"They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and
fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." - Acts 2: 42
Pentecost was an ancient Jewish festival of harvest. Spring comes very
early to Mediterranean lands, and on this day, fifty days after Passover,
the first produce of the new year was ready to be offered to the Lord.
You can find the regulations for the festival set out in the 23rd charter
of Leviticus. It was one of the great festivals of the year, and Jewish
pilgrims from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem to observe it: "there
were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men, out of every nation under
heaven", says our Epistle lesson.
The offerings of Pentecost were material offerings, of course: lambs,
and kids, and loaves of bread: and those who offered them knew that God
had no need of such things. But these material gifts were signs and tokens
of the spiritual offering of the gratitude and faithfulness of God's people;
they were signs of obedience to God's commandments. It was a festival in
which God was worshiped as the author of "every good and perfect gift"-
above all, the gift of his Spirit, inspiring and enlightening the prophet
and the sage, filling the human spirit with expectation and hope in the
divine promise: "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons
and daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams, and
your young men shall see visions: And upon the servants and upon the handmaids
in those days will I pour out my spirit".
In this setting of thankfulness and expectation on the Festival of Pentecost,
the Christian Church was born. In an upper room, at Jerusalem, surrounded
by all the preparations for the ancient feast day, the small band of disciples
awaited the fulfilment of Jesus' promise of the Comforter. The scene is
wonderfully described by St. Luke in the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the
"And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one
accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of
a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat
upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began
to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance".
Wind and fire: ancient symbols of divine power and presence - The Breath
of God, moving over the waters of chaos, producing the forms of life; breathing
into lifeless clay, bringing forth a living soul; the breath of God in
the Valley of Dry Bones, making those dry bones live. The fire of God:
the refining and consuming fire of God's wrath and God's love. "A rushing
mighty wind...and cloven tongues, like as of fire" - these are the mystical
symbols of God's coming in power.
"And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other
tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Overwhelmed by the divine
presence, they spoke the language of religious ecstasy, the language of
dreams and visions. Some bystanders mocked and said they were drunk, with
wine, but drunk with the spirit of the Lord.
Thus, in the experience of ecstasy, the Christian Church was born; and
there have been some in every age who would regard this ecstatic experience
as the normal and necessary mark of Christian Life. In our own time, for
instance, there are certain "Pentecostals" and "Charismatics" of various
persuasions, who would regard the ability to "speak with tongues" as the
touchstone of authentic Christianity; and there are a great many others
too, who suppose that real Christianity must be a matter of ecstatic experience,
a matter of overwhelming emotional fervor.
For such people, the subtleties of Christian doctrine, and the settled
forms of Christian institutions seem to be impediments to true religion.
Against all that, they claim the "freedom of the spirit"; by which they
often seem to mean the absolute authority of one's personal feelings and
But Pentecost is not just ecstasy of spirit, not just dreams and visions.
The Spirit of God is the spirit of order, and not of chaos; and the spiritual
life must be formed and shaped in the precise clarity of doctrine, and
must be nurtured in the settled forms of institutions, in fixed patterns
of worship and forms of prayer. Thus, as St. Luke records, the disciples,
baptized by the wind and fire of the Spirit, "continued steadfastly in
the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in
Our own age is one which tends to be very impatient with formal definition,
with subtleties of doctrine and settled institutional forms. We tend to
exalt rather the virtues of individual opinion and personal feeling, and
it seems difficult to recognize any objective truth or any objective good
against which to measure those feelings and opinions. The message seems
to be: if you like it, believe it; if it feels good, do it!
But today's Gospel reminds us that the Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit
of Truth - the truth revealed in God's commandments; and that those commandments
are the real measure of our opinions and our feelings: "He that hath my
commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me". Pentecost is
a festival of religious ecstasy, certainly, a time of dreams and visions;
but the Spirit of Pentecost is also the spirit of "right judgements". The
Spirit is expressed and comes to fruition in us by our obedience to God's
commandments, "in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking
of bread, and in prayers".
Pentecost is for us, as for the ancient Jews, a kind of harvest festival,
and offering of the first fruits: The word of God, sown in our hearts and
minds, by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, is brought to
fruition, and we offer up to God the first fruits of the grace which he
has given us.
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