Texts: Acts 2:1ff, John 14:15ff, 1 Corinthians 12:4ff, Luke 11:9ff

A blessed Whitsunday, a blessed Pentecost to you all today! Pentecost is one of the most important of the Church’s Feast Days; it is really the third of the Big Three feasts of the Church Year: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Following the patterns established by St. Leo the Great in the 5th century and our own 2nd Book of Homilies in the 16th century, I want to look at the Feast Day in three general ways: 1) in terms of liturgical and historic practices, 2) in terms of the meaning of the miracle in Acts 2, and 3) in terms of the person and work of the Holy Spirit in general.

You’ll notice right away that our Prayer Book calls Pentecost by the more old-fashioned English name of Whitsunday. While the specific origins of this name are lost to time, the best guess we have is that it refers to the white garments folks would wear at their baptisms. As one of the major feast days, Whitsunday was one of the ancient days for mass baptisms of converts. Due to the colder climate in Northern Europe and England, Pentecost was often the preferred day for this in the area, as rivers or streams would have been much too cold for baptisms at Christmas time, and often still very cold in early Spring at Easter.

Again, as one of the Big Three Feasts, Whitsunday was also a day when most everyone would take communion. You may recall that weekly communion by the laity wasn’t common for much of the Church’s history, but most everyone was encouraged to take Communion on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. This is why the Prayer Book has two extra days with Communion readings for the weeks following these Feasts in addition to two sets of Propers for the Feasts themselves; many rural churches wouldn’t be able to handle all the communicants on the day of the feast itself, so extra Communion services would be planned, spread over the first several days of the week following the Feast. For Whitsunday, we follow the Feast and it’s two bonus days with the Whitsun Ember Days. We use the Ember Days to fast and pray for the ministry at the four changes of the seasons. The Whitsun Ember Days were evidentially chosen to correspond to an ancient custom, attested to by St. Leo in the 5th Century, of a post-Whitsun fast. Our Prayer Book continues this tradition, and I would encourage you all fast and pray next week for your priests and bishops, particularly for the upcoming election of a new Archbishop for our Province.

Now, the pattern of three special feast days with Communion was borrowed from the Old Testament pattern of having three Pilgrim Feasts when everyone was to go to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices at the Temple. These feasts were Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths, as commanded in Deuteronomy 16. The first of these have direct correlations with the Christian Feasts: Passover is Easter. Indeed, most languages use the same word for both. And Pentecost is simply the Greek name for the Feast of Weeks. That’s why our text from Acts 2 begins by saying “When the day of Pentecost was fully come…” The Hebrew word translated as “Weeks” references the 7 weeks after Passover, whereas the Greek word “Pentecost” refers to the total number of days after Passover. And while there is not a direct correlation between the Feast of Booths and Christmas, there has been some fascinating work over the years showing that there may have been a connection in the earliest days of the Church, as some of the Jews during 2nd Temple times had transferred many of the practices and devotions from the Feast of Booths in the fall to Hanukkah, the winter Feast of Dedication.

In the Old Testament, Pentecost celebrated the first fruits of the Spring harvest. By Jesus’ day it had also come to be a commemoration and celebration of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Both of these commemorations find their fulfillment in Acts 2. The Homily for Whitsunday from the Second Book of Homilies puts it this way:

Now, as this was given in commandment to the Jews in the Old Law, so did our Saviour as it were confirm the same in the time of the Gospel, ordaining after a sort of new Pentecost for his disciples.

St. Leo goes into more detail, writing:

For as of old, when the Hebrew nation were released from the Egyptians, on the fiftieth day after the sacrificing of the lamb the Law was given on Mount Sinai, so after the suffering of Christ, wherein the true Lamb of God was slain on the fiftieth day from His Resurrection, the Holy Ghost came down upon the Apostles and the multitude of believers, so that the earnest Christian may easily perceive that the beginnings of the Old Testament were preparatory to the beginnings of the Gospel, and that the second covenant was founded by the same Spirit that had instituted the first.

So, just as the Law was given on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit (who spoke through the Law) was given on Mt. Zion. Just as Pentecost celebrated the first fruits of the harvest, so we saw a first fruits of souls come into the Church. History might not repeat itself in the Bible, but it does rhyme, as it were. The Old Testament and New Testament are not in conflict; rather the Old is the foreshadowing of the New and the New is the fulfillment of the Old.

What of the miracle in Acts 2? “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” We see that this initial gift of the Holy Spirit was one that enabled the disciples to preach the Gospel unhindered. As a Pilgrim Feast, the crowd was made up of Jews and converts from all over the world. Yet, they all heard the Apostles, who were certainly not learned or scholarly men, preaching in their native tongues.

St. Leo writes:

No interpretation is required for understanding, no practice for using, no time for studying, but the Spirit of Truth blowing where he wills, the languages peculiar to each nation became common property in the mouth of the Church. And therefore from that day the trumpet of the Gospel has sounded loud.

