Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Pentecost, May 19, 2013

If Pentecost were a movie, it would most surely be nominated for Best Special Effects at the Academy Awards and it would win hands down. The speed of it. The energy of it. The visuals of it. Whatever the disciples were expecting when Jesus promised them power from on high in Luke and the Spirit of Truth in John, it was not this. It was not this urgent, compelling power that moved them all to action. It was not the violent wind, it was not the enormous noise, it was not the tongues of flame. The effects of Pentecost were incredibly overwhelming, and it is a wonder they were not scared to death. Who knows, they might have been, but the force of the Holy Spirit was stronger than any fear they might have had. Everyone in the room, the 120 disciples gathered, was pushed by the Holy Spirit to deliver testimony to God’s deeds of power. And even more incredible, they were given the power to speak in other languages, the languages of the Jews from around the Roman Empire who were living in Jerusalem.

The crowds were astonished. They knew the disciples were all Galilean, yet here they were, speaking in many other tongues. It was enough to begin to make one believe in this Jesus of Nazareth, who was the Messiah. It was enough to begin to believe in this man as crucified and resurrected to save everyone. Later in Acts, we learn that more than 3,000 people were added to the community of believers that day, and the church was born. The Holy Spirit, as it did moving over the waters in creation, had brought new life to the world, the beginning of the Kingdom of God coming to everyone.

What kind of church did the Holy Spirit birth that day? First, it was a church based on diversity. People from all over the empire were now part of the community. The disciples speaking in many languages symbolized that all were welcome, that no one would be left out. The new church spoke to the Jews first, but then went on to the Gentiles. It spoke to men and women, young and old, slave and free.

The new church was also about a new harvest for God – new believers in a new covenant. The feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, was one of the main Jewish festivals. It started out as a celebration of the spring harvest, a time when people brought their first fruits to sacrifice to God. Then it became a time to remember the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. As the law constituted the formation of the Israelites as the people of God, so Pentecost constituted the formation of Christ-believers as the church.

The new church was also a church based in Jewish history. Abram and Sarai had been blessed to be a blessing to all nations, and the church was a continuation of God’s promise to them. Peter, when he was refuting the doubters who thought the disciples’ cacophony of languages meant they were drunk on new wine, brought his audience back to the prophecy of Joel, in which God promised in the last days to pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh, not just the prophets as of old. Everyone would be a prophet, would see visions and dream dreams. Everyone would have the gift of the Holy Spirit in them. Sons, daughters, old men, young men, even slaves would talk about what God was doing. The difference in the prophecy of Joel was that the last days were threatening. There would be signs and portents in heaven and on earth – blood and fire and smoky mist. The sun would be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, but after all these things happened, everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved. Pentecost was quite a different animal. The pouring of God’s Spirit on all people was still a sign of the last days, but the last days were more promising than in Joel’s story. The last days were brought about by the love of God rather than the judgment of God because God and humans had been reconciled through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit to be his presence with the disciples, as the Torah was God’s presence among the Jews. The church would be Christ in the world continuing his teachings that the kingdom of God was at hand and how people should behave in the kingdom.

Even though the last days were not bad news for the church, being church was not necessarily going to be easy. It was going to be hard, because the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of Truth. It would push and poke and prod the disciples to act as a counter-cultural force in the world (Charles Cousar). It would be there to give them God’s agenda to act on and not their own. It would be there to keep the church from straying into the path that would forget Pentecost and its power and become a club where worship and fellowship occurred, but nothing was done in mission.

What would the new church do? It would be a community that would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the good news of God’s gift of Jesus the Messiah. The Holy Spirit poured on the special effects at that first Pentecost that impelled the disciples to talk about God’s greatness and God’s love in sending Jesus to be our salvation. The disciples, now apostles, were to be the message bearers to the whole world in Jesus’ name. They could not do this on their own. That’s why Luke’s Jesus told them to wait for the power from on high to come to help them. God would be with them in their efforts to spread the good news in the face of persecution and even death. John’s Jesus said whoever believed in him would do the things that he had done – preaching, teaching, healing, feeding. In fact, they would do greater things, because they could cover more territory than Jesus did.

Pentecost marks the church’s birthday, the making of a new community that is diverse, that is a new harvest for God, that is based in Jewish Scripture. It is a community equipped by the Holy Spirit to spread the word about God’s amazing deeds of power. But Pentecost didn’t just happen once. God’s Spirit was poured out on the church many times in Acts – in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip, in the blinding flash of light that Paul saw on the Damascus road, in Peter’s new understanding of the Gentile mission from his venture to Cornelius’ house to see the Holy Spirit come upon the Gentiles (David Lose).

And Pentecosts still happen today wherever the church is gathered in the communion of the Holy Spirit. We have experienced Pentecost in the birthing of our family ministries program and in the beginning of a new outreach project. We have the opportunity to experience a new Pentecost by becoming an inviting church in addition to being a welcoming church. Michael Harvey, in his presentations during the recent clergy conference, said we are called by God not just to welcome those who walk in, but to bring in those who are outside. We are called not to flowery speeches or theological profundity, but to a simple invitation, “Would you come to church with me?” We can think of many reasons we can’t invite people, and they are all based in fear of rejection. 80%-95% of our churchgoers will not invite people because of fear, Harvey said. Yet God says to us over and over in the Bible to fear not, because God is with us and God will empower us. We are not required to get a yes, Harvey says. In fact, nine times out of ten we will get a no. We are only responsible for the inviting part. The response part is God’s job. God continually works on people to get them to say yes because God wants relationship with God’s people.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit created it, defined it and empowered it to do Christ’s work in the world. The Spirit stays with us in community and as individuals to bring us the new life we are promised and give us the help we need to spread the message. Look for Pentecosts – spiritual birthdays in which God gifts us with new power and life – in your own life and the world around you. Say to yourself, Happy Birthday and best wishes for new life empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In this way we keep the miracle of Pentecost alive and growing in the church, helping everyone to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.



  - Rev. Ann Barker


Works cited:
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1994), p. 348
David Lose, “When Will Your Next Pentecost Be?”, Blog Post, Sunday May 12, 2013