Pentecost – Year A
Readings: Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
As a child, I lived in Andover in Hampshire on a residential complex called Floral Way. There were fields around the estate which were owned by the Weetabix company. On hot sunny days like those we’ve been having recently, I used to walk though the long corn to some large diameter concrete pipes which became a den to meet in with friends. Later in the year, combine harvesters would collect the corn. Then and afterwards it wasn’t safe to enter the field. When the combines had finished their work, the stubble in the fields was set fire to – the flames would track across the fields along the rows of stubble, eating up the stalks. Dark smoke would rise into the sky from the flames.
I am transported to this memory by the first verse of this Sunday’s reading from Acts. Whilst the Greek text of the New Testament refers to Pentecost, meaning ‘fiftieth’, at the time Luke is writing of, the festival was known as Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. As prescribed in the book of Leviticus (23.15-21) Shavuot was celebrated fifty days after the Passover. The festival was agricultural, in that it marked the conclusion of the wheat harvest. The barley harvest started at Passover and the wheat harvest concluded at Shavuot. The festival was also religious, Passover marking delivery of the Hebrews from Egypt and Shavuot the giving of the Torah – the law – to Moses on Mount Sinai.
So in many ways, the festival marked a completion. The fullness of the harvest had been gathered in and the first fruits presented to God. Leviticus presents this as offering the first harvest of the earth in the Promised Land: God’s people had arrived at their destination and could enjoy its bounty; they offered the first part of it back to God in thanksgiving. Equally, with the arrival of the Torah a journey was completed: from living under the tyranny of a foreign power to each family living with God’s grace through the giving of the Law.
When I think of Pentecost now, I think of fire. I love to lose myself in the flames of a wood fire as I gaze at their glow and dance. Through the winter, the warmth and light give a sense of comfort and security; and the movement of the flames, their varying colours and intensity, is mesmerizing. But fire is not all comfort: we need think only of the forest fires in California and in Australia last year to think of fire’s destructive power. Fire - in the form of the fire ball of the sun - provided warmth and light for the wheat to grow and the summer for me to enjoy; fire was also used to destroy the stubble, which it would burn through unrelentingly.
This year, the texts given for Pentecost present two corresponding ‘faces’ of the Holy Spirit which correspond with these experiences of fire: one gentle; one more violent. John’s gospel recounts a ‘little’ Pentecost. Jesus is with his disciples in the upper room after the resurrection and says, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ He then breathed on them and said ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. The scene is pastoral and intimate. Jesus is present with the disciples and as he breathes the spirit on them, he enjoins them in his ministry as an extension of the Father’s ministry in him. The event seems gentle, comforting, calm but no less authoritative for this.
The contrast is with Pentecost in the book of Acts. On Luke’s account, the Spirit descends like flames of fire, as tongues of fire; the Spirit descends like the rush of a violent wind. What follows is unsettling: noise and disturbance as deeds of God’s power are recounted in many languages and people struggle to make sense of how they can understand the language of foreigners. Peter raises his voice above the crowds’ to explain the prophetic end of days that starts with the descent of the Spirit.
So we discern two faces of the Holy Spirit here: one that is gentle and calm; that takes us into the heart of God and shows us who God is within his very being. And we have an unsettling, violent Spirit, who cuts across separation by ethic background with a shared language; a Spirit who is God powerfully present like a gale of wind or a fire burning through a forest. In John’s gospel, we see intimacy, connection and depth; in Luke’s account in Acts, we see disturbance and overwhelming power. With these polarities, we might repeat with the writer of the book of Hebrews (12.29), “For indeed our God is a consuming fire.”
These extreme manifestations of the Holy Spirit take us - at one end - to dwell in the security of the depths of God and - at the other - brings disorientation and change. How do these extremes relate to our more ordinary lives, inside and outside of church?
Galatians (5.22-23) points us to the ‘fruit of the Spirit’: essentially the marks of holiness that all followers of Christ should expect to show through the work of the indwelling Spirit: love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are a very helpful checking-in list for our spiritual state. Stopping to ask how fulsome the fruit of the spirit are within my life, is a good way to check in with my spiritual well-being, my being with God.
The fruit of the Spirit are generic, allowing us to recognize Christ in ourselves and in one another. They transcend difference; they reach out across diversity. By contrast, the gifts of the Spirit by their very nature are diverse; they recognize and extend human difference. These gifts come with a call to work together, drawing on difference as something which enriches, so that women and men receive from each other out of God’s grace. Paul lists words of knowledge; words of wisdom; faith; gifts of healing; gifts of miracles; prophecy; discernment of spirits; the gift of tongues and interpretation of tongues.
In order to recognize and value these gifts; in order for them to be used ‘for the common good’, there is a need for members of the body of Christ to honour one another, to respect one another, to give one another space to be themselves, to allow for another being different and hard to understand. With this generosity, the life of the church is enriched and grows. Paul tells us that the body of Christ has many parts and that they need each other.
This, then, points us towards another moment of completion. Shavuot marks the moment when the liberated slaves have settled sufficiently in new land to enjoy its harvest; it marks the moment when the Law is given to God’s people: no longer will overseers rule them, but they will have life-giving laws for themselves. It marks the moment when the Holy Spirit is poured out on to God’s people so that they can know God for themselves and be God’s agents; and it marks the moment when God bestows on his church a diversity of spiritual gifts – requiring Christians to honour the presence of Christ in each other for the full harvest – not of corn – but of God’s kingdom to come in.
This Pentecost, may we all be open to the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit. Whether the Spirit brings gifts that are dramatic or gifts that are quiet and deep, our call is to receive those them to build up the body of Christ.
Come, Holy Spirit!