When we seek the gifts of the Spirit, we should remember that the Spirit’s gifts are those that enable the Gospel to go forward. The most important thing isn’t the signs, wonders, and miracles; the most important thing is the Gospel’s witness. You may have noticed that in our alternate readings for the feast day, we have the list of the Spiritual Gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Referring to this passage, the 2nd Book of Homilies describes the gifts of the Spirit like this:

The Holy Ghost doth always declare himself by his fruitful and gracious gifts, namely, by the word of wisdom, by the word of knowledge, which is the understanding of the Scriptures, by faith, in doing of miracles, by healing them that are diseased, by prophecy, which is the declaration of God’s mysteries, by discerning of spirits, diversity of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and so forth. All which gifts, as they proceed from one Spirit and are severally given to man according to the measurable distribution of the Holy Ghost, even so do they bring men, and not without good cause, into a wonderful admiration of God’s divine power.

Notice how our Reformers don’t deny the miraculous gifts. Yet they point us back to the Scriptures and preaching for the gifts we might call prophetic or revelatory gifts. As Jesus said in our Gospel, the Comfortor would “bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” The Holy Ghost highlight’s Jesus’ life and teaching. The Holy Spirit doesn’t ever depart from the Word of God. He doesn’t do a “new thing” that is inconsistent with what came before as recorded in the Bible. Indeed, even though he continues to do extraordinary miraculous works from time to time, the ordinary works of the Spirit are done through the Word and the Sacrament. To neglect either Word or Sacrament is to shut out the voice of the Holy Spirit. This is why we trek through the Bible in our daily prayers. This is why we celebrate the Eucharist most every Sunday and Holy Day. This is why we baptize our children and converts. And if you haven’t done these things, I urge you to do so! Don’t shut out the voice of the Holy Spirit.

The fact that the Holy Ghost speaks implies that he is indeed a Person. Interestingly, both the Fathers and the Reformers made sure to talk about this fact in their Pentecost homilies. In St. Leo’s day there was a lingering heresy called Macedonianism that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Many of the Macedonians saw the Holy Ghost as merely an impersonal force or as a poetic personification of God’s power rather than a true Person of the Godhead. The last clause of the Nicene Creed was written towards the end of the 4th century to address that very thing:

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son. Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets: And I believe on Catholic and Apostolic Church: I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

Father John will no doubt talk in more detail about the Trinity next week, but notice how we describe the Holy Spirit as the Lord. We describe his relationship with the other two Persons as one of “procession,” based on John 14. We note that all three Persons are worshipped and glorified because all three Persons are God. We note that the Scriptures (that is the Prophets) speak with his voice. And we then describe and discuss the Church because it is through the Church that we see the Holy Spirit working.

Now, this was much less controversial at the time of the Reformation. Not, for example, how our Articles of Religion only address the issue with the rather short Article V: “The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.” Yet old heresy never truly dies. It’s very easy to forget the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, particularly because the Bible shows him largely working behind the scenes. More than anything he points us to Christ’s person, work, and teachings. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church to spread the Gospel and to minister in Word and Sacrament. As such we can be sure that we’re hearing his voice when the Church is doing what it’s supposed to do: being faithful in our call to love God and love our neighbor, proclaiming God’s Word, and administering the Sacraments.

Finally, you might be wondering how you can know that the Holy Spirit is indeed working in your life. Our Reformers give this advice in the Homily for Whitsunday:

O but how shall I know that the Holy Ghost is within me? some man perchance will say. Forsooth, as the tree is known by his fruit, so is also the Holy Ghost. The fruits of the Holy Ghost, according to the mind of St. Paul, are these; love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, temperance, &c. Contrariwise the deeds of the flesh are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, wantonness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, debate, emulation, wrath, contention, sedition, heresy, envy, murder, drunkenness, gluttony, and such like. Here is now that glass wherein thou must behold thyself, and discern whether thou have the Holy Ghost within thee, or the spirit of the flesh. If thou see that thy works be virtuous and good, consonant to the prescript rule of God’s word, savouring and tasting not of the flesh but of the Spirit, then assure thyself that thou art endued with the Holy Ghost : otherwise in thinking well of thyself thou doest nothing else but deceive thyself.

This is both sobering and encouraging advice. We all have areas of our lives where we resemble walking in the flesh more than walking in the Spirit. But know that you cannot have the fruit of the Spirit without the Spirit. This is part of the grace of our new birth in Christ. The Holy Spirit strengthens us to fight manfully under Christ’s banner. Indeed, our Lord assures us in this morning’s alternate Gospel reading that his Father will not fail to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for him. Thus, we show forth the fruits of the Spirit by and with God’s strength, not our own. And we will increase in the fruits of the Spirit as we both hear and do what God’s Word says. Furthermore, we have the grace of the Sacrament of Communion in which we are fed with Christ’s body and blood for that same strengthening. Again, we see the centrality of the Word and the Sacrament. Where you need to repent, do so. And then come with boldness unto the Throne of Grace, for that is your privilege as a child of God, a brother or sister of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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