Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Pentecost Sunday

This Sunday the Easter Season comes to a close with the celebration of Pentecost… that moment when the Holy Spirit came upon the Disciples, and whose gifts allowed them to leave the upper room and spread the Gospel to Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and throughout the world.  It’s the birthday of the Church!

Acts 2:1-11
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1st Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Romans 8:8-17
John 20:19-23 or John 14:15-16, 23b-26

The readings for Sunday open with the Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles.  It is after the Ascension and the Apostles have gathered again in the upper room, along with Mary and some of the other women.  The remaining 11 Apostles have just selected Matthias to take the place of Judas, and now with everyone present, our passage describes the moment of the descent of the Holy Spirit.

From the upper room our scene then jumps to the busy street below… busy because there is a lot of activity this time of year in Jerusalem.  In the first line of our passage we hear, “When the time for the Pentecost was fulfilled.”  That passage, to our Christian ears, sounds simple and obvious, but it actually refers to the Jewish celebration of Shavuot, or what Hellenistic Jews referred to as Pentecost (which is Greek for “fiftieth day,” that is, fifty days since the Passover).  The celebration also refers to as the Festival of Weeks  (Shavuot) which celebrates the giving of the Torah… the Law.  This celebration also coincides with Israelite harvest season marking the conclusion of the grain harvest, or the Day of First Fruits celebrated at the Temple.  With all these various celebrations, a large, multi-national crowd is in the city streets as the disciples preach the Good News with tongues understood by everyone present.  This not only speaks to the power of the Holy Spirit, but to the understanding that the Gospel is for all nations.

So while our Jewish ancestors celebrate Pentecost as the giving of the Law, Christians celebrate Pentecost as receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This gave them the courage to go out and spread the Gospel… the new Law.  Coincidence?  Not at all.  This is one of those moments where our author sees an opportunity to draw a connection between the old tradition and the new, and bring with it a sense of renewal that is echoed in our Psalm as we sing, “Lord send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the Earth.”

Since it is this first reading that gives us the focus of our celebration for this Pentecost Sunday, the Lectionary provides the presider with a couple options when it comes to our second reading and our Gospel.  Since they generally select the first option, these are the readings I will review.

For our second reading we look at the passage from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  Here Paul reminds us that our ability to say “Jesus is Lord” comes from the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, a fitting statement for Pentecost, but as Paul continues he presents us with one of the most important teachings of his ministry, that WE are the Body of Christ… though we have many parts, we are made one through the Spirit.

For our Gospel we look to the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel and his account of the Pentecost.  Here John takes us back to the upper room where Jesus for the second time has appeared to the Apostles after the Resurrection (the first being that time when Thomas wasn’t present).  It is a simple, yet moving moment as Jesus “breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.:”  While this version may differ from what we read in the Acts of the Apostles or the other Gospels is irrelevant.  Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit so that they would not be alone on their quest to spread the Gospel.  We, the Church, continue that stewardship of the Gospel and praise the gift of the Holy Spirit which still moves and guides

Final thoughts:
Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the Church.  This reminds me of birthday cake, sweet on the surface, but with layers of flavor underneath.  So it is with our readings for this week.  On the surface, we are told the coming of the Holy Spirit, but underneath that narrative I’ve tried to show you some of the depth we can find by scratching below the surface.  But here’s one more observation: 

Right before the Pentecost story, we read that Mary and some of the other women were also present with the Apostles in Jerusalem.  Though the Pentecost narrative doesn’t mention who specifically was in the room when the Spirit came, our tradition teaches that Mary and the other women were also present and received the Holy Spirit.  In fact, many of the depictions of this moment in art throughout the ages will generally show Mary (or Mary and the other women) receiving the Holy Spirit along with the men.

For me this scene only reinforces the inclusive message of the Pentecost story:  That Christ is for everyone.  The Holy Spirit seeks to include everyone, praising a God who created everyone, and lives in everyone.  This inclusivity was revolutionary during the time of the Apostles, and remains so today.  In a world that seems to grow ever divided, Pentecost reminds us that the Good News of Christ is not just for a select few, but for everyone.

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