The Pentecost behind Pentecost

Paintings of Moses receiving the law/Torah (left) and the Holy Spirit descending (right).

Paintings of Moses receiving the law/Torah (left) and the Holy Spirit descending (right).

This past Sunday was the remembrance of Pentecost in most Western and Eastern church traditions. If you were in a church that follows a lectionary or the liturgical year this may have been pretty obvious. Or, you may have caught wind on my weekly lectionary prayer this week. If you were worshiping in a church that does not regularly follow the Christian calendar, this may have passed completely unbeknownst to you. I wanted to spend some time today talking about the day of Pentecost since it is probably one of the most important days in the history of the Church after Easter and Christmas. Here is the opening of the story from the book of Acts:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
Acts 2:1-4 (CEB)

In our typical Church celebrations of Pentecost I think we jump ahead to the miraculous element of the Holy Spirit descending, the speaking in tongues and even Peter’s speech without recognizing one very important element mentioned in the story.

Pentecost was a day already.

By that I mean, Luke (the traditional author of Acts) is telling us that Pentecost was already recognized as an important day previous to the whole blowing wind, tongues of fire, speaking in different languages and  inauguration of the Church business. What Luke is probably telling us is that what happened on Pentecost Day may relate to what the day was already being recognized for. This will become more clear when we understand what the word Pentecost even means.

The word Pentecost comes to us from a Greek word meaning “fiftieth day”. So, we might deduce that we’re celebrating something important 50 days after something else important. Christians who start doing the math will realize that we’re 50 days after Easter. But let’s dig a little deeper. The book of Acts was writing the story of a fledgling church that had not fleshed out all the whole Christian calendar and what days were to be considered holy. But, they were mostly Jews and they had a Jewish calendar and holy days.

So, when we start aligning things between Christian holy days and Jewish festivals we will probably recall that Easter is intimately tied to Passover. Many consider the Last Supper to be a Passover meal and Jesus is often compared to the lamb sacrificed at Passover. So, now we might be wondering is there a Jewish festival that comes 50 days after Passover?

That was a bit of a rhetorical question. Of course there is.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Shavout (or the Feast of Weeks) 50 days after Passover. Shavout comes from a Hebrew word that means “weeks”. Both Pentecost and Shavout are used for the same celebration. Shavout remembers the giving of the Torah to Moses and the people of Israel when they arrived at Mt. Sinai. In the story, God descends upon Mt. Sinai encompassed in smoke, thunder and lightning (see Exodus 19). This day remembers not only the literal giving of the commandments, but what the whole story symbolizes. It is in the giving and receiving of the Law that the Hebrew people, previously 12 tribes of slaves in Egypt, become a free nation organized by God’s laws to be God’s chosen people in the world. The story tells us how the Israelites agreed to follow the laws by saying something like “I do” in a marriage ceremony..

Then he took the covenant scroll and read it out loud for the people to hear. They responded, “Everything that the Lord has said we will do, and we will obey.”
Exodus 24:7 (CEB)

Without Shavout, there is no Jewish people, there is no Israelite nation. Without God descending on the mountain in smoke, thunder and lightning to give them the law written on stone tablets the 12 Hebrew tribes from Egypt can never live into their new calling as a people of God. S.R. Hewitt writes about Shavout in her post Understanding Sinai, “During the celebration of Shavuot, the Jewish people are meant to connect with the significance of the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel. These Ten Commandments are the building blocks of Jewish life, Jewish law and the civilization that the Torah intends the Jewish people to build.”

So, how does this all relate to the Christian understanding of Pentecost?  Well…lets dig into the story a bit.

The disciples, signified mainly by the 12 apostles, were gathered together in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. They were gathered, as they had for most of their lives, to celebrate the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. The sealing of the covenant with the 12 tribes of Israel that they might be God’s people.  Remembering when Moses stepped out of the smoke, thunder and lightning revealing the tablets of the covenant. Then, suddenly, a wind blows amongst them in the room and what looks like little flames, tongues of fire as one might see on a candle, seem to hover over their heads. The Holy Spirit filled them and they began to speak in different languages.

So, you’ve got 12 disciples, gathered in Jerusalem, probably near the Temple (which is built on a mountain), and God shows up signified by a wind and fire.

Sounds eerily familiar to the 12 tribes of Israel gathered near Mt. Sinai right?

Peter, possibly to convince the crowd that they are not drunk quotes the prophet Joel:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves. I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. But everyone who calls on the Lord’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the Lord has promised; and in Jerusalem, the Lord will summon those who survive.
Joel 2:28-32 (CEB)

The prophet Jeremiah also paints a good picture of what this might mean for Pentecost.

No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Jeremiah 31:33 (CEB)

The Instructions, the Torah, or the Law are no longer about the stone tablets. They are given to each and every person, written on their hearts. Pentecost is not just about speaking in tongues so that everyone can hear and understand the Gospel of Jesus. It’s also about a continuation of the story of Israel. God’s plan to restore and redeem the world through the once enslaved 12 tribes of Israel. It’s about a covenant promise made by God that he intends to make good on even though people constantly try to get in the way. The miracle of Pentecost reaches way back to the Exodus story and declares that the promises made then still stand. The promises are not just for Israel but are for the whole world. It reaches even further back to the Tower of Babel in Genesis when God said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6 NRSV). Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, driven by God and the story of the Gospel, it’s as if the world can speak one language again.

A people once enslaved to sin, can now be people of God. This restored community, this “Church”, is now called to be Christ’s bride and ambassador to the world.

There is no Church without Pentecost.

Without the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples in tongues of fire to write the law on their hearts, and empower them to speak boldly…12 simple Jews can never live into their new calling as the redeemed and restored people of God.

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