Pentecost Refection by Judy Wedderspoon Lay Reader Sunday 19th May 2024

John 14: 8-17 and Acts 2: 1-21

So we have come to the last, chronologically speaking, landmark date of the Christian year. Without Pentecost, none of us would be here.

Think of those three earlier landmark dates. Just for a moment, forget the wisdom of hindsight. Forget all that we know of things that happened then and have happened since, and think how things seemed to ordinary people at the time.

 Christmas. A baby born in a stable to a poor and obscure Jewish couple in a small town in Judaea. Sure, there were angels and wise men showing that this was a significant birth, but who in Palestine even a few days or months later would have attached any importance to the recollections of a bunch of shepherds, low class and uneducated, or to the evidence of three foreigners who came and then went away again. A nine days’ wonder, irrelevant to ordinary lives.

Then, thirty years later, Good Friday. For us, the self-offering on the Cross of the Son of God. His triumph over sin. But for the rest of the world, at that time, how did it appear? An obscure Jewish Rabbi was crucified by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem, because he seemed to be challenging the might and majesty of Caesar, as other rebellious souls had done before. Sure, he had done some wonderful things in his life, but in the end he didn’t even have the support of his own people. So he probably deserved what he got. That’s just what happens to rebels and upstarts. Let’s get on with our lives.

But.... Easter. The principal followers of this crucified Rabbi claimed publicly that God had raised him from the dead. They had seen him and spoken with him, several times. They had eaten with him. They claimed that he fulfilled all the prophecies of the Jewish scriptures and that he was the promised Messiah. They said that they had seen him ascend to God. But they didn’t really do anything about it. They just huddled together in a room, praying. They seemed to be expecting something, but they weren’t very clear what. If the history of Jesus had ended there and then, that too would undoubtedly have been eventually dismissed and forgotten as a nine days’ wonder.

But then, then came Pentecost. Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, in Hebrew Shavuot, was another of the great Jewish festivals. Jerusalem was once again crowded with pilgrims from all over the Ancient Near East, as it had been fifty days earlier for Passover. Suddenly, an extraordinary occurrence. The followers of that crucified Rabbi were all together early in the morning in one place. The Holy Spirit came upon them, symbolised by a rushing wind and tongues of flame hovering over their heads. They praised God for his wondrous deeds of power. And marvellously all the foreigners present heard those followers of Jesus speaking not in their own native Galilean but in the native languages of the listeners. No wonder that they were amazed and astonished!

Those disciples were utterly transformed, but the greatest transformation shown that day took place in Peter. If any of you doubt how complete was Peter’s transformation, take a few minutes this afternoon to read two passages from the Bible. First, verses 54 to 62 from the 22nd chapter of the gospel of St Luke. There you see Peter cowering in fear in the courtyard of the High Priest, denying any knowledge of Jesus, finally weeping bitterly in shame. Then read Acts, chapters 2 to 4. Peter stands up before all those crowds, testifying to Jesus, raised by God from the dead, as Lord and Messiah. Just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit gave Peter the words to say, and the strength and courage to defy even the Jewish religious authorities. When those authorities tried to forbid the disciples to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, Peter replied: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” [Acts 4:20] That transformation was not a nine days’ wonder which could be dismissed and forgotten.

That same Spirit impelled the followers of Jesus to speak and teach, not only in Jerusalem but throughout the world. It was their successors who brought the Gospel here to England, who with the spirit of Pentecost taught our ancestors about Jesus, about Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. So the knowledge has come down to us. As long as Jesus was alive, his ministry, his work was local, limited to Palestine, where he was. But when he had died and was risen, he was liberated from the limitations of the flesh which he had accepted. His Spirit could work mightily anywhere. His Spirit was set free to operate with power throughout the whole world. [William Barclay: The Gospel of John vol.2, p.192] To come to us. Here. Indeed, without Pentecost we might never have known about Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.

Over the centuries, human beings have tried to pin down the Holy Spirit in words. I think that it is easy to get lost in theological niceties and to lose sight of the reality. For me, the Holy Spirit is the perfect expression of the grace of God, of the love of God and Jesus Christ in action. Nicodemus found it hard to grasp when Jesus himself tried to tell him about the Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [Jn 3:8] We have all been born of the Spirit, at our baptism or our confirmation. The Spirit is within us and around us, always, at all times and in all places. It is the Spirit who teaches us, who helps us to obey the commandments, to love God, to love our neighbour, and to love our fellow Christians as Jesus himself loves us.

I love the lines from the old hymn to the Spirit: “Where thou art not, man hath naught,/ Nothing good in deed or thought,/ Nothing free from taint of ill”.  Wherever I see love, or goodness, or kindness, or truth, or beauty, or holiness, there I see the working of the Spirit. And I am thankful. And that thankfulness itself is the working of the Spirit in me.

So today let us give thanks for the great gift of the Spirit. Pentecost is as vital to our Christianity as are Christmas and Easter. Look around you for evidence of the working of the Spirit, not least in this service of Holy Communion in which we are united in receiving the body and blood of Christ. But also in the love and warmth and friendship of our fellow Christians as we go out. And in the beauty of nature. And in the richness of our lives in this great city. Thank you, Holy Spirit of God.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] The Lord is here! [His Spirit is with us!]