Feast of the Pentecost - 11th May 2008
Holy Communion – Address
Preached by Lay Leader David Fuller
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Collect for Feast of Pentecost
GOD, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit:
grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
| In lieu of Old Testament lesson:
|| Acts 2, Vv 1 - 21
|| 1 Corinthians 12, Vv 3b - 13
| Holy Gospel:
|| St John 20, Vv 19 - 23
The Greek root of the word Pentecost is pente which means five. We meet the same root in words like pentagon, a five sided polygon, pentagram, a five pointed star, and Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. But, you may ask, what connection has this with the coming of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of God, to the apostolic band, the very event the church celebrates today? We have to go back to the Jewish roots of our faith for the answer. The ancient Jews kept a Feast of Weeks after the Feast of the Passover. It was a week-of-weeks; a period of seven weeks. It was the time of the year when the first grain was harvested and offered to God in the Temple. It was a sort of first-fruits festival, rather like Lammas-tide used to be to the medieval, Christian church. As more Jews became urbanised and moved into cities like Jerusalem, the day at the end of the week-of-weeks took on a more spiritual significance. It became a day to thank God for the law given to Moses, a law expressed in the Pentateuch that I mentioned earlier. You can find the details in the sixteenth chapter of the Book called Deuteronomy. So, what is the link with the number five? A week of weeks is seven times seven, or 49 days, or about fifty days. In our calendar the Feast of Ascension falls forty days after Easter, and Pentecost fifty days (or, more correctly, 49 days) after the Resurrection.
Our first reading came from the Acts of the Apostles, in lieu of the Old Testament, as these first readings have done during the whole of the Easter period, in this Year A of our three year lectionary. It told that wonderfully evocative story of the coming of the Paraclete on the day of Pentecost. There came from heaven a sound as of a rushing, mighty wind that filled the entire house where they were sitting. We are told that they were all together in one place on the Day of Pentecost. It is interesting to consider what had happened to the disciples in the previous seven weeks. They had all, except Thomas, seen Jesus in the upper room on the evening of the day of resurrection, if Saint John is to be believed. We heard about this in our Gospel proclamation – about which, more later. In the closing verses of Saint Mark’s Gospel, after the resurrection appearances to the two Marys and Salome, Jesus appeared to two who were walking in the country. This is probably the same story that is given us in more detail by Saint Luke and concerns the journey to Emmaus. Jesus then appeared to the disciples and upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart. They were then instructed to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The closing two verses record Jesus’ ascension. Scholars are firmly of the opinion that verses nine to twenty of the concluding chapter of the Markan account are from another hand and were written at a different time from the main autograph.
In Saint Matthew’s account Jesus goes to Galilee and meets with his disciples there. We are told that, when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted – no names are given as to who believed and who doubted. As in Saint Mark, the closing verses are from another hand and again are from a different time. As I have mentioned, Saint Luke, after reporting on the resurrection appearances, gives us an account of the Journey to Emmaus. When the two travellers, probably Mr and Mrs Cleopas, returned to Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to all of them, gave his peace to them and asked to be fed. Jesus then seems to have offered some more teaching to the disciples and, after telling them to wait until endued with power from on high, he walked with them as far as Bethany, where he was taken up in to heaven.
In Saint John’s Gospel we get the details of the authority given to the disciples to remit the sins of the penitent. In this context we read of the doubt shown by Thomas Didymus. Perhaps he was among the doubters mentioned by Saint Matthew. This warrant to forgive sin, a continuation of the power that Jesus himself had on earth, and one which he regularly demonstrated, had to wait until the coming of the Paraclete to receive divine authority. The church believes that that mandate has been handed down through a succession of archbishops and bishops to today’s ordained clergy in a process known as the Apostolic Succession; hence the ultra-importance of this Pentecostal Feast.
