This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday June 4, 2017. The corresponding Scripture is Acts 2:1-21.
Today is Pentecost, a celebration in the Christian Church of the time when the Holy Spirit rushed in and around the apostles and set their heads aflame. Some people call it the birthday of the church which - combined with a picture of the apostles with tongues of fire on their heads - brings to mind an image of a birthday cake lit up with apostle candles. Over the years, we’ve had all kinds of cake toppers at my house, Garfield, Pokemon, Curious George, but never a set of apostle candles. Perhaps a new marketing opportunity for some enterprising Christian?
In all seriousness, sometimes Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church because it marks a kind of universalization of the religion of Israel; it began a calling of all people into God’s promises.
However, to say that the church was born that day simplifies a long religious history leading up to the event which set the apostles aflame. If we turn to the text from Acts for today that gives us the account of the Pentecost event, we can see that the apostles were already gathered on a day called Pentecost - also called the Feast of Weeks or shavuot - which is a Jewish festival celebrated on the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover.
This festival - still celebrated on the Jewish calendar - is a harvest festival that also celebrates the day of the giving of the Torah (aka “the law” aka the first five books of the Christian “Old Testament”) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jesus would probably have celebrated this festival during his lifetime. And, certainly the law of Moses was significant to Jesus because this is the law that Jesus knew and preached from, the law that he fulfilled and embodied, summarized in Mark as “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (c.f. Deut 6:5) The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (c.f. Lev 19:18) No other commandment is greater than these.” So, this festival was significant, even before the account given to us in Acts.
To mark the holiday at the time of the apostles, men would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to the temple sanctuary to offer the first fruits of their wheat harvest, often in the form of two loaves of leavened bread. (Here, we might note that one of our most ancient remembrances of Christ - whom Paul called the “first fruit of the dead” 1 Cor 15:20 - is a loaf of bread, broken and shared during communion).
So, during this festival the apostles were gathered together in Jerusalem where there were crowds of devout Jewish people from many different nations. The apostles had recently witnessed the ascension of Christ and been given notice by him that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and they were to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:6-11).
As these Jewish men from Galilee who called Jesus “Rabbi” or teacher sat together, a sound like the rush of wind filled the house and divided tongues of fire rested on each of them and they began to speak in other languages through the power of the Spirit; The wind and fire were both reminders of Moses’ time on Mt. Sinai when the wind howled and the mountain appeared lit by fire, and a new assurance of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to the apostles that the Holy Spirit would come. With the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were enabled to carry out the mission Jesus left them with: to witness to him to the ends of the earth. Now, they could communicate! Essentially, the arrival of the Holy Spirit opens up the law of Moses, in the unique way that it is fulfilled in Christ, to the world.
I think the Scripture calls to us today to consider how we, too, have been enfolded into God’s promises to Israel. That spirit filled Pentecost so long ago continues to be good news for us today. Looking around, I’m pretty sure none of us are first century Jewish peasants from Galilee. Pentecost marks the day when the news of Jesus Christ began to spread to all the nations. So, without the arrival of the Spirit on Pentecost helping the apostles communicate with people from all nations, we would not be here in church today!
We might also consider how we are called to be open to the power of the Spirit doing new things in and through us. Like the original apostles, we are disciples of Christ who have been called to spread the good news of the gospel. Like the apostles, the Spirit binds us together as one in the church in order that we may care for one another, love one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, and help one another so that we are supported as we share the good news of Jesus with others.
I started out on a light hearted note with references birthday cake with the apostles as cake toppers, which is an admittedly silly image. Honestly though, consider the joy at a birthday party with the presentation of the birthday cake, the blowing out of the candles, and the singing of the birthday song. One of the things that makes birthday cake so special is that it’s meant to be shared: we take it, break it, and share it. And the sharing of joy is another way that Pentecost is like a birthday celebration. Or perhaps better to say another way a birthday celebration is like Pentecost: we are always meant to feel surrounded by love as children of God and to go out and share that love with others.
May it be so. Amen.