An Eruption at Pentecost Festival
Acts 2: 1 – 21; John 14: 8 – 17, 25- 27
Volcanoes erupt and in the process shape the world around them. God’s creation is dynamic. Volcanoes are a dynamic part of creation and we humans are also part of the dynamic nature of creation.
The eruption of ‘tongues’ at that Pentecost festival in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago was significant. It might have been just a small tremor or a rumbling to the Jerusalem crowds, but what erupted that day went on to shape Western society and influence the wider world. What happened that day led to people from every corner of the world following Christ Jesus. On that day the Church was born.
Let us pause and wind back the clock of history and see what information we can glean that will help us imagine what happened that day. Jesus had been crucified. Three days later Jesus’ closest followers went to the tomb and found it empty. Then in a number of ways they encountered Jesus, not in a dream or vision, but in real time. The only concept that helped them understand what was happening was the concept of resurrection. There was a belief then that God would raise the dead at the end of time. The raising of the dead to life was called resurrection. It was not about resuscitation but being raised to life eternal. Jesus had been raised from the dead. He is alive.
Those followers were a small group of about 30 men and women. Jesus’ resurrection appearances brought them together. They sensed something dramatically new was happening. They continued to wait together meeting regularly for worship, prayer and the fellowship of eating together. Jesus had told them to wait until God’s Holy Spirit had empowered them. They waited. They waited obediently. On the first day of the Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot, they were together worshipping God. Then it happened. The picturesque language of Luke’s account – wind and fire – helps us imagine the moment. Jesus followers – all of them women and men – were deeply moved. They broke forth with a burst of ecstatic sound. It seemed that they didn’t know what the sound meant, but the Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and stayed for the Shavuot heard spoken the languages of the regions they had come from.
Let us pause again. What is this festival? It is the spring harvest festival of the ancient Jewish people called Shavuot. It is celebrated 7 weeks and 1 day after the Passover. The 7 weeks and 1 day make 50 days. Fifty days in Greek is Pentēkostē. That is where the name Pentecost comes from. Fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion at the feast of Shavuot Jesus’ followers are blessed with the Holy Spirit. All this information is in the Bible in Deuteronomy (15:9), Leviticus (23:16) and Numbers (28:26).
The other important information is that Jerusalem’s population had swollen enormously during this festive season. The Jews had been scattered throughout the Empire. In their local regions they would have had to communicate in the local language and in Greek, and at the same time keep up their own. These Diaspora Jews, as we call them, made the effort to come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their life-time. Many of them stayed over for the Shavuot festival.
Now we can see what God is doing. Jesus’ folowers had learnt to wait and their obedience was honoured. Then on the first day of the Shavuot festival the crowds had begun to gather again around the centre of Jerusalem and the Temple. At this critical point a group of Jews burst out into ecstatic praise of God. They were lost in the ecstasy of the moment, but unbeknown to them many of the visiting Jews recognised what they were saying. This phenomenon had erupted in their midst and a crowd gathered. A few cynics assumed they had, had too much wine for breakfast. Possibly those cynics were locals who didn’t recognise that the ecstastic sounds were other languages. Peter preached and he explained what had happend. The rest is history … and we are here today.
There is much we can learn from this eruption of the Holy Spirit.
Firstly, the Promise of the Spirit is fulfilled. Jesus had told his followers – men and women – to wait until the power of the Spirit had come upon them [Act 1:8]. Then Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, said to his disciples; “I will not leave you orphaned” [Jn 14:28]. Then later Jesus said to them; “When the Advocate (Helper) comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” [Jn 15:26] At Pentecost that promise was fulfilled.
Secondly, the disciples obediently waited. Their waiting was an active waiting. Real waiting is active rather than passive inactivity. Those disciples waited worshipping, praying, reflecting on the Scriptures and sharing food together. They learnt that God’s timing is better than theirs.
Thirdly, they were together united in Christ Jesus. The strength of the Church is its unity and its weakness is its disunity. Our historic disunity was over theological disputes keenly felt and some disputes were over secondary matters. Luke makes a strong point about their unity writing,
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place [Act 2:1].
We read that after that Pentecost day the disciples gathered together fellowshipping by sharing a meal. I think we have lost something in our Western churches where our individualism drives us home to our private and family affairs rather than together around a meal. I think we have too few shared meals, and I must confess that I have failed to promote our meals together. So I do point a finger at you, but I also have three pointing back to me, to my embarrassment.
Fourthly, their unity included females. That is not surprising to us, but it would have been surprising to them. In the Temple there were separate worship spaces for Gentiles, women, Jewish men and priests. Women in those days were not treated as equals, even if the Jewish culture showed a greater respect for women than the Roman culture. The gender inclusivity is a sign of the last days. Joel’s prophecy is a good indicator of God’s intention in this regard where God says through the prophet: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. [Joel 2:28,29] That prophecy is a classic statement of inclusivity for the Holy Spirit will not make distinctions according to our social demographic conventions.
Fifthly, this phenomenon showed the relationship of ecstasy and preaching. The ecstatic utterances of the followers of Jesus attracted the attention of the pilgrims. The hearers were amazed and stopped to listen. The preaching was essential to understanding what was happening. Ecstasy that is not accompanied by reason and explanation can be harmful. I was a young Christian in the South African Church in the early 70’s when the Charismatic movement erupted in the Churches. Initially it was disruptive in a negative sense. Some of the first expressions of the Spirit’s blessing led re-baptisms and spiritual arrogance. Both were destructive to the Church. But then God the Holy Spirit did something more. Significant church leaders and theologians declared that they too had been baptised in the Spirit. They too spoke in Tongues, but they brought a gracious reasoning to the movement. In the end what happened was the Church gained a healthy enthusiasm, a prayerfulness and Bible study. But even more important worship styles changed. People became freer raising their hands in worship and even dancing. This was a real blessing because such practices were natural to our African brothers and sisters in Christ, but not to the ‘whites’. The movement of the Spirit brought a practical expression of unity in worship that helped bridge the racial divide.
Finally a word on ecstasy in worship. Have you ever been ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’? Have you ever experienced being so close to God that God’s love overwhelms you? You become immersed in this love to the point where you lose sight of sense and time. You are moved so deeply. It results in a moment of elation and euphoria. Such moments are precious. We may think that such personal feelings shouldn’t be present in our worship. They should. Only last Tuesday morning during prayer time I had such a moment: just ‘lost in wonder love and praise’ of God. I think it is important to let go and let God love us.
Is the phrase, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ ringing a bell with you? I hope so! It is the last line in John Wesley’s wonderful hymn; Love divine all loves excelling [TiS 217]. The great church leader of the English revival in the late 1700s was quite prepared to let go and let God love him.
My prayer is that we might all let our guard down a little
and revel in the presence of God in our lives.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 09/06/2019