Saint Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, tells us in that work that Jesus taught his disciples by many infallible proofs, for a period of forty days after his resurrection. It is obvious that the time scales, and indeed the geographical details, differ between these various accounts. Even Saint Luke’s two versions of events are at variance. However, the church has adopted the time scale given us in Acts and that is why we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension ten days ago, and are here today keeping Pentecost, or Whitsunday, if you prefer.
Let us go back to the story in Acts. After the rushing, mighty wind filled the house, tongues of fire settled upon the heads of each of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. It is in recognition of the redness of tongues of fire that our liturgical colour today, seen in our altar frontal, is red. The first recognisable effect that this transformation had was that they were able to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Up to this point the message of the Kingdom of God on earth had been given solely to the Jews of Palestine. Even when Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two to preach the Good News they were under strict instructions to go only to Jewish communities. They were told not even to go to the Samaritans, who were near neighbours. At the Feast of Pentecost Jerusalem was filled with Jews from all over the known world. They represented those many who, for political or economic reasons, lived away from Palestine, described as devout men out of every nation under heaven. They were the Jews of the Diaspora. We were given that astonishing list of geographical locations in Acts. So, here we have the first instance of non-Palestinian Jews officially hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, resurrected and ascended. There is an interesting link back to early Jewish history, implied in verse six of our first lesson, where we read, ‘every man heard them speak in his own language’. If we go back to the eleventh chapter of the book called Genesis we can find the story of the Tower of Babel. In the time of Nimrod, the mighty hunter, the whole world had one, single language, but the inhabitants were getting, as we might say, ‘above themselves’. Let me quote you from what they were saying:
‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
I mentioned that Nimrod was called the mighty hunter, but his name comes from a Jewish verb meaning, ‘to revolt’. He became a tyrannical despot and he led organised rebellions against the rule and laws of Yahweh. It is no small wonder that God was mightily displeased.
In our Pentecost story we have the very reverse of Babel. Suddenly every man could hear what was being said, as if it was in his own language. Yet Peter, who gave the long address, that occupies most of the second chapter of Acts, would have spoken in Aramaic, his native tongue. He probably spoke it with a heavy Galilean dialect; you will remember that he was recognised as a Galilean by his accent before his three-fold betrayal of his Lord. Instead of scattering his people abroad, God now wanted then brought together again, but under a new law and within a new covenant. The old was done away. The new commandment, ‘that you love one another, even as I have loved you,’ was to be put in place; put in place among all of God’s people, for all time. But, there were still to be links with the past. After the ascension the disciples were in the habit of meeting together, perhaps in the same upper room where they had had their last meal with their master, and where Jesus had commissioned them on the day of resurrection. They probably still feared arrest, persecution or even death by stoning. They had appointed Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot, in order to maintain continuity with the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
A number of frightened men had seen their risen Lord, and had been commanded to love one another and to forgive the sins of the penitent. They had also seen, at the Last Supper, a demonstration of how they were to have their Saviour with them always, through the breaking of the bread. Still they huddled together in one place. Ten days had passed since the Ascension and nothing had happened. Then, on this important Jewish Feast Day, the Paraclete came, as Jesus had promised he would. The Holy Spirit of God descended on these twelve men, just as the dove had descended upon Jesus at his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. The Paraclete came to reinforce in their minds the teachings that Jesus had given them – to lead them into all truth. Suddenly they were given the most amazing powers. They could, and would, preach the Gospel, the Good News, with fervour and enthusiasm. They would heal the sick and bring the dead to life again. They were, although they may not have known it, the very nucleus of what would quickly become the Christian Church. The rushing, mighty wind, of which we heard earlier, was the breath of God, the Holy Spirit of God, breathing very life into this church, rather as God had breathed life into Adam as he was formed from the dust of the ground. That church, of which we are all members through baptism, celebrates the anniversary of its birth today. Let us thank God for the coming of the Comforter, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, without whom the Christian church would not have come into existence, without whom we would not be led into the ways of truth and without whom we would have no expectation of eternal life.
Copyright © David Fuller 2008
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