Epistle: Acts 2: 1-11. Gospel: St. John 14: 15-31.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When the “day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind and it filled all, the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2: 1-4).
Let me take this opportunity to say, happy birthday! For today, Pentecost or Whitsunday, traditionally ranked second only to Easter in the Church’s calendar, is the birthday of the Church. The day of Pentecost, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is the Church’s birthday, the beginning of the Gospel message going out from Jerusalem to the whole world.
Unlike the stable for incarnation, the Cross for redemption and the empty tomb for Resurrection, the significance of the Church’s birthday is truly, matched by its setting. The disciples of Jesus were suddenly struck by a massive spiritual force, which drove them out of the upper room into the Temple precincts, on one of the three most important days of the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Weeks or First Fruits (Exod. 23: 16), to harvest the first fruits of the Christian mission. This was the first public declaration of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The Holy Spirit is a gift to the Church, to uphold and inspire her for ever until the final consummation of God’s purpose. In their activity among mankind, the second and the third persons of the Trinity are complementary and reciprocal. Christ’s work of redemption cannot be considered apart from the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification. “The Word took flesh,” said St. Athanasius, “that we might receive the Spirit” (On the Incarnation and against the Arians, 8, P.G. xxvi, 996c). From one point of view, the whole purpose of the Incarnation is the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost.
It is easy to lay, such emphasis on the Church as the Body of Christ that, the role of the Holy Spirit is forgotten. However, in their work among mankind, Son and Spirit are complementary to one another and this is as true in the doctrine of the Church, as it is elsewhere. While, St. Ignatius said, “where, Christ is, there is the Church” (To the Smyrnaeans, viii, 2), St. Irenaeus wrote with equal truth, “where the Church is, there is the Spirit and where the Spirit is, there is the Church” (Against the Heresies III, xxiv, I). The Church, precisely because it is the Body of Christ, is also the temple and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of freedom. The Holy Spirit not only unites us but also ensures our infinite diversity in the Church. At Pentecost the tongues of fire were ‘cloven’ or divided, descending separately upon each one of those present. The gift of the Spirit is a gift to the Church but it is at the same time a personal gift, appropriated by each of us in our own way. As St. Paul says, “There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit” (I Cor. 12: 4).
We call on the power of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments, the blessing of baptism, the name Whitsunday is, by the way, of early origin and is derived from this day, being a special day, with Easter, for baptisms and, the celebration of the Eucharist. That descent of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised to his disciples in his words to them after the Last Supper, recorded in St. John’s Gospel (14: 15-31), had come to pass.
Jesus had told his disciples that there would be loss, a parting that seemed to be final but that there would also be a glorious return on the day of resurrection and that, in his name, the Father would send the “Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 14: 26). The temporary severance had to come before the greater union, Christ ascended to the Father and a new life for redeemed mankind. The power of evil, the prince of this world, would seem to prevail. The battle had to be joined and the enemy would be overcome.
Pentecost was the completion of the promises and the start of a new era for the world which God had made. In St. John’s Gospel, the other Judas asked why Jesus had not manifested himself to the world (Jn. 14: 22) and Jesus replied that doing so would be the mission of his disciples. He said that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14: 26). That promise underwrites the theological authenticity of the New Testament, in as much, that what it says to us about the life of Jesus and his relationship with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, is quite independent of any discussion regarding historicity.
The Holy Spirit is also a gift to the world, God’s world, which is a good world “and God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1: 31), though marred by human sin. The ability of the Apostles “to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2: 4), a remarkable reversal of the Old Testament story in Genesis of Babel, in which mankind had been punished for hubris (Gen. 11: 1-9), the message of salvation overcame the division of language, thus showing that divine grace is not confined to one nation or race. The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, often silently and unknown but mighty in power.
St. John tells us, that Jesus left his disciples that evening with the promise of peace, “Pease I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (14: 27), the same word that had greeted his Nativity, “on earth peace” (Lk. 2: 14) and would be spoken again in the upper room after the resurrection, “Peace be with you” (Jn. 20: 19). It was the peace such as they had never known, “not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn. 14: 27), not temporary, not subject to the stresses and trials of each moment but forever within them. It was the peace that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all who love the Lord. For the individual who will receive the gift in faith and love, the Holy Spirit is also a gift.
Filled with the peace that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, ‘the peace of God, which passeth all understanding’, the disciples were empowered for their mission to preach Jesus to the world, to both Jew and Gentile. The first half of the Acts of the Apostles in particular, is an astonishing testament to the power of the Holy Spirit. In a little over half a century was developed a theology of the Trinity, of incarnation, redemption and resurrection, of Word and Sacrament, of public and private prayer, of charity and the meaning of a holy and prayerful life. Whilst the missionary work, in particular that, of St. Paul, was beyond human explanation.
The aspect of that theology, which concerns the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is deposited in the Church’s Sacrament of Baptism. The Holy Spirit, given in Baptism and Confirmation, regarded as parts of one whole, is the mode of Christ’s indwelling in his disciples and in them he works, as St. Paul says, “according as he will” (I Cor. 12: 11) and again he says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (Romans 8: 11). The Spirit is the agent by which we come to faith (cf. I Cor. 12: 3).
The Church, the Body of Christ, must continue till the end of the age to bear her apostolic witness to Jesus and his resurrection and this, through the celebration of the Eucharist, she must do, paradoxically and gloriously, by “showing forth the Lord’s death till he come” (I Cor. 11: 26). This may be St. Paul’s interpretation of the words, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22: 19; I Cor. 11: 24). The clause, “till he come,” retains the eschatological emphasis, which was present from the beginning (cf. Mk. 14; 25; Lk. 22: 16, 18).
The proof of love, the assurance of peace, comes from obedience to God’s word in faith and action. Pentecost, Whitsunday, is a day which continues to challenge us and a day to give thanks and praise for the strength which we are given to meet the challenge. The Holy Spirit does not come to us in a mighty wind or in tongues of fire but in that, ‘still small voice of calm’, in our deepest, inner selves.
Almighty God, who on the day of Pentecost didst send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to continue in thy Church unto the end: Bestow upon us and upon all thy faithful people, his manifold gifts of grace; that with minds enlightened by his truth and hearts purified by his presence, we may day by day be strengthened with power in our inner being; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who, with thee and the same Spirit, liveth and reigneth one God world without end. Amen.
Scottish Prayer Book
The Collect for Whitsunday:
God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by the sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
Canon Geoffrey Andow