Acts 2:1-11; John 7:37-52; 8:12; Genesis 11:1-10; Joel 2:28-32; Ezek. 36:24-28.
Seeing! Feeling and Tasting! Hearing! Pentecost is a multi-sensory feast, just as our liturgy engages all the senses. Its narrative in Acts 2 has connections with multiple passages in both the Old and New Testaments: some of these are made obvious, and others are merely implied. Together with the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and those gathered around them, we read the promise of this event in John 7, where, at the end of the Jewish feast, Jesus offered himself as the living water, and promised that the one who came to him would have water flowing from within, himself or herself. The evangelist comments about this mysterious statement, “Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” The gospel and the account in Acts, then, are given to us in the Church as promise and fulfillment, and we come to understand also the integral unity between the Son and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father but comes to us by way of the Son.
The earliest connection with Acts, of course, is with the book of Genesis, where God moved upon the face of the waters, formed humanity from the earth, breathed into him the breath of life, and joined Adam with Eve. But humanity was not content to receive creation from God’s hand, in God’s time and in God’s way, and GRASPED life, as though the Giver of all were not generous, and did not want them to mature and grow. First, in the Garden, then later at Babel, humankind used their compromised unity and tried to “make a name for themselves”:
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built.
And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:1-10 RSV)
God levelled upon confused and grasping human beings a severe mercy: limitation, and boundaries to understanding. As with the penalty of death imposed at Eden, this was not to protect God, who needs no such boundaries. But for the earth and humanity itself such restrictions were now in order, for their now-bent nature could well lead to devastating chaos and destruction: “nothing that they propose to do” would be impossible for a creature made in the image of God, but gone wrong. We see that image and that distortion in the actions of Babel: the people consult together, work with matter, and build up to the heavens—but not for God’s glory, of course. All the senses are in full use, as well as their innate unity and their ability to reason, yet their goal is mistaken. And so God confuses and scatters them, hampering their ability to pursue human glory. The collateral damage is, of course, that the unity of humankind is further fragmented, adding divisions between races to the discord between husband and wife, brother and brother.
Pentecost is, in one sense, the reversal of the Babel story. The people had moved away from the east, the local of God’s presence in the barred garden of Eden. Their efforts were thwarted and their unity disrupted, issuing in a scattering abroad of humanity throughout the earth. At that momentous Pentecost, God-fearers and scattered Jews had met to worship God in the Holy City, and they got more than they bargained for. They came to remember the LORD’s giving of the Law from Sinai, as well as the birth and death of King David; they witnessed the giving of the Holy Spirit, the One who bears witness to the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of the King of Kings. So Peter contrasts the beloved David with the Messiah in his sermon on that day to the crowd: “the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, `The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Act 2:29-36 RSV)
But there was more than that to see—in the tongues of fire and the speaking of the disciples, the crowds saw the majestic healing and empowering of God. Jesus was exalted, and received on our behalf the gift of God, pouring it upon those believers gathered there—and the curse of estrangement was over, for what they spoke, the crowd understood. Those who did more than listen, those who LOOKED at the new community also could see that the curse of disunity had been removed, too, for the earliest community held all things in common, and gathered around the teaching and fellowship of the apostles. It was a new day.
St. Peter, their spokesman, sends the crowd not only to the recent events in Jerusalem concerning Jesus, but also to the Old Testament, in order to understand what is happening. He quotes to them from Joel, a passage that recalls also the words of the prophet Ezekiel. God is doing a new thing among his people, something that will change ALL of humanity, and not only Israel:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that 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 upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.
“And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the LORD shall be delivered; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:28-32 RSV)
Pentecost is not, of course, the first time that the Holy Spirit has acted in God’s great story. IN the OT, we hear about God’s Spirit coming upon prophets, kings and priests, and even surprising the Hebrews by coming suddenly upon those who are in their camp. But the day would come, prophesied Joel, when the Holy Spirit would be given without measure upon all who believe, and when the name of the LORD would be honored by those outside of Israel. That day, we know, came with Jesus, whose crucifixion was marked by signs in the heavens and on the earth—the darkened sky, the shaking ground— and whose conquering of death opened the graves of those who entered the streets of Jerusalem. The division between Jew and Gentile would be healed as those whom the Lord called found their rest in God the Son, the true Jew and the second Adam.
And so, when the apostle Peter addresses the crowd on that first Christian Pentecost, he calls their attention AWAY from the phenomena to their meaning. The rush of wind, the tongues of fire, the speaking so that they could understand: they were signposts to that one who is Light, and Water, and the culmination of all Israel’s hopes. They were meant, like the Holy Spirit himself, to give glory to Jesus, and not to call attention to themselves. As we read earlier this week in our daily lectionary, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). And so those who had gathered to worship the Lord and remember Sinai remarked, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” New works! The works of Jesus!
