The Spirit of Pentecost is evident now in those called to be beacons of love, joy, humility and hope.
It is difficult to put ourselves into the shoes (or sandals) of the disciples, as they experienced a myriad of events from Easter Week to Pentecost. When we had a coincidence of events, we were hard pressed to stand back and understand meaning and consequence. It first impacted me after travelling to Lyon by TGV from Paris. My host met me at the station with the news that my wife’s mother had died that morning. My father had first received the phone call informing my parents. He took the bus to town, and saw my mother across the bus station. He tried to run to catch her (having a serious heart condition) and fell. At the weekend he had a stroke, and died from pneumonia a few days later. We entered a state when we had to close down some side-lines in life to do what was necessary and to care for each other and our friends and family; our thoughts about them were in a focussed and heightened state.
For the disciples and Jesus’ followers, there would be a whirlwind of emotions – deep sorrow, confusion and shafts of joys. There would be an inner drive to care for friends and family – as we tried to do – and they too would be in a heightened state of awareness. But their experience was much the more hazardous. Jesus had been executed by the state. If the authorities had seen his followers as potentially violent members of a subversive group, then they too could suffer the death penalty. After all, about the time that Jesus was born there were 2000 crucifixions following a revolt after Herod’s death.
As they were working through the events, we read in Acts how they coped:
All these with one accord were constantly at prayer. together with a group of women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Acts 1:14, Revised English Bible
We glimpse the ensuing events from the second half of Luke-Acts. Scholars say that this writing gives us just one strand of the fabric of Jesus’ followers. Luke focussed on the axis from Jerusalem to Rome, explaining to Gentiles in the Roman Empire that, even if Jesus was executed (and Paul too), then being a follower of Jesus was viable.
Growth in the community of Jesus followers took place from Galilee, and nearby areas of Israel, where Jesus had conducted his mission. Those early communities emphasised Jesus’ life and ministry – that is what they knew of him directly. The groups in Jerusalem had had direct experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and these were emphasised by those groups. Scholars generally consider that what we read about the disciples’ view of Jesus does go back to them, and is not a later construct overlaying the original. Also, our gospels combine these emphases together – life and ministry with death and resurrection, and the sum is stronger than the parts.
In Acts we do not learn much about the spreading of the faith into Egypt (the Coptic church), Ethiopia, Syria, and further afield – very probably including India. The Spirit of Jesus was alive in many places, otherwise the network of Jesus’ followers could not have grown as it did. There was a Spirit in the air.
The call by the Spirit
That day of Pentecost is a dramatic story, and is set out in Acts 2. About 120 were gathered in one place, probably not the Temple in the circumstances. Indeed a mansion of the period has been unearthed in Jerusalem with a hall of 11 by 6½ metres, which could cope with such a number. And then:
Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force – no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
Acts 2:2-4, The Message
The gathering of disciples was called out in a dramatic manner to join with this assembly outside, paralleling the calling of Greek citizens to an assembly, an ekklesia.
Throughout Acts, receiving the Spirit of God enabled service and speaking God’s word, giving praise and communicating to all.
These noisy neighbours provoked a response of utter bewilderment from those gathered in Jerusalem for this major festival, also called the Feast of Weeks or Day of Firstfruits.
They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, ‘Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them in our various mother tongues?’
Acts 2:7-8, The Message
The nationalities of the audience are listed in two groups: those of the east, the Parthian power block, and those in the west, of Rome. The list sweeps from east to west ending up centred on the community in Rome, representing the spread of the message of Jesus.
When Peter addresses the audience, he puts down the jibe that such infectious enthusiasm was down to a surfeit of wine – it was the wrong time of day, and wrong season. He embarks on one of the great missionary speeches in Acts, beginning by announcing, in the words of the prophet Joel, that the new age had begun in which God’s Spirit would be for all. The scope was universal:
‘your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’
Acts 2:17-18, NRSV
This is immensely inclusive on age, gender and status!
The call of the Spirit
These missionary speeches in Acts provided the important pillars for the movement that followed Jesus, a movement that was lit up at Pentecost. They provide the fundamentals and the roles for Christians spreading their beacons of light:
Pillars – Beacons
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus – Selfless love
The Spirit is a sign of God’s work – Enthusiasm and joy
God calls for a reversal of behaviour – Humility
God offers forgiveness, the Spirit and his promise – Hope
Nowadays, members of an ecclesia, a congregation, are inspired by the same pillars of faith, and are called out to be beacons. There is much to do for those called to be beacons of love, joy, humility and hope – not all these virtues come to the fore across our society and its relationships with those further afield. There is a great need for the heightened state of awareness and sensitivity to give an appropriate response to a spectrum of concerns, pressures and frailties of our society.
This is beautifully expressed within a prayer of Barbara Glasson:
Gentle breath of the Spirit of God:
if I may be more forthright
put the wind into my sails,
if I may be more humble
take the wind out.
Breathe through me,
breathe from me,
breathe within me,
breathe beyond me.
May my in-breath be for your wisdom,
may my out-breath be for your glory.
“Positive Prayers for Cities”, Barbara Glasson, Kevin Mayhew, Stowmarket, 2015