Reflection by Revd Sue McCoan
‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place’. Familiar words, that start our bible reading for today, Pentecost Sunday. We’ll hear the reading shortly. But in preparation for that, I’d like to reflect on what Pentecost meant before it became known to us as the day the Holy Spirit came. The followers of Jesus are gathered in one place for a Jewish festival, also known as Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks. Pentecost is a Greek word meaning 50th, because it falls on the 50th day. ‘Shavuot’ means ‘weeks’. But what are they counting?
Shavuot has a double significance. One is, it is a harvest festival: the end of the grain harvest. 50 days from the first cut of the barley to the last cut of the wheat. It is a time of thanksgiving and of dedicating the harvest to God.
The other is, Shavuot is also 50 days after the Passover festival, and it marks the day that the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, seven weeks after the people of Israel escaped from Egypt.
The followers of Jesus are gathered for a festival to celebrate and give thanks for God’s gifts: the gift of food to eat, and the gift of the Law to live by.
With all that in mind, let’s hear the first part of our bible reading.
Reading: Acts 2:1-4
The gift of food, the gift of the Law, and now the gift of the Holy Spirit. No wonder we have such powerful images here, of rushing wind and tongues of flame. This is quite a day!
It is no coincidence that the Christian festivals of Easter and Pentecost map so closely onto the Jewish festivals of Passover and Shavuot. It is as if, through Jesus Christ, those festivals are being reinterpreted for a new age, a new way of being.
Passover, you remember, marks freedom for God’s people, but it’s a freedom dearly bought. God killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians, but passed over the Jewish households which were marked with the blood from the sacrificed lambs. At Easter, Jesus becomes the sacrificial lamb and the freedom of resurrection is dearly bought by his cross and death.
The freedom from the Egyptians in those ancient times led very quickly to a time of danger and uncertainty, first at the Red Sea and then in the desert without water and food. They were used to being ordered about; Moses had to make the decisions, do all the thinking for them. How were they to survive? And how were they to take responsibility for themselves as God’s people?
The disciples of Jesus were also experiencing danger and uncertainty after Easter. They know Jesus is risen and that’s really exciting – but what are they to do about it? They are still afraid of the authorities. And they have been used to looking to Jesus to make decisions for them – how do they know what to do next? How are they to live as God’s people now?
On Mount Sinai, God gives Moses the answer he needs. A code of conduct for living as an independent community; a covenant relationship of mutual trust and respect with God at the centre of it all, the heart of the covenant. The giving of the Ten Commandments, and of the whole Law of Moses, marks both an end and a beginning. It marks the end of that period of uncertainty, of not quite knowing what they were doing or where they were going. And it marks the beginning of the next stage of their progress, the new sense of structure and purpose which will be the foundation of their settled life in the Promised Land.
In our reading, in Jerusalem, God gives a very different gift, for a different situation. The gift is the Holy Spirit, but the specific way the Spirit shows up here is in the gift of languages.
Let’s hear the second part of our reading.
Reading: Acts 2:5-15
One other thing about it being a Jewish festival is that Jerusalem was full of foreigners – pilgrims from all over the known world, from as far away as Libya and Rome, coming to celebrate together. To their astonishment, they hear a group of people speaking to them in their various native languages – speaking about God’s deeds of power.
The gift of the Law of Moses was given to lay the groundwork for a settled community in a not entirely welcoming place. The gift of the Spirit of Languages lays the foundation for a new way of being God’s people – no longer rooted in a place but centred in the Spirit, equipped to take God’s message out all over the world. Christian Pentecost, like Jewish Shavuot, marks the end of the period of transition, and the beginning of a new phase of life as God’s people; the gift given in each case is the one exactly needed for that moment.
We, in 2020, have been longer than 50 days, and are not yet at the end of our time of transition; we are still not able to meet in person. We do know, though, that at some stage, the government will announce that we are allowed to go back to our buildings, and now is a good time to be preparing ourselves for that day, whenever it comes. I have, this last week, met with the elders of St Andrew’s and of Wembley Park to start thinking about the practical measures we would need to put in place to keep people safe, and about what our worship might look like. We will, for instance, have to keep our distance; we may be advised not to sing, because singing is as bad as coughing for spreading the virus; and, crucially, we will be smaller in number because not all our people will be safe to return and we will not encourage anybody to take unnecessary risk.
There is more work to be done on that. And meanwhile, we might also take time, all of us, to reflect on what this new phase will mean for us. How are we to be God’s people as and when we can meet again. What does it mean to be a church fellowship if some of the people can’t be there? What does it mean to worship God if we can’t sing God’s praises?
These are big questions. But we need not be afraid. The events of Pentecost, the earlier events behind Shavuot, remind us that God is good, and God gives us the gifts we need for the task we are called to. We, today, already have the gift of the Law of Moses, in our bibles. We already have the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, uniting us with one another wherever we are in the world, and at the same time uniting us with God who is the source of all our being. And we can have complete faith and trust that if there are any other gifts we need to move forward as God’s people, God will provide those too.
This Pentecost Sunday is not an end for us, but may it be a beginning: a beginning of a renewed openness to God’s giving, guiding and loving Holy Spirit.