Collect for Feast of Pentecost
ALMIGHTY and ever-living God, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us your Holy Spirit
and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: keep us in the unity of your Spirit,
that every tongue may tell of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In lieu of Old Testament lesson:
Acts 2, Vv 1 - 21
Romans 8, 22 - 27
St John 15, Vv 26 - 27 & 16, Vv 4b - 15
Today is the day when we particularly remember the third person of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, the Holy Spirit. We sometimes forget the importance of this third person, yet the Holy Spirit is the power of the Godhead; through him all things were and are accomplished. The Propers, our readings, for today have an unusual rubric, or ruling. This says that the passage of scripture from the second chapter of Acts must be read as either the first or the second lesson. We used it in lieu of the Old Testament lesson, but, had we not done so we would have heard some words from the Prophecy of Ezekiel. These comprise what are probably the best known verses from that book, the narrative of the dry bones. This story was, you will remember, the basis of a well-known spiritual song, ‘Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones’. Apparently this song was often used to teach basic skeletal principles to children, although the descriptions contained within it are far from being anatomically correct. But I digress.
The most significant verse in this tale in the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel is the fifth: ‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones; I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live’. We have here a direct connection with a much earlier book in the Bible, in fact the first book, called Genesis. In the second chapter of that book we may read, ‘then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’. As we have explored many times in the past, the Hebrew word ruach is used in this context. Ruach can be translated as wind, or breath or spirit. Thus it was the Spirit of God who breathed life into the first man, Adam, and he became a living person. Similarly, it was the Spirit of God who breathed life into the re-assembled bones, found in the middle of Ezekiel’s valley. The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is responsible for all life, on this planet and elsewhere in the vastness of the universe, if such is ever discovered. We affirm this in our Nicene Creed when we use the words, ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life’. We know from our readings of Holy Scripture that God’s breath, God’s life, returns to him when his creatures die. In the Book called Ecclesiastes we may read, ‘the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it’.
By such scriptural references we can define what comprises life. Life is not a neat arrangement of atoms and molecules into some organic structure. Life does not arise from chemical equations and the application of the laws of physics. Life has never been created, other than by God. Biological and life scientists, with their chemical soups of enzymes and amino acids and their electrical discharges, have not created life, and they never will. It has been argued by sophisticated micro-biologists that, when their molecular manipulative techniques are far enough advanced such that they can produce, atom by atom and molecule by molecule, an exact replica, a clone, of a living organism, then they will have produced life. I have to tell them that they will not have created life. They may have developed an identical structure to a living organism, but it will be a dead one. Unless the Holy Spirit of God breathes life into it, then dead it will remain. Life is the supreme gift of the creator of the universe: God and no-one else.
What has any of this to do with today’s celebration on Pentecost or Whitsunday? The connection is, of course, that word ruach. Let us spend a few moments looking at what the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles tells us happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost. First, they were all together in one place. Who were? The closing verses of the preceding chapter, as we heard last Sunday, tell of the election of Matthias to replace Simon Iscariot, to return the number of principal disciples to twelve. These twelve were almost certainly the ones who were all together. In the previous ten days since Jesus had ascended back to heaven, if Luke’s account in chapter one of Acts is to be believed, these men must have spent much time together, waiting and wondering what was to happen. Would they have remembered that Jesus had told them that he would send the Holy Spirit to them? Were they still concerned about being arrested by the Jewish authorities as subversives, to be taken away to death by stoning or crucifixion? How they must have missed their friend and master. Then, suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. In Greek, the work pneuma has the same meanings as the Hebrew word ruach. It is from this root that we get the word ‘pneumatic’. As if a howling gale blowing through the house was not enough, divided tongues of fire appeared and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Note the use of pneuma again; this time as spirit, the Holy Spirit of God. The theological term for the study of the Holy Spirit is pneumatology. Instead of breathing life into heaps of dust and making living beings, as was the case with Adam, or breathing life into piles of dry bones, as reporter by Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit was here breathing life into a new organism, the Christian church. Is it any wonder that these twelve confused men were heard to speak with other tongues? I suspect that agitated gibbering might have been a better phrase for what happened. Yet these men, certainly eleven of them, had seen Jesus perform many miracles during their time with him. He had cured the sick, exorcised demons and even raised the dead to life again. But, he had always been there with them and they would, while no doubt being mystified by his power, have been innocent, if excited, bystanders. However, this wind and fire phenomenon was happening to them. They heard the roar of the wind and felt the tongues of fire. The Paraclete, promised by Jesus, had come and the lives of these men were changed for ever.
Had they thought back they would have remembered that this was what Jesus had promised. In our gospel proclamation from Saint John, Jesus said, ‘When the advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, he will testify on my behalf’. Later he said, ‘When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth’. Why did the disciples need all the truth? Surely they had been with Jesus for long enough to learn all he could teach them. As I have mentioned before from this pulpit, the sayings of Jesus, as recorded by all four gospels, if read through slowly and solemnly, takes about six hours. Yet Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted at least a year, if the Synoptics are to be believed, and as long as three years if we follow the chronology of Saint John. Yet, the disciples still did not know it all. This same John recorded Jesus saying, ‘I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now’. No. They would have to wait for some final revelations, and these would come from the Paraclete, the Comforter. The Holy Spirit of God would glorify Jesus, take what was his and declare it to the disciples.
The result of this in-pouring of the Spirit of God was that the disciples began to speak in other languages. This activity is not to be confused with glossolalia, sometimes called the ‘gift of tongues’. This is defined in my dictionary as abnormal utterances under religious emotion. On the Day of Pentecost these newly empowered disciples may well have been overcome with religious emotion but they were not speaking in tongues. The word glossa here is better translated as ‘language’; they were speaking in other languages, such that the assembled crowds of Jews from every nation under heaven could understand them. Jews from the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. This took place a week-of-weeks, fifty days (actually forty nine days) after the Feast of the Passover. At Pentecost the Jews celebrated the giving of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, to Moses by God. All Jewish males were required to celebrate it in the Temple, hence the vast influx of visitors from all over the Roman Empire. There is of course a significant link between this Jewish feast and the Coming of the Paraclete. God had made a number of covenants with man. We know of those made with Adam, with Noah and with Abraham. The final covenant was with Moses and it was confirmed by the giving of the Decalogue. Through Jesus, God had made a new covenant with man and this culminated in the empowerment of the twelve disciples at Pentecost. They had been commissioned by Jesus on the evening of the day of resurrection when he breathed on them and gave them authority to forgive or, indeed, to retain, sin in a penitent. Now they were given full warrant to go into the world and call converts to this new faith, a faith that would soon be known as Christianity.
Many Christians will argue that Easter, the day of resurrection, is the most important of the Christian festivals. It is certainly true that, without Easter, without the resurrection from the dead of our Saviour, we would have no faith. As Saint Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, ‘if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’. Yet the resurrection, per se, only affected a few people. Jesus appeared to his eleven disciples, to various women of the company and, according to Saint Luke, to Mr and Mrs Cleophas on the road to Emmaus. If that had been all then it is unlikely that anyone today would ever have heard of Jesus of Nazareth, outside passing references to him from such historical writers as Flavius Josephus. While not wishing in any way to diminish the importance of the resurrection, followed by the ascension and glorification of Jesus on his return to the right hand of his Father, it seems to me that the whole wide world only got to know of these things through the happenings at Pentecost. The nucleus which grew into the Christian church began on that day, a church that now has in membership about one third of the population of the planet. We must give hearty thanks to Almighty God for the coming of the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who breathed life into the church and who continues to succour it and its members as they journey towards their final and eternal destination.
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