Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Pentecost Sunday

Sermon preached by Penny Wheble at St Martin's Church in Walsall, on Pentecost Sunday 2011.

Today is Pentecost Sunday – an important day in the church calendar.
The word ‘Pentecost comes from the Greek: it simply means ‘fiftieth’.
Pentecost Sunday ends the period of Easter.

Pentecost grew from what was originally a festival marking the first grain harvest of the Middle Eastern year. This was marked by a sacrifice to the gods taken from the first part of that first harvest. In very ancient Palestine, this first-fruit sacrifice was tightly tied into the religions of the gods of power and fertility. As the Jews grew to understand themselves as followers of the one and only true God, they created ways to be thankful to that God, Yahweh, for the first harvest, without the pagan trappings. The celebration became a mini-pilgrimage, or chag, where they would stay at their region’s shrine, bringing with them grain loaves and young livestock for sacrifices. As the Jewish kings started to centralise religious activity into Jerusalem (a process that lasted several centuries), this pilgrimage and sacrifice was brought there, with all the songs, processions, liturgies and pageantry that Jerusalem did so well. To them, the 50 day period was the week’s worth of weeks after the Passover. The Passover recalled hard times and rescue by God, hence the unleavened bread; Pentecost, or Shavu’ot was the celebration of a blessing of harvest, and its joy was symbolised by leavening the bread.

The festival began to take on another religious role around the time of the Exile. And because Exodus 19:1 describes the arrival of the Jewish people at Sinai as being about that time of year, Pentecost was used to mark the giving of the Torah or the first five books of Moses at Sinai. Over time, the Torah, as a set of instructions, became more prominent in Feast of Weeks’ celebrations.

Now, let’s fast-forward to Jesus’ time. The believers had gathered together after Jesus returned to the Father. It wasn’t just the 12 disciples, there were around 120 of them. They would have been talking, remembering, praying, and wondering what was next, after some of the strangest months there ever were.
Luke, in his account, speaks of how they started telling the people they met about Jesus, after they had been filled and set on fire by the Holy Spirit. The streets were full of people from many places, mostly there for the holy day, some still hanging around from Passover. When each of them heard the witnesses speak, they heard it in their own language! (That is, if they were allowing themselves to listen; otherwise they heard babbling, as shown by the remarks about drunkenness.)

What was being told fully for the first time, was the good news about Jesus and what it means for all people. But more than words – the words were being carried with power and authority by the Holy Spirit into the hearts and ears of those who were listening. About 3000 people joined their ranks – the first fruits of a new kind of harvest, and the giving of a new covenant of grace fulfilling the covenant of the Torah.

Pentecost wasn’t the first time the Spirit was active. The Spirit had been working all along in people who listened, giving them guidance, teaching, shedding light on the mysteries of life, and causing prophesies. The Spirit had struck home powerfully in John the Baptist’s message of repent and be saved, and came in full force upon Jesus at his baptism which began Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus was a man who was overflowing with the Spirit, and it showed in whatever he did – the teachings, the healings, the suffering and the death, the return and the leaving.
John’s Gospel even mentions that Jesus had blown the Spirit onto each of his disciples before leaving. But Pentecost was the first day that the Spirit took hold of the followers of Christ as a group or body, and came to stay. It was the first time the Spirit’s raw power was there in anyone who followed Christ, not just the Twelve.

So, what does Pentecost mean for each of us?
We are called as a people to be together in order to share Jesus’ love. If you believe in Jesus and are baptised, then you’re called into something much bigger than you are. Being part of the church of Christ as a believer means that you have the Holy Spirit at work in you. And that means that you each have tasks that the Lord wants you to do, and you have been given what it takes to do them. You are to listen for the Spirit’s guidance, through the scriptures God gave for you. The liberating, earth-shattering spiritual event of Pentecost was the first fruit of something that continues to this day, and beyond.

Some of you here may still be wondering about faith; you may find it weird, intriguing or just puzzling. God meant for each of you to be in this too. You are like the people who were in the crowd that Pentecost day. About 3000 in that crowd changed course and became believers. A few grumbled, some debated it among themselves. But most people in Jerusalem didn’t even notice, or saw it and just got on with their daily lives. No new power impacted their lives. No new purpose gave them direction. And many people, even devout ones, still couldn’t sense the presence and power of God in their lives, and would you believe it, it’s still like that today.
Pentecost holds the promise that God has something new in store. The believers from that first Pentecost day kept their faith, and told others about Jesus, and kept living his way and many more would find God’s promise fulfilled in their lives.

Pentecost is not a solemn occasion. It’s a time for vigour, excitement, energy, movement, birth and fresh commitment.
It’s also a time to think about the gifts the Spirit has given you: Perhaps there is a way you can use them to build up or help bring healing to others, to the credit of God alone. The only thanks that the Spirit wants for giving gifts is that we should use them instead of sitting back and wasting the opportunities.

As a church here at St Martin’s, we worship together, pray together, sing together, and just do things together, but my final thought is how can we reach out to others, especially in the community and those on the outskirts of society. Let’s be reactive to the needs of those around us, and encourage one another as Jesus did his disciples.

Let’s pray:

Lord, you have chosen and called us
To worship and serve you
And to open our lives to the power of your word.
You have loved us and healed us,
You have changed us and filled us.
Now set us free to be signs of your grace
To those who are lost and those who are hurting.
We commit ourselves to Christ
And to be open to your will.
Now fill us with your Spirit,
That we may live in the freedom of your grace.

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