear what the Disciples are saying in their native tongue. The extent of the inclusiveness of this image is emphasised by that long list of places from which they came basically covering the known world of the day.
So this Pentecost thing is not an inner mystical experience. Rather it is an outpouring of God’s energy or power in a way that touches every life present.
The second thing to note in this story is that not everyone was impressed. Indeed, some people could only understand what was happening by describing them as drunk. That makes me think of that little story way back in the stories of Israel when Samuel’s mother was so fervently praying to God to have a baby, that Eli the priest thought she was drunk.
It seems hard to imagine that people did not recognise this as an amazing expression of the Spirit’s presence, because that is what it was, and we are left to hope that those who mocked the disciples would soon, on hearing Peter’s sermon, realise what it really was that they were witnessing.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to that long quotation of the prophet Joel in Peter’s sermon. We are so used to the interpreting this text in the context of the Day of Pentecost that we have forgotten that when Joel uttered or scribed these words he was forecasting the death and destruction of the nation. For Joel the signs of the outpouring of the Spirit are a prelude of disaster.
Peter, however, takes these words and transforms them from portents of death and destruction into powerful declarations of new life. These signs scream out to us that the Spirit of God has invaded human life in ways that shatter old expectations. It is not death that is the aim of the Spirit’s visitation, but new life – sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life!
And this, of course, becomes the heart of the Gospel message for those disciples. It is the work of the Spirit to draw us all together into the family of God, and through that same Spirit we are empowered to live that new life that God calls us all into through Jesus.