Not, of course, that we do not worship the Holy Spirit, who is, with the Father and the Son, eternally God. But His delight is to show us the Son, so that we can know the Father. Like the glory cloud of the OT that shone on Mount Sinai as the Law was being given, so the Holy Spirit, present with us, indicates that the Father and Son are with us, as well. His personal presence is more than a phenomenal sign, however, for he teaches the whole Church the meaning of Christ’s words, enabling us to hear, receive, and pass on the apostolic teaching which comes, originally, from Jesus himself. It is the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to see the Old Testament words pointing to Jesus, and fulfilled in him. This giving of the Spirit to the Church, more intimate than our own breath, means cleansing, light and understanding for all of his people. The prophet Ezekiel saw our day from afar, and tells us what God promised:
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances… you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek 36:24-28).
Again, all the senses are involved—the touch of cleansing water, the work of the Spirit within, the creation of a new heart, the hearing of God’s word. What Ezekiel is describing, and indeed what happened on Pentecost was a new creation, the making of a new humanity that could live and work together, worship together, tell others the good news together, and even do the “greater works” that Jesus promised they would do once the Holy Spirit came upon them. Jesus was not only the source of water and light: He gave water to us so that we would be sources; He gave light so that in his light we would SEE light, and spread it. Let’s go back again to the gospel reading:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified…. Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Water, light, coherent words that heal—His gifts to us that we might give to others. This weekend some of us may be disappointed about what has happened with the Great and Holy Council in which many of us had realistic, but still, high hopes. It is helpful to remember that even when God’s people had God Incarnate among them, they did not all agree—there was, we hear in our gospel reading, a schism because of him. And in the Acts, persecution followed the initial approval given to the early Christian community on Pentecost. We are not strangers, then, to disagreement and trial, to troubles without and within. Yet, we have been given the greatest responsibility and honor that the Creator can give—we have been asked to pray for our leaders, and have been told that fervent prayer is effective. Let us not devolve into armchair spectators, scorners, or “I told you so” mockers at this time in our Church’s life. Jesus prayed for our unity, and the Holy Spirit has not been taken from us. As we pray the kneeling prayers this weekend, let us remember the gravity of our calling, and the wonder of God’s intimate dwelling among and with us. And so we move from the triumph of Ascension to the wonder of Pentecost. For if the Son was not glorified in the Ascension, taking our human flesh with Him into God’s presence, then the Spirit could not have been poured on all flesh—the Ascension and Pentecost are flip sides of the same coin, us present with God in the heavenlies in Jesus, God present with us on earth in the Holy Spirit. He pleads for us eternally; He has not left us as orphans.
Wherefore, O most merciful and philanthropic Lord, hear us on whatever day we call upon Thee, and especially on this day of Pentecost, whereon, after our Lord Jesus Christ had ascended into Heaven and sat at Thy right hand, O God and Father, He sent down the Holy Spirit to his Disciples, the holy Apostles, Who alighted on each of them and filled them all with His inexhaustible and divine grace; and they did speak in strange tongues, prophesying Thy great deeds. Hear us who beseech Thee, and remember us, wretched and condemned. Deliver us from the sinful captivity of our souls by Thy loving intercession. Accept us, who kneel down before Thee and cry out: we have sinned, and we have cleaved unto Thee from our birth, even from our mother’s womb….Measure our transgressions according to Thy compassion, and set the depth of Thy compassions against the multitude of our offenses. Look down from the height of Thy holiness upon Thy people who stand and await abundant mercy from Thee. Visit us with Thy goodness and deliver us from the possession of Satan and preserve our life with Thy holy and solemn laws. Commit Thy people unto a faithful guardian angel. Gather us all unto Thy kingdom. Grant forgiveness to those who put their trust in Thee, relinquish us and them from sin. Encompass us with Thy holy angels. Arm us with the weapons of Thy justice. Envelop us with Thy righteousness. Protect us by Thy power, and deliver us from every oppression and from every conspiracy of the adversary. Grant us that this evening and the approaching night and all the days of our life may be perfect, holy, peaceful, sinless, without doubt and vain imaginings, by the intercessions of the holy Theotokos and all the saints who have done Thy will from the beginning of time.
Let us offer these potent and ancient prayers for our parish, for our jurisdiction, for our Church. And the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Giver of life, will lead us into all truth and unity—not just a hypothetical unity or a conceptual one, but truth and unity that can be seen, felt, touched, spoken and heard, just as it was that first Pentecost. For He is with us!