Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, one of the major Holy Days in the Christian tradition, in which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the conversion of over 3,000 people in Jerusalem. In our reading from Acts, we read that the converts were pilgrims to Jerusalem present for the Feast. Of course, before Pentecost was a Christian feast day, it was a Jewish feast day. In the Old Testament, Pentecost was called the Feast of Weeks, as it took place seven weeks plus one day, for a total of 50 days, after Passover. Along with Passover and the Feast of Booths, Pentecost was one of the three Pilgrim Feasts, when Jewish men were expected to go to Jerusalem for sacrifice and feasting. In the Old Testament, this was a harvest festival, sometimes called the Feast of First Fruits. But by the First Century, it has also become the traditional day to celebrate the giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai. In the Jewish mind, Passover was when the Nation of Israel was born (as God rescued Israel from slavery into Egypt), but Pentecost was the day Israel and God were married by the Covenant of the Law.
Sometimes as Christians we think of the Law primarily in negative terms because we recognize that God’s Law always accuses us and convicts us of our sin and inability to keep it. However, we need to remember that it also shows God’s character and lets us know what the Christian life looks like. In that sense, the Law is a very positive thing. Indeed, when the curse of the Law is removed by the Cross of Christ, we can wholeheartedly agree with King David when he sings in Psalm 119, “The law of thy mouth is dearer unto me than thousands of gold and silver,” and “Lord, what love have I unto thy Law! All the day long is my study in it.”
With that in mind, how appropriate was it that the Holy Spirit should come to the Church on the very day when God’s people were celebrating the giving of God’s word, the giving of God’s Law! At the beginning of our gospel reading, in John 14:15, Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice his next sentence: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.” That is, if we want to love Jesus and if we want to keep his commandments, we need help! And the Holy Spirit is here to give us this help. You may recall that the word translated in the ESV as “Helper” in Greek is “Paraclete,” translated in the King James as “Comforter.” You may remember that this was often a legal term in the 1st Century referring to the Counsel for Defense. The Holy Spirit is all those things to us. He helps us, he comforts us, he is the one in our corner arguing for our defense. As the Greek word literally means, he “comes along side” us. No matter your trial, no matter your trouble, don’t despair! The Holy Ghost is with you if you have been baptized into Christ.
In our reading from Acts we are told that he first made himself audibly known to the assembled disciples by a “sound like a mighty rushing wind” that filled the upper room. Remember that Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 that the Holy Spirit is like the wind, moving where he wills. The words in both Greek and Hebrew that are translated as “Spirit” also mean “wind” or “breath.” God loudly breathed his Spirit upon the disciples in the very room where our Lord said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you; Do this in remembrance of me.” The Holy Spirit also made himself visible by “divided tongues as of fire” that rested on each person present. Throughout Scripture fire is a symbol of God’s purity and power, indeed of his purifying power. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his famous Catechetical Lectures writes “They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire; a fire which consumes the thorns of sins, but gives luster to the soul.” He goes on to say that those who are about to be baptized are going to have the same spiritual fire come upon them. If you are a baptized Christian, the same has happened to you. God’s breath is the power for your spiritual sails. God’s fire has burned away your sins and made your soul a shiny, priceless coin. I’m reminded of the coal that the Seraph took from the altar to touch the lips of the Prophet Isaiah, declaring “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
You may recall that that passage from Isaiah 6 is often referred to as the prophet’s call or commissioning. An even greater commissioning came upon the Disciples when the Holy Spirit fell upon them at Pentecost. We read in Acts 2:3 that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” What did they talk about? We know from the next verses that they were miraculously preaching the Gospel of Jesus in all the native tongues of those who had come as Pilgrims to the Feast. It was recently pointed out to me that in order to adequately worship in the Temple, all those present would have to have had a minimal working knowledge of Hebrew. And to do business in any part of the Roman World of that time as travelers from all those places they would likely have had to have been relatively fluent in Greek and probably Aramaic. That is, the Holy Spirit could have limited the miracle to speaking in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. But he chose to use the mother tongues of the pilgrims. He chose to reach them in the language of their hearts, the language that was inseparable from their self-identities. How many times does the Holy Spirit use the Scriptures, the Preaching of the Gospel, and the Sacraments to touch you at that visceral heart-level as well? Even if it’s not as overtly miraculous as that first Pentecost, the Spirit continues this same work to draw the unbeliever to Christ and to comfort, sanctify, and grow the Christian. The Holy Spirit equipped the disciples for their evangelistic mission, he gathered the crowd to be evangelized, he illuminated the Gospel for the 3000, and cleansed them when they later were baptized. He does the same today. For both the Old Testament prophet and the New Testament Christian, the work is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit.
In our Gospel, Jesus says that the Helper, the Comforter, will be with us forever. This is what he means when he says that he will not leave us as orphans. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus makes himself present to the Christian. By the Holy Spirit, the Father is made present to the Christian. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus says “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Jesus is in the Father, but he’s also in us, and we are also in him. As incredible as it sounds, Jesus is telling us that we, lowly, sinful, fallen human beings who are rightly compared to wandering sheep or simple clay pots: we are brought into the Divine Fellowship. The Trinitarian love that always existed, the uncreated love that spurred on creation, that perfect relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: by the Spirit, Jesus brings us to be a participant in that love. Indeed, by taking on our humanity, Jesus brought our humanity into that everlasting Divinity.
Sometimes we are told that the only way we know the Spirit is active is by miracles, intense emotions, or signs. But this is simply not true. While the Spirit certainly uses those things to point to Christ, much more often he works in much, much quieter ways. Every time the Scriptures are proclaimed, the Spirit is speaking. Every time the Word of God is rightly preached, the Spirit is moving. Every time the Sacraments are duly administered and received, the Spirit is working. Every time an unbeliever repents of his sins and turns to Jesus, the Spirit is wooing. Every time a Christian is assured of his salvation, convicted of sin, or gets just a tiny bit more like Christ, the Spirit is Comforting. Every time we see Christ, it is the Spirit who has pointed him out. This is God’s harvest. This is God’s first fruits. This is the fulfilment of Sinai. This is Pentecost.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.