What is Pentecost?
Pentecost, also known as Shavuot, or the Feast of the Weeks, was (and is) the Jewish holiday celebrating the harvest season in Israel. Shavuot, which means “weeks”, refers to the timing of the festival which is held exactly 7 weeks, or fifty days, after Passover. Shavuot is known also as Yom Habikkurim, or “the Day of the First Fruits”, because it is the time the farmers of Israel would bring their first harvest to Jerusalem as a token of thanksgiving. ‘Pentecost’ is simply the Greek term for ‘fifty.’
Leviticus tells us that the priests of ancient Israel would offer a wave offering to God. In one hand would be bread and in the other two lambs which they would literally wave before God.
Since the first century, however, Shavuot also commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It was a celebration to commemorate the nourishment of God in the Harvest and the nourishment of God in the Torah. The giving of the Law was 50 days after the crossing of the Red Sea.
Pentecost was a time to celebrate both the provision of God and the giving of his Law. But 2000 years ago it was a time for the followers of Jesus to come together and ‘wait to be clothed with power from on high’ as he had commanded them to do. The disciples, Jesus’ mother and 120 faithful followers of Jesus, waited for the promise of Jesus in an upper room in Jerusalem. There in the upper room, they were all together and “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of the wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed like tongues of fire that came to rest on them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” As a result, pilgrims from all over the world heard the praises of God in their own language.
Obviously, this was not an ordinary Pentecost. In fact, this Pentecost, rather than new harvest or first fruits, a new kind of provision was being provided. And rather than the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, a new kind of law was given—one written on their hearts.
Pentecost was the birth of the church. But it was not the birth of an organization, but the birth of a movement. It was not the birth of a bureaucracy, but the birth of a people who would change the world.
Nothing fancy about what these early disciples were doing. The Holy Spirit showed up in a big way and the world will never be the same. What did the disciples do to make them the ground zero of God’s presence? Three things. They obeyed. They prayed. And they had a common mission.
They obeyed, they prayed, and they had a mission.
The early disciples, and this includes 120 of them obeyed. After the resurrection, the disciples might have been eager to get started on the proclamation. In fact, they were ready for Jesus to establish his kingdom right there and then. They were witnesses, they saw the risen Lord. They were ready to go to it. However, Jesus gave them a simple command, ‘stay in Jerusalem until you are empowered by the Holy Spirit, then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and the rest of the world.’
A simple command. No matter how antsy the disciples were, no matter how ready they thought they were, they were told to wait. They obeyed.
There is an interesting book on the story about Jesus walking on water by John Ortberg called If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get out of the Boat. Ortberg talks one of the reasons why Peter had his 8 seconds of water walking. When Peter saw Jesus walking on the sea he said, “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you.”
‘Command me.’ Peter said. That is a risky request. ‘tell me what you want me to do.’ I don’t know how many of you have heard that Tanya Sorge just got finished with her first semester of seminary. She is not going into the priesthood, but she has been hearing God tell her to make radical changes—to go from a secure livelihood to missions or something that he hasn’t quite revealed to her yet.
When Jesus tells us to do something, we do it. St. Benedict said ‘value nothing to the love of Christ.’ Value nothing to obedience in Christ. Our parish and every area of our lives need to be rooted and strengthened in obedience. When he tells us to wait, we wait, when he tells us to take action, we take action.
They obeyed and they prayed. The Scripture says they went to an upper room and ‘continued together in prayer and supplication…’ How do we obey? We start by reading the Scripture, listening and praying. The 120 disciples obeyed and then they prayed. And they prayed in order to obey. And the Holy Spirit came and rocked their world.
The disciples were given power to preach the gospel. They were anointed with the Holy Spirit for mission. What happens when followers of Jesus get together to pray?
One of the mistakes that communities make is that they look to certain externals for the evidence of the Holy Spirit. Tongues or waves of people or miracles or whatever. Now, I will admit that often when revival strikes, as it is in many parts of the two thirds world right now, there are often miracles and exorcisms and mass baptisms. Remember Fr. Daniel who went to the Sudan to plant churches among a tribe that was untouched by the gospel? He reported 104 baptisms.
