There are three great festivals of the Church: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Pentecost was neglected for a long time and, in some ways, is not given much attention even now, if you consider that retail merchandising and greeting cards have not figured out a way to make money from it. What happened on the Day of Pentecost and why should it continue to be important to us?
Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival that took place 50 days after Passover. The Hebrew name is Shavuot. Shavuot is the second of the three major festivals (Passover being the first and Sukkot the third) and occurs exactly fifty days after the second day of Passover. This holiday marks the anniversary of the day when God’s people received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The word "Shavuot" means “weeks.” It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks the Jewish people cleansed themselves of the scars of Egyptian slavery and became a holy nation ready to enter into an eternal covenant with God with the giving of the Torah. So, the day celebrates a gift from above.
Jesus had commanded his followers to wait in the city of Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them. They needed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in order to do what he required them to do. Suddenly, their waiting was shattered by the noise of a strong driving wind. They saw what appeared to them to be tongues of fire spreading over and resting on each person there. Everyone touched became filled with the Holy Spirit. The apostles began to speak in different languages. Moving out into the street, they encountered devout people who were in Jerusalem for the feast. As the apostles preached, people heard the message in their own languages and asked, “what does it mean?” And that is the question we ask today. What does it mean that the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us? When we baptize people in this Church, we declare that they are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” What will that mean for them? And, what does it mean for you who also in Baptism have been sealed by the same Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever?
The Holy Spirit creates and renews the Church.
As the Spirit spoke to Ezekiel while he was standing in the Valley of Dry Bones: “I will put my breath in them, bring them back to life, and let them live in their own land.” The Spirit who draws people to God draws them into God’s Church and there God shapes and molds them according to God’s will into the creatures they were designed to be. God’s indwelling Spirit brings order and unity, inspires, illuminates, and gives the gifts that are needed for the Church to carry out God’s mission, as it is constantly being created and renewed.
The Holy Spirit enables us to speak God’s message.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we read, “The Spirit enabled them to speak.” This is the same Spirit who called the Prophets. We are in the communications business. By that I mean we are the instruments, the delivery system for the message of God. In our words and actions, we are called to communicate that message wherever we may be. And, because it is not our message, the giver of the message provides everything that is necessary to deliver it. If we could do it on our own, we’d have to question whether it was God’s in the first place.
The Holy Spirit enables us to hear God’s message.
The Acts of the Apostles also tells us that the people gathered for the festival heard the apostles “speaking in the native language of each.” St. John tells us that Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” The miracle of Pentecost was not so much a miracle of speaking as it was a miracle of hearing. Each person heard the message in a language he or she could understand. We have to first hear the message if we are going to deliver it to others.
The Holy Spirit comforts and heals us.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “counselor,” “comforter,” “helper.” The Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts when we are hurting, afraid, angry, or struggling with the cost of discipleship. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the presence of God, the power of God at work in and among us to give us the sense, the awareness of God and to recognize God’s hand at work.
The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin.
Jesus said, “And when he comes he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Sometimes, we attribute this phenomenon to our conscience. For Christians, the conscience is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. When we become aware of our sinfulness, it is the Holy Spirit moving within us, providing us an opportunity to turn in a new direction.
The Holy Spirit assures us of our salvation.
In the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans we are told that when we do sense our need of God, we are giving the assurance of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit.” That’s how we know, truly know, that God loves us, forgives us, and restores us to a relationship that we cannot either create or sustain on our own.
The Holy Spirit magnifies Christ.
Jesus said, “he will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3). When we gather for worship and when we are sent out into the mission field, the Holy Spirit prompts us to magnify Christ in words and actions.
To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to want others to know God’s deeds in Christ. The Holy Spirit moves people to praise the mighty works of God and to offer themselves, their souls and bodies, to participate in those mighty acts for the sake of the world.
I invite you to join me in reflecting on the work of the Holy Spirit as you listen to my favorite Pentecost hymn, Come Down, O Love Divine. Together, let us seek the indwelling Spirit in our own lives and in the life of the Church.
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church