Today is Pentecost Sunday and churches all over the world are rejoicing. They are swinging incense and singing in choirs, or they are rejoicing with drums and guitars with arms in the air, or they are quietly delighted with the renewal of God’s Holy Spirit, whom we celebrate today. I must admit I still get a thrill when I read those opening words again ‘And when the day of Pentecost was fully come …’ (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2)
Pentecost comes from a Greek word meaning ‘fiftieth’, and is 50 days after Easter. It’s also the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot. It used to be called ‘Whitsunday’ or ‘White’ Sunday, because traditionally the adults baptised on this festival wore white garments. These days churches are much more likely to be decked in red, the colour of the fire of the Spirit.
It is a special day because it not only looks back to what happened that first Pentecost, but also at today and the future. Jesus had risen from the dead, had appeared to and spoken with his disciples, and had returned to heaven to be eternally with the Father. But first he told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, until they received ‘power from on high’, that he would send them. Accordingly, they stayed in the city and prayed together.
That’s what they were doing when the day of Pentecost ‘had fully come’. They all heard the sound of a rushing wind, which filled their house. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire hovering above each of their heads, and they knew themselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. His power caused them to run out on to the streets, where there were Jews and Gentiles who believed in the Jewish faith from all over the known world. As the disciples started telling them excitedly about Jesus, who had risen from the dead, they found they could speak in the native languages of those who had come to Jerusalem for the festival.
This power from the Holy Spirit not only filled the disciples with joy and the desire to share their faith, but also with extraordinary courage, so that even when they were threatened, beaten, imprisoned and some killed by the authorities, the rest simply carried on, preaching the good news wherever they were scattered.
This same Holy Spirit, we Christians believe, is still given to us today. He (although there is no gender in God) is the one who works within us, bringing us to faith, healing us from the past, giving us gifts to use, teaching us the truth, guiding us at all times and helping us to live fruitful lives. We know that we often fail and let him down, abysmally at times: but the Spirit is the one who not only teaches us the truth about ourselves, which is sometimes not what we want to hear – but also the one who simultaneously fills us with the grace of forgiveness, healing and freedom.
It is an ongoing adventure.
The Pentecostal movement encompasses many different types of church, and is the fastest-growing Christian movement in the world today. The traditional churches too are renewed by the movement of the Holy Spirit, who shakes us up and leads us out of our comfort zones into fresh ways of sharing the love of God and the joy of knowing Jesus.
On this day, although we acknowledge the many things we have got wrong in the past, and continue to get wrong, we encourage each other to open ourselves again to the cleansing and challenging movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, so that we can do what we should be doing – offering God’s saving love to those around us.