The meaning of Pentecost – and turning to the light

Pentecost. Oh, the drama of it all!  The inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Wind and the fire.  Foreign tongue, speech and actions so strange that people are considered drunk – at 9.00am in the morning.  I confess that I struggled with this one.  Being part of a sermon series about Acts, and wanting to share insights into what we can learn from it is not the easiest of tasks when beginning with such an incredible event as Pentecost.  It is hardly an experience one can easily relate to.  And if it really happened – if – what are we supposed to surmise from it?  Is it telling us that this is what we should experience in order for us to feel authorised in the commission of our discipleship?  Is faith something that comes upon you like a fire and a rush of wind – literally?  Is it saying that until we have felt this we cannot know the power of the Holy Spirit or the strength of faith?

But then there is that “if”.  Did this really happen? In Acts is Luke, its author, describing an event with literal fact which is informing us of our expectations of faith – or does it in fact go much deeper than that?  What insights can we get from this when we consider it not as literal fact, but as biased history – a story intended to communicate a message?  What is Luke teaching us?  Why would he say it at all if it didn’t happen?  What is its meaning? This last question is something that those who were there in the story all ask afterwards.  “What does this mean?”

In many ways, whether Pentecost happened as Luke says it did is not the important factor.   There may be some of you in this room who have had a spiritual experience – maybe even a very dramatic one – and for those of you who have, you will know that no language is adequate enough to explain what it was like or indeed what it meant.  And the words of Luke do not fully explain this either.  It is actually a very short description of something quite incredible.  Plus, not everyone – in fact a vast majority of people – are not going to have an intense spiritual experience, certainly not one of the likes of Pentecost.  And yet there are those of us for whom faith is a vital part of our lives and for whom it plays a central role in guiding us in what we do.  So, the fact of whether Pentecost happened in reality, cannot be the most important thing.   It cannot be that this is required in order for us to gain a sense of vocation in our discipleship.

When someone has an experience or a sense of vocation – in anything, not just faith – a key question they ask themselves is “what must I do?”  In order to fulfil this vocation, what is required of me?  Later in this chapter of Acts, soon after the experience of Pentecost, this question is asked of Peter, and the answer – in parallel to our reading from Luke’s Gospel today – is “Repent and be baptised”.   It is helpful to remember that Luke would have intended Acts to be read straight after his own Gospel – the Gospel of John just sort of got in the way in the final edit.  And so it is also important to note that Luke would be drawing parallels between the stories of his two books.   John the Baptist has already told people in Luke chapter 3 that they must repent and also that one more powerful than he will come from God and he will baptise not with water, but with fire.  In the story of Pentecost this is fulfilled.  The Holy Spirit had been seen in the form of a dove when Jesus was baptised – this time it is seen and experienced in the form of fire.  Through the relating of this event, we are being told that God keeps his word and fulfils his promises.  And just to emphasises this point, of all the places and times this visitation of the Holy Spirit could happen, it happens in Jerusalem, on a Jewish festival.  Pentecost was in fact a Jewish festival – also called the Festival of Weeks – celebrated 7 weeks after the Passover to mark the giving of God’s word to His people through Moses on Mount Sinai.  So on the day when Jews from many different nations are gathered together to celebrate the promise of God to his people, this is the time Luke tells us the Holy Spirit comes upon them all, meaning they directly experience the fulfilment of God’s word – but this time through Jesus Christ.  It gives huge validation to the testimony of John the Baptist, but also reassures those who would be reading Luke’s testimony that God has not forgotten his people, that the gift of his Son in the form of Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of his Word.  In addition to this, by relaying this as happening at a time when people of many different nations are gathered together, who are then suddenly able to communicate with each other, we are being given the message of how widely this Gospel is to be spread.  It is for people of all nations.  Peter confirms this later by telling them that “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.”

So, what about the other question concerning what we do now –and that awkward answer, repent.  When you grow up in a questioning and liberal church, the phrase “repent for the forgiveness of your sins” actually doesn’t come up a lot.  In fact, the subject of confession and sinning can be a very sticky one.   But the question of repentance is not one to be avoided, but one to be looked at much more closely.  It is the meaning of repentance becomes key.   When we look at its original meaning and consider it in context, the whole emphasis starts to shift.    It becomes not the action of beating yourself up for the past, but in fact a way of building yourself – and others – up for a fresh future.  In Hebrew the word for repentance is shuv, to turn or return to God, to turn away from evil and towards the good.  In Greek, the word is metanoia, meaning a change of mind, an after thought – to think differently from how you did before.  So, what we have in Pentecost is an extraordinary event being told by Luke – but it is also the response to this that is key.  The decision to repent.  To accept the love of God and, to use a modern phrase, to allow a paradigm shift to take place.   When you put this in the context of Jesus’ ministry it is not a surprising statement by Peter.  A central reason for the controversy surrounding Jesus was his insistence on doing just that.  You need to think and act a different way, to accept the challenge of sharing God’s message of love, compassion and justice for all.  It is Luke’s message, told through the story of Pentecost, which is important, not so much the event itself. From Jerusalem, the home of God’s people, comes the fulfilment of His promise.  Now it is our turn.  Now we must act.  Now we are enabled to share the message of Jesus’ Gospel.   This is our commissioning.

Turning towards and accepting the love of God and, in turn, sharing it, is obviously something that is a personal vocation for each person of faith, and expressed in a unique way for each of us.  But it is clear that Luke wants people to know that it is something to be shared, to enable community, to unite people in the good.  When looking at repentance and its meaning I recently came across an illustration of the meaning of metanoia which connects with this sense of our turning to God enabling a greater power to take hold and to unite us in community:

Imagine you are standing in a circle of people.
In the centre of the circle, there is a source of light.
But rather than facing the centre and the light, you are standing with your back to the light, facing outward.
When you stand this way, facing away from the light, all you can see is your own shadow.
You cannot see the light.
You can only look into your shadow.
You cannot see the others in the circle with you.
From what you can see, you are disconnected and alone in the dark.
Now imagine that you turn around to face the light that is in the centre of the circle.
When you turn toward the light, you no longer see only darkness.
When you turn toward the light, your shadow is behind you.
When you turn toward the light, you can now see the other people who are standing with you.
You can see that the light is shining on everyone and that you are all connected in its radiance.
Making the decision to turn around, to turn away from shadow, to face the light: this is metanoia.

It can take a great deal of courage to turn around and allow yourself to connect – to notice those things around you which may seem alien, but are in fact a way of relating more closely with God and being part of something remarkable that can create change.  If we only allow ourselves to see our shadows and close ourselves off to the Spirit within us and around us, we turn away from both the power of God and the power of community.

But when we do make that move, when we do turn around and share with others, the power of God’s love and the work we can do together is truly inspirational.  Amen.

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