But it is not the ‘what’ that we need to worry about it is the ‘who.’ Without the power of the Holy Spirit, the faith is then some kind of philosophical system. With the power of the Holy Spirit, the faith then becomes our personal faith. Jesus becomes real to us. This is what prayer does—it makes it real. For the apostles the resurrection was a truth to behold, but when they themselves were raised by the new life in the Holy Spirit, then the world changed. They prayed and he came. If then, why not now?
Yes, we need to pray that we can cover the basics–but we are here for a much greater purpose. Do we dare? Do we dare pray for the Holy Spirit to move in this place in radical way?
Lastly, the apostles had a mission, and they were together in that mission. 12 times the phrase, ‘with one accord’ occurs in the New Testament. 11 times it occurs in Acts. Luke is clear in his writing that the early Christians experienced a one-ness, an intimacy both with God and one another that was like nothing else. We have touched on some of that recently. Listen to how the end of Acts 2 describes it:
‘The continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many signs were done through the apostles…so continuing with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.’
They shared everything with each other. They had Eucharist together and their meals. Rich and poor. Young and old. On the day of Pentecost there were people from every tribe and nation becoming part of the church. Together they stayed. They became a royal priesthood and a holy nation.
But what kept them together? Was it the Barney song, “I love you, you love me…?” Well, we know that love was indispensable–sacrificial love that is, not our cultural imitation.
What kept them together? They had one passion, one purpose, one mission—to spread the gospel. They were given a command and a commission from Christ to make disciples of all nations, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, this is what kept them together.
They were consumed with the mission of Christ. And nothing, not torture, not sickness, not crucifixion, not the arena–nothing kept them from fulfilling this mission.
Looking at Acts on the surface, you might be thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a street preacher,’ because it appears that this was the apostles primary way of proclamation. But as the church began to develop, there were a variety of ways to fulfill the mission of the church. Someone had to take care of widows and orphans. Someone had to administer the sacraments. Someone had to preach. Someone had to teach. Someone had to handle the money. Someone had to open up their homes when the church was booted out of the Temple. Someone had to navigate Paul and his fellow missionaries. But the mission was the same. One passion, one purpose, one mission.
If we have a mission, what is it? Where is the mission field? And what is that mission field like?
In some ways, the mission field right outside our doors is more challenging than ever.
We live in a very distracted world. We are worried and depressed about many things, some of them valid, like the war in Iraq, or the secularism of our country, some of them not so valid, like our obsession with our schedules and calendars. Our world has forgotten God and has forgotten how to find him. Some, when they heard the tongues of Pentecost, said, ‘they are full of wine.’ As the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians, the apostles are the ‘smell of death’ to some and the fragrance of life to others.’ Our task has never been easy, but today we have unique challenges.
Did you happen to see or hear about the experiment the Washington Post did?
The article is called, “Pearls Before Breakfast.” The Post took one of the most famous violinists in the world, Joshua Bell, and dressed him in plain clothes and had him play in the L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. 1097 people passed by and about 4 stopped to hear him play. He played 7 pieces on a 3.5 million dollar violin. Josh Bell packs venues and gets $100 per ticket. That day in the Plaza he got $32.57.
The people were distracted by the lottery line or by getting to work or by their calendars, cell phones, pagers and I pods. They missed out on an unforgettable experience. Some who were interviewed afterwards did not even know that there was a violinist there that morning.
Interestingly, though there were hundreds from many walks of life the one consistent element was the children. Every child that walked by wanted to stop and were forced by their parents to keep moving, despite their best efforts. The poet Billy Collins has said, ‘all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry. Then life slowly starts to choke the poetry from us.’
This is our mission field. This is what our world is like. We are worried and distracted and couldn’t see beauty if it was standing right in front of us. We couldn’t see God reaching out his hand to us.
It is not about belief, but surrender. The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us to follow Christ, he empowers us and commissions us, if we would only surrender.
As one writer has said, ‘the Spirit can bring life to anyone he chooses, provided that he or she is open to this enliving.’
The challenge for us? Obey. Pray. Listen. And go out.