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Pentecost Commonly called Whitsunday

Benjamin Lee

AD 2006

Acts 2:1-11   John 14:15-27

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven . . . and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4).

“. . . but ye know him, for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:26).

On the day of Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension, the divine power of the Spirit came upon the disciples gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem, and both filled and inspired them.  On that day God revealed himself, and the presence of the Spirit was given to the apostles in a sudden, dramatic, and astounding moment.  On that day the power of the Spirit appeared, in visions, signs and wonders: the sound “as of a mighty rushing wind,” and “cloven tongues, like as of fire”; and in prophecy for “they began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance”—such were the wondrous, and perhaps bewildering, manifestations of the Holy Ghost on that day.  This was of course recognised by the early Church as a fulfillment of the oracle of the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Joel 2:32).  And thus was the church born: in an immediate, sudden, powerful experience of the divine—an experience, one might say, of religious ecstasy.

Some today are perhaps doubtful of this kind of language, as indeed there were those observers then who supposed the disciples to be merely drunk with wine.  But our meditation this morning must neither brush aside nor become overly preoccupied with these images of divine power, and of the disciples’ experience of ecstasy.  For we must not fail to grasp the meaning of all this noisy wind, dancing flames, and drunkenness in the Spirit—lest we fail to understand what lies at the very source of the Church’s existence, her life, and soul.

Our Collect today instructs us about the nature and purpose of the miracle which we solemnly commemorate on this Festival of Whitsuntide.  God’s sending of his Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, is the gift of light to “teach the heart of his faithful people.”  And so we ask in the Collect: “Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things” (BCP, p. 205). 

According to St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, after the resurrection and before the ascension, Jesus continued teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God.  But his closest disciples, who for the past three years followed him in his ministry, seem still to misunderstand what kind of kingdom Jesus was talking about.  Nor in this connection do they grasp the significance of the Cross, the memory of which would still be terribly vivid in their minds.  Jesus indeed had revealed the power of this kingdom most decisively in the weakness of his crucifixion.  Yet prior to Pentecost, before receiving the Holy Ghost, they do not seem to have the right judgement as to what kind of power and kingdom this is.  They lack discernment, and the good news is still obscure to them.  For they ask: “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Such a question betrays their nationalistic hopes to reestablish the political dominion once enjoyed by David.  The Spirit was given to the Apostles as their teacher, because the power, glory, and mightiness of God’s kingdom which the Christ-event authorised and revealed turns all of our expectations upside down. As we read in St John’s Gospel, Jesus himself anticipated the ministry of the Holy Ghost, promising to his disciples that “he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).  The Holy Ghost, the Spirit of truth, descended on the day Pentecost, “to teach the Apostles and all other men, that it is he which giveth eloquence and utterance in preaching the Gospel; that it is he which openeth the mouth to declare the mighty works of God; that it is he which engendereth a burning zeal toward God’s word, and gives all men a tongue, yea, a fiery tongue, so that they may boldly and cheerfully profess the truth in the face of the whole world” (Certain Sermons or Homilies, “For Whitsunday”).  Today we celebrate, as our hymn declares, the “Day when first the light divine/ on the Church began to shine.”

The Holy Ghost imparted not only illumination, but also authority.  For in light of Christ’s redemption—whose peculiar power is manifested in self-emptying love, and whose kingdom is ruled by the Lamb who was slain for us—in light of this and only this, the Spirit authorises the Church’s own peculiar power and mission.  As the Acts of the Apostles records, once inspired and taught by the power of the Spirit given on Pentecost, St Peter is bold then to proclaim the good news that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, dead, and buried, has been raised and exalted, and is now sitting at the right hand of the Father. Authorised by the Spirit of truth he can exclaim: “God hath made Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). 

The Holy Ghost’s descent upon the apostles, which we celebrate today, teaches and so reveals the meaning of the Cross; and the power and authority which the Holy Ghost gives to the Church is never apart from this truth: the Church is united with and participates in Christ’s work of redemption.

The gift of the Spirit of Pentecost to the apostles was certainly a miraculous and powerful event.  And it is of this singular event which we have been reflecting on.  But such discreet experiences of ecstasy, inspiration, and abrupt vision of God as the apostles had on that day are perhaps uncommon, exceptional . . . and certainly not regarded as a normal or regular part of Prayer Book spirituality!  Thankfully, the gift of the divine presence was not a mere momentary shock, which passed away from the disciples just as quickly as it came upon them: “for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:17).  So long as one is a true disciple who keeps our Lord’s commandment of love, Jesus promises of himself and his Father: “we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).  And this is the reason why we ask God in our Collect to grant us, by the Spirit “evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.”  For the Holy Ghost, our Comforter, was given to us to be an abiding, continuing presence which is the active agent of our conversion to the truth; and the divine cause of our purification from following “too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP, p. 4).     

What a comfort it is that the Church does not direct its own projects, but rather follows the motion of the divine Spirit; and that our devotion and piety do not in the first place depend upon us, and the frailty of our nature, but upon the Spirit of God which abides in us.  His presence and power in us is in fact the condition which enables us to be converted to God at all, and enables our prayers to ascend to the Father.  Progress in spiritual life is not without discipline and strenuous training on our part, but, thank God, it does not begin, does not depend on, and is not measured by our own brilliance, understanding, or emotional fervour in prayer: for the Holy Ghost is active to inspire all our prayer.  Likewise, the only possibility of our keeping Christ’s commandment of love, to both God and our neighbour, is the Holy Ghost, the eternal bond of Love himself which unites the Father and the Son.  As St Augustine teaches, “without [the Spirit] we can neither love God nor keep His commandments”  Indeed, without his divine presence within us we have no power to love at all.  Therefore, he continues, “he who loves has already the Holy Spirit, and by what he has becomes worthy of a fuller possession, that by having the more he may love the more.” (Tractate on John 14).

And what is the “peace” with which Jesus promised to leave his disciples, other than the tranquility of soul which is possible only through our lives being rightly ordered to God, who is our true good, and the end of our desire.  Which ordering by the Spirit was most famously and eloquently captured by St Augustine: “to praise Thee is the desire of man, a little piece of Thy creation.  Thou stirest man to take pleasure in praising Thee, because Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee” (Confessions 1.1).

The Holy Ghost inspires whatsoever religious ecstasy we may experience, floods us with the light of all heavenly wisdom, bestows us with of all charity and peace, and is the primary agent in our progress in sanctification, our disciplines of prayer and habit of contemplation.  And so God’s Spirit, which Jesus promised unto his disciples “to be with you forever,”—this same Spirit we invoke to rouse up the divine presence within us: “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth thy praise” (BCP, p. 6).  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.