... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

The Day of Pentecost Year C, Message May 19th, 2013

Pentecost: Message Received

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Today we celebrate Pentecost – the Greek name given to the Jewish Festival of Weeks or ‘Sharvot’. This festival, the second of the three great feasts, honours the harvest of the spring grain crop and is celebrated in the month of Siven – corresponding to our My-June time frame. As one of the great feasts in the Jewish year it was a time when many Jews, especially from the Diaspora would be expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and there experience the cosmopolitan interaction of peoples of many languages. It was at this celebration in the Jewish calendar that Luke informs us that the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit.

As disciples gathered together in one place to pray witness a great sound as the rush of a violent wind and at the same time experienced the gift of the Spirit in the ability to speak in foreign languages. Unlike the Pauline concept of speaking in tongues the Lucan account for the disciples is the gift of speaking foreign languages and attested to by the fact that other Jews from the various parts of the Diaspora understand them in their native tongues. Thus those Jews originating from Egypt heard the disciples speaking Egyptian; those from Libya heard Lebanese; those from Rome heard Latin and so on. The gift of the Spirit landed on all such that true communication was experienced. It was a new life and a new beginning!

It is not accidental therefore that this new life celebration marked the birth of the church and we are informed later in today’s reading from Acts that, following Peter’s sermon addressed to the skeptics, some 3000 were baptized. As this is recorded as a result of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost becomes one of the two main Christian celebrations dealing with the attributes of the Spirit – Trinity Sunday being the other. So what is it about the Holy Spirit we are being asked to consider?

We have all heard of the gifts of the Spirit, the signs of the Spirit and the workings of the Spirit. But what is it we mean when we think and talk of God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit? To help us with this concept we need to realize that in Hebrew the word “ruach” is used to denote Spirit, and in Greek the word is “pneuma”. Both terms denote breath or wind and by extension life. Metaphorically speaking the terms also denote knowledge passed on to people from a transcendent event or force. Thus prophetic tellings or foreknowledge of things that will happen are breaths or winds passed to the person by some spiritual being. It is the understanding of God’s speaking or bestowing on people this foreknowledge that has led to a doctrine of a life giving and altering manifestation of the Divine which we know as the Holy Spirit.

And on the first Pentecost God’s Spirit came upon the disciples and they were able to speak in such languages that all the various nationalities in Jerusalem at the time were able to hear and understand their words. Yet we are told that there were others who did not understand and who accused the disciples of being drunk. Many have commented on this part of the passage as an objection to the universal comprehension of Pentecost. However if we stop and think about it, it is not surprising. If one of the disciples were to speak English I would hear and understand, but if one were speaking Italian and the person next to one could understand it while I have no ability in that language I would be skeptical and in the dark. Thus Peter’s sermon comes to play a great role in the overall comprehension of God’s work in that first Pentecost. It is the beginning of the last days. It is a new start, the old days are gone and the new era (termed by Joel as the last days) had begun. This new era was to be viewed as a broadening of God’s love to the world. The Jewish monopoly of God’s presence was ending and the spread of the Gospel was beginning. The knowledge of God, the salvation of the world by the life and death of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit was expanding to encompass both Jew and Gentile alike. What was broken asunder at Shiran was being restored at Jerusalem. The confusion of Babel was being cleared up with Pentecost.

Unfortunately Pentecost has been often trivialized because of the very gifts of speaking in tongues. To many this has come to mean the speaking in unintelligible sounds and words highly prized by some denominations and viewed as the only true marks of being a born-again Christian. Such a narrow understanding of Pentecost has cheapened that first day of Pentecost and the understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit in general. If someone says something and no one else is able to understand what was spoken – of what value is it to the wider populace?

The concept of communication whether it be between God and humans or human and human is that one can understand the other. When God spoke to Moses or to Abraham or to any of the prophets, the language spoken and heard was the native language of the listener. In order for us to understand we have to heed or experience the communication in our own way of communication and in our own concept of understanding. If I start talking in medical jargon explaining things in terms of pathophysiology and using the Latin names of various bacterial organisms, the only ones who would understand are those in the same field. All others would be lost. The teacher who tries to tell her first graders about the change in the colour of leaves or the fall by explaining or talking about the degradation of chlorophyll will be met with the glazed eyes of incomprehension.

Communication is a 2-way process – what is delivered must be able to be comprehended and in turn must be responded to so that both communicator and listener know that which was intended is indeed that which was received. The day of Pentecost was the day that God’s message of salvation was indeed delivered and all those who received it understood, and as Acts 2 verse 41 tells us, some 3000 persons heard the disciples that day understand Peter’s sermon and were baptized.

May we by the Power of the Spirit receive the message, understand it and live by it so as to bring glory to God and the message of the Kingdom to the whole world.