Pentecost is coming -- so what's up?
The Day of Pentecost is on the horizon, and with it the Season of Easter comes to an end. We've already celebrated Ascension Sunday, which marks the the end of the Jesus story, at least in terms of an earthly/physical presence. Now we await the next stage, which some call the age of the Spirit and others the age of the Church. To be Pauline for a moment, in the upcoming age, the church is the body of Christ, empowered and enlivened by God's Spirit. But right now, at this moment, we're in a period of waiting, of discernment, of wondering what will come next. I've been in that spot before and others are experiencing this period of waiting as well.
We heard the promise in Acts 1 -- go and make disciples, but wait for the Spirit. As chapter 2 of Acts begins, the text that so often marks our Pentecost services (I'm preaching from Numbers this year), we find the disciples gathered in a room as a major Jewish holiday is about to begin. This holy day, known as Pentecost, falls 50 days after Passover. There are images and concepts embedded in this holiday that give depth to our understanding of Pentecost as a Christian celebration.
The word Pentecost, translates from the Greek as the "fiftieth day." It’s the term diaspora Jews used for the religious festival known as the "Feast of Weeks." Pentecost was one of three major pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish calendar, and it’s possible that more than a million Jews traveled to Jerusalem each year for this festival.
Its origins can be found in a spring harvest festival. It was a feast of thanksgiving in which worshipers brought offerings of the first fruits of their harvest. The directions for its observance can be found In Exodus 23:16.
You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.
Again in Exodus 34:22 we read:
You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. (Also see Leviticus 23-15-21; Deut. 16:9-12).
Finally, let us look at the account in Deuteronomy 16:
You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the festival of weeks for the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God. . . . (Deut. 16:9-12).
The account in Deuteronomy links the feast of Weeks with Passover.
By the mid second century B.C.E. the focus of the Pentecost festival had changed from a harvest celebration to one that celebrated the renewal renewing of their covenant with God. We see this change of focus in the apocryphal Book of Jubilees (ca 150 B.C.E.), which links the festival to the renewal of the covenant with Abraham. This covenant spoke of Abraham's posterity being the means by which an inheritance of blessing would be passed on to all nations. Howard Clark Kee comments:
It is with these connotations of covenant renewal and inclusiveness that Acts describes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, adding to it the explicit and detailed claim of the fulfillment of Joel's prophesy (Joel 3:1-5). Covenant renewal is thus depicted in Acts as world-wide in scope and as potentially universal in its inclusiveness. (Howard Clark Kee, Good News to the Ends of the Earth, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 30-31.
There is a further parallel that provides background to this event. At least by the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews connected the giving of the Torah with this feast. It’s likely that this tradition might have gone back to at least the time of the church’s founding. If so, then we would also see a parallel between the giving of the Law and the outpouring of the Spirit.
As we look at this event, it’s quite likely that Luke is drawing on a variety of parallels to interpret the meaning of Pentecost. As we look at Pentecost through these varied lenses we get a better sense of what happened and what it means for us as church. Might we say that it was providential that God chose to pour out the Holy Spirit on the Church as the covenant people of God were gathering to celebrate this festival, a festival that drew Jews from all over the diaspora?
In verses 8-11 of Acts 2 we find another possible parallel. Luke provides us what is essentially a table of nations, from which those gathered for the pilgrimage would have come. The scene, therefore, is set. In Luke’s account, the outpouring of the Spirit comes at a most opportune time, one that allows the gospel to be proclaimed to representatives of all the nations (Acts 1:8). For Luke, the Pentecost story is a story of harvest -- of drawing the peoples of the nations into the realm of God. It also can serve as an invitation to renew the covenants that exist between God and us, and of course, celebrate the giving of the Spirit to all. Finally, as we consider the story, it might be worth considering that the Gospel is an inclusive message, not an exclusive one.