I wonder how the day began that first Pentecost? Had the apostles been gathered in that Upper Room for long – after all it was only nine in the morning so had they been all night or just gathering? Were they praying together? Eating? Or beginning a service for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the Giving of the Law?
And how did they become aware that the Spirit was coming? Did the sound of the wind rush upon them out of nowhere, or was it a breeze increasing in intensity? Did the divided flames look like fire, spread like fire, feel like fire? Was there a kind of religious ecstasy that bubbled up from inside, spilling over into the gift of tongues?
The disciples tumbled out into the streets, laughing, praising, proclaiming the works of God. At Pentecost Jerusalem was full of many pilgrims from all over the known world. Drawn by the commotion a crowd soon gathered – puzzled, intrigued but some also laughed. What on earth is going on?
I wonder how you would have answered? How would you explain the coming of the Holy Spirit?
I find St Peter’s talk fascinating in what he doesn’t say! I find it intriguing what he doesn’t mention. He does not emphasise the gifts of the spirit – the miraculous tongues, healings, miracles, prophecy and so on – even though they’re being displayed there and then and might call for explanation, as gifts from God for the benefit of all.
Peter doesn’t talk about the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, self-control and all those wonderful virtues about which St Paul would write so eloquently. The fruit the Spirit grows in us as we become like Christ.
Nor does Peter speak about the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told his disciples in John’s gospel what the Spirit would do: he will be the Comforter, the Teacher, the Advocate. But Peter doesn’t refer to that.
In fact, St Peter says very little here about the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian. He could have spoken at great length about all the amazing things the Spirit does, the wonderful relationship Christians can have with God through the Spirit. All of that would have been perfectly true and it tends to be the way that we think of the Spirit today. We might think of the Spirit being God living within us – and that’s absolutely right.
None of these beliefs about the Spirit is unimportant. They can be immensely powerful in helping people to come to faith. When we run Alpha courses we often find it’s the Holy Spirit day that makes the biggest difference. Up till that point the participants have listened to talks about the Christian faith, shared some interesting discussions and enjoyed good meals. On the Holy Spirit day we pray that the Spirit will touch each person – and he does. That’s what makes the difference – people see the Holy Spirit at work and suddenly they think: ‘There’s something to this.’ We need to remember that – when we share our faith – not just talk but pray too and ask for opportunities to witness to the Spirit’s power. The personal nature of the Holy Spirit, the wonderful things he does are hugely important. But on the Day of Pentecost Peter emphasises a completely different line.
What he does say is ‘This proves that God has kept his promise. This shows that God’s Kingdom is coming.’ Peter doesn’t see the Holy Spirit as something to give individual Christians a boost. He doesn’t just see the Holy Spirit as the fuel in the spiritual tank. He sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as an epoch-changing event. A key stage in God’s plan for the world. A crucial moment in the story of salvation.
Look at the quotation from the book of Joel, where he makes this point. A strange choice perhaps. It comes from a time in the Old Testament when Israel was suffering a plague of locusts. Joel the prophet called people to repentance, promising that when they do the locusts will fly away and times of blessing will return.
And then suddenly Joel looks far into the future – the day will come when these blessings look small by comparison. One day God will pour out his Spirit on everyone. The Lord’s Day will come – a day of judgement and power – and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
It’s on the way, says Peter. Look at what you see: the Spirit has been poured out. Listen to what you hear: God’s word is spoken in every language under the sun. You hear the works of God in your own language. This shows God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh. He has kept his promise – this is a sign that his Kingdom is coming. Judgement is near, you need to know this and prepare for it. But this is the good news: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is what Joel promised – the Holy Spirit before the great day of the Lord.
In other words, this event is important because of what it shows. The Holy Spirit is an inner witness to an outward reality.
As an analogy: an engagement ring shows that a marriage is promised. A deposit on a house is a downpayment prior to the sale – a token of good faith showing that the decision has been made and that the rest of the money will follow. St Paul describes the Holy Spirit as being like firstfruits – the early produce from the garden which shows that the full harvest is on its way.
All of these have a sense that a key event has happened which unlocks something in the future, and acts as a sign that the future event is on its way. So it is with the Holy Spirit – his presence with us is a sign that God is keeping his promises.
This means that if we ever wonder if the Kingdom of God will ever come; if we ever look around us and think ‘The World is going to pot, will God ever put it right?’, then we can look inside, at the Holy Spirit within us, working in his church, growing the Kingdom, and say ‘Yes, God has promised.’
If we ever doubt whether God will judge the world, if we wonder why evil seems to go unpunished, then the answer is look to the Holy Spirit. Judgement will come, God has shown us by giving the Spirit who convicts the world of sin. And if anyone worries whether God can really save, the answer is the Holy Spirit, who brings each person into a relationship with God.
That may not be the way we naturally think – to see the Holy Spirit as evidence, but Peter says it is so. The fact the Holy Spirit has been given shows that God is faithful and keeps his promises.
The Holy Spirit is a sign that everyone is invited into God’s Kingdom. The Holy Spirit is a sign that today is the day of salvation, and an encouragement not to delay. The Holy Spirit is a sign that the Kingdom of God is drawing near. We must remember this: not just look at the Holy Spirit as a helper sent to support us, but as a promise of what God is going to do. That will encourage us and give us confidence to persevere.
On that Pentecost, three thousand understood what Peter said and were baptised. They saw the amazing things going on – and grasped the significance of them. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to understand God’s plan for the world. Amen.