Pentecost May 31, 2020
A commentary in four movements for Pentecost.
1. The Spirit created the earth …and the whole cosmos…in Genesis 1:2 The Spirit who is responsible for the Big Bang, 13.2 billion years ago, and who hovered over the waters of the earth at its formation 4.5 billion years ago, also appeared at the baptism of Jesus and animated the apostles at Pentecost. The Spirit is continuous and central throughout world history in both cosmic and personal ways. Pentecost is one of the Spirit’s signature moments, but it is far from the only one.
2. There are two different accounts of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost: John’s account of the day of resurrection and Acts’ each tell of the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.
The gospel (John 20:19-23) tells us that on Easter Sunday, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked… 'Jesus came among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed …. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”'
Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, but John’s gospel does not indicate a profound change in their behaviour. Immediately after Jesus’ gift of the Spirit he wrote that Thomas, who had been absent at this first post-resurrection appearance, doubted that Jesus had risen and that Jesus came again and persuaded him. The next chapter, (John 21), reports that the apostles had gone back to fishing. At least according to John’s account, the Spirit had not changed the way they lived or acted.
In Acts, "When the day of Pentecost came, the apostles were together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them…."
The gospel story of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on them and the account of the wind and tongues of fire in Acts are separated by fifty days and suggest a conflict… Did the Holy Spirit come when Jesus breathed on the disciples on Easter Sunday or at Pentecost? Which is the accurate one?
Both may be true and accurate. It may be that Jesus breathed on the apostles and gave them the Holy Spirit. But it may also be that the gift was “dormant”. The disciples’ behaviour did not change. They were unable to persuade Thomas that Jesus had risen and they returned to fishing after Jesus disappeared (John 21). It also seems that some of the disciples continued to misunderstand Jesus (John 21:22-23) The Spirit, like a seed sleeping in the ground, until the right conditions cause it to burst forth in grains, may have been awaiting the right conditions.
Those conditions appear to have been that the disciples returned to Jerusalem after Jesus had ascended and all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.(Acts 1:12-14) In a sense, they “went on retreat” to consider the life of Jesus: his teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and his way of being with them. Pentecost occurred at the end of this time of constant prayer. The time of prayer and reflection may have been the conditions that caused the Holy Spirit, already present in them, to burst forth when God sent the wind and the fire.
3. The Spirit brought many gifts. Once the Spirit had bloomed within the apostles, they were empowered to:
· preach God’s Word and be understood by people from many different linguistic backgrounds (2:5-12)
· perform wonders and signs (2:43)
· act with courage in the face of threats (4:8, 29, 7:55)
· carry the gospel to the Gentile world (10:44-48)
· be guided in major decisions such as the commissioning of Bartholomew
Paul, in Romans, says the Spirit,
· helps us in our weakness (Rom 8:26)
· sends spiritual gifts to equip the church (1 Cor 12)
· reshapes the temperament and character of believers (Gal 5:22)
· enables us to interpret the meaning of inspired speech (1 Cor:14-1-25)
· receive divinely inspired words (1 Cor 14:26-32)
4. The Holy Spirit is active today, among us and within us. Last year, at Pentecost, I told a story, that is worth repeating. I was volunteering at St. Stephen’s Sunday morning breakfast when one of the regular guests came in. The man was a binge drinker and did street drugs. He normally talked with me about the pratfalls of drinking and told me jokes. He had told me he’s stop drinking “someday” but not now. But this morning his body language was different, and he didn’t look at me. After he got his coffee and sat down, I asked him how he was. He told me that he was going to kill himself. He’d lost another job because he was too hung over to go to work; been evicted from his rooming house for failure to pay the weekly rent,and; his family wouldn’t take him back. I believed him.
When he finished his coffee, he left. I didn’t know what I could do but I followed him out the door and said, “God loves you.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I thought, “How lame!” It was true, but I felt it was an ineffective response.
He wheeled around on me and said, “How do you know?” in a sarcastic voice.
When I opened my mouth, I didn’t know what I was going to say, but the words that came out were, “because he sent me here to tell you.” I immediately wondered, “where did that come from?”
He gave me a crooked smile, stood still, then turned around and walked away.
I didn’t see him for about six weeks. Then he showed up one Sunday. He said that, by chance (or the work of the Spirit) he bumped into counsellor from CAMH, who knew him, recognized the urgency and got him into emergency. When he came back, he told me that he remembered the conversation. He thought it was a well-intentioned but strange. He added that he never went to church, but he thought of the breakfasts on Sunday mornings as his “church service”.
I’ve thought about that exchange often and I believe that the Holy Spirit moved me out the door and put the words in mouth. I certainly didn’t have the clinical or pastoral expertise to change him. I also believe that the chance meeting with a counsellor from CAMH who recognized him was also the work of the Spirit. Finally, I agree that events, even as humble as scraping plates and cleaning up spills at a Sunday breakfast, can be a "church service".
I believe in the Holy Spirit, who is active today.