When we hear the word ‘Pentecost’ most of us probably presume that it is a Christian word – a word that was developed by the first Christians to point to the coming of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. We might be surprised to know that the word ‘Pentecost’ in its original usage refers not to our Christian celebration, but to a much older Jewish celebration called ‘Shavu’ot’ or the ‘Feast of Weeks’. That great Jewish festival (which by the way is what had drawn the huge crowds to Jerusalem in the reading that we heard from the Acts of the Apostles), focused then, as it continues to do for Jews today, on the twin themes of giving thanks for, and offering back to God, the first fruits of the harvest, and commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai.
In the Jewish ‘Feast of Weeks’ both of these important commemorations come together in this one great festival, when Jews celebrate not only the provision of the harvest but also the giving of the Law: powerful signs of God’s ongoing faithfulness to his people. Signs, every harvest, that God has still not given up on his people regardless of what they have done in the previous year. Signs, through the Law, that God is still concerned that his people live life to the fullest. The festival illustrates graphically for the Jews that the giving of the harvest and the giving of the law go hand in hand together. The giving of the harvest is God’s provision for the body, the giving of the law is God’s provision for the soul. The date of this great Jewish festival is worked out from the Festival of the Passover. It occurs fifty days after the commemoration of the momentous night when Moses led the people out of slavery towards freedom in the promised land, because in the Exodus account it is fifty days after the Passover that Moses first goes up the Mount Sinai to be given God’s law (the ten commandments) for the Hebrew people. That is why the Greek name for that Jewish festival is ‘Pentecost’.
Pentecost is not a Christian title, it is the Greek word for ‘fiftieth day’ – the fiftieth day after the Passover when the great Jewish festival of the first fruits of the harvest, and the giving of the law are celebrated together. For the first Christians, who were also Jews, the Passover had taken on a new and momentous significance. It was at the Passover that Jesus shared the Last Supper with his friends. It was at the time of the Passover that Jesus was crucified, and rose again from the dead. Whatever the significance had been of the first Passover, when the Angel of death passed over (but did not harm) the first born in the houses of the Hebrew people in their slavery in Egypt, this paled into insignificance in comparison with the passing of Jesus from death to new life. So for the first Christians, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, the story of the freeing of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt after that first Passover night, became merely a foretaste of the freedom which they now experienced in Jesus.
On the Jewish festival of Pentecost these first Jewish Christians were gathered together in one room, to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest and the giving of the Law, and all around them in Jerusalem Jews from many nations were also gathered for the same celebrations. In all probability they had absolutely no idea that God was about to do yet another new thing amongst them. That is the scene that we are presented with in the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit that we find in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, his first followers, who were also Jews, continued to gather to observe the Jewish festivals, and to worship God, and to break bread, and to remember Jesus.
As these first Christians worshipped together – at a very traditional and old fashioned Jewish festival, in a very traditional and old fashioned Jewish way – a sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire place in which they were gathered, and fire appeared to rest on each of them, and this largely uneducated group of disciples began to speak in languages which they had not known. They obviously spilled out of the house and onto the street, where a crowd had gathered because of all of the commotion. Each of these Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the great festival heard the good news of Jesus in their own language coming from the mouths of the disciples. The intention of this account in the Acts of the Apostles is clearly to convey something much more powerful, much more significant than the ability of the first disciples, by the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate miraculously to the group of people who gather around them. This is not some kind of holy ventriloquism!
God is transforming these first followers of Jesus from being people who have been given the good news of Jesus for themselves, into his messengers to share this good news with others – and not just to their own people, (who speak the same language), but to all people – from every nation around the world. The disciples, through this powerful Holy Spirit experience, come to understand their own calling, not to stay huddled up in a room in Jerusalem, but to share the earth-shattering, world-changing message of God’s love with the whole world; and so it should be no surprise that the first evangelistic sermon given by any of the followers of Jesus flows out of this experience. Peter stands and preaches from the Old Testament prophets proclaiming that what has been awaited for so long has now come to pass in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Jewish festival which has been celebrated for so long and so faithfully, is now transformed into a vehicle which expresses the new thing that God is doing amongst his people. The first fruits of the harvest are no longer simply to be understood in terms of crops, the first fruits are now about the harvest of people. The giving of the law (the giving of a standard about how to live in God’s will) is no longer simply about the ten commandments, it is about being refreshed and made new by the power of the Holy Spirit who enables people to live within a new life giving ethical framework defined by the love and power of God. So for the first Christians, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is about much more than a momentary special experience, it is the further assurance that God’s great plan of salvation, since the earliest times, is being fulfilled through the Gospel of Jesus. It requires a decisive response from those first disciples.
There is one other thing which it would be easy to miss in all of this. For the Jews, including our Jewish neighbours today, the ‘Festival of Weeks’ is not only a commemoration, it is not only looking back. As the first fruits of the harvest are brought to God, there is a looking forward, an anticipation of the fuller harvest which is yet to come. As the giving of the law at Mount Sinai is commemorated, the receiving of that law in every generation requires an active and engaging response. The first fruits of the harvest look forward to the full yield of the crops, the giving of the law looks forward to a day when the law will be fully received, and applied in every generation, and lived out in the lives of the Jewish people. And so it is for us, as we celebrate the Christian festival of Pentecost. Our own calendar mirrors that of the Jews.
The Passover for us has been superseded by the passing of Jesus from death to life, and the liberating freedom which is now offered to all humanity. Fifty days later after that great resurrection moment – today – we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, not only as a past event, but as a present and future reality. As it was for our ancestors, so too for us, this is a festival of first fruits. We bring to God our limited and imperfect faith as the first fruits, the first signs of what God is doing in us. We bring to God our willingness to be a part of God’s plan, to be witnesses to his Kingdom, to be the mouth, and hand and heart of his action in the world as the first fruits of what God has begun in us.
By the coming of God’s Holy Spirit we pray today that these first fruits will be multiplied into the full yield of a momentous harvest in which God’s law of love, God’s framework for being all that God desires us to be will be received not only by those of us in the Church, but by all of our neighbours in the communities which God has called us to serve. Today at this Eucharist here in East Maitland, in this season of celebration, we bring Lewis Watkins to be baptised – with all of our thanks to the God who lovingly created him, and with all of our hopes and prayers that we have for the wonderful life ahead of him.
Today we gather with our confirmation candidates, to pray for them as they continue on their journey of grace towards the God who loves them as they prepare to receive the sacrament next month. In a very traditional and predictable way (just like those first Christians gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival) we are here to worship and to pray. We bring the first fruits of God at work Lewis, and in those preparing to be confirmed. We bring the first fruits of God at work in all of our lives, and we wait expectantly, just like on that first transforming day of Pentecost, for God to fill every one of us with his Holy Spirit, to use us to bring in the harvest of his love for the world: and so we pray, ‘come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people. And kindle in us the fire of your love.’