TEXT: Acts 1:1-21
I wonder how many people—worldwide—tuned in to the Royal wedding on Saturday. I wonder how many—in North America—got up at 2:00 a.m. to watch it. Probably most of us in Canada set our PVRs up to record it, to view later (that’s what we did at my house). Doesn’t matter. Even though we weren’t watching it live, it was magnificent. That music. Those choirs. That church. That dress …
And that preacher!
The Most Reverend Michael Curry—the first African-American to preside over the Episcopal Church (USA). If you heard his message, you’ll already know the guy is amazing. Listening to him—and watching him—all I could think of was: “Hey, you Brits! That’s the way to preach!”
I especially remember what he told Meghan and Harry.
“There’s power in love,” he said. “We were made by a power of love and our lives were meant to be lived with that love.”
Playing off the style of a classic American black preacher, Curry delivered an incredible, theatrical discourse on the power of love—on love’s power to heal wounds, to end poverty, to guide those who rule. A powerful wedding sermon, heard by some 600 people inside Saint George’s Chapel, plus over a thousand more outside.
What a moving spectacle. I’m not even a super-huge fan of things royal, but I wish I could have been there to observe it first-hand, to watch it unfold in real time. That would have been … something … wouldn’t it? To watch in person as this new thing came into being. A new life together for this young couple, certainly—but also a kind of new beginning, I think, for the monarchy and for the people of the United Kingdom.
In this event—and in the person of Meghan Markle herself—Britain witnessed the beginning of something entirely new. Through this very traditional observance, through this time-honoured ceremony—this ancient rite of marital union—something heretofore unseen was taking place. May 19, 2018 was a turning point—a watershed moment.
To have been there in Windsor … as this biracial, American, Hollywood princess became the Duchess of Sussex … that would have been something. But I have to say—thanks to the near-miracle of 21st-century technology—those of us who watched it on TV had pretty good seats at the wedding! Better seats, really, than most of the people who were actually present in that church.
Well, that was Saturday’s church service. Sunday’s church service was something special, too. On May 20, 2018, those of us who follow the liturgical calendar commemorated another kind of turning point—a watershed moment in the life of the Christian Church.
The author of the Book of Acts tells us the story. That would be Luke the Evangelist, who also wrote the gospel which bears his name. In chapter two of Acts, he transports us back in time to mid-morning in first-century Jerusalem, about seven weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the harvest festival known as Pentecost, and the city is crowded with visitors from all over the known world. Amidst the hustle and bustle of celebration and commerce—the din of trading and bargaining, of laughter and haggling in foreign tongues—God chooses to reveal his Spirit.
When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2:1-4).
Wow. Even a bigger spectacle than the Royal wedding. Oh, to have been there to witness it in person!
That’s impossible, of course, until somebody invents a time machine. However, thanks to some first-century technology—thanks to Luke and his pen and parchment—we’ve got some pretty good seats for that event, too. Even though we’re not watching it in real time.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:5-12)
And so another amazing preacher stood up:
Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say … this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh …” (Acts 2:14, 16-17)
Here is something entirely new: the Spirit of God is being poured out. As Joel predicted, it is being poured out upon all flesh: young and old, men and women, slaves and free. And—as Peter himself will soon discover—upon Jews and Gentiles alike (see Acts 10). For God’s dwelling place is now among his people (Rev. 21:3).
Here is the beginning of something entirely new. That’s why this first Pentecost is regarded as “the birthday of the church.”
Except, of course, as I said earlier, this wasn’t really the first Pentecost. The word “Pentecost” is the Greek name for the Jewish holiday known as Shavuot—or “the Feast of Weeks.” It begins on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (which, this year, coincided with Harry and Meghan’s wedding day), and it has a two-fold significance.
First of all, Shavuot marks the all-important barley harvest in Palestine. Second of all, it commemorates the giving of the Law to the children of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. It is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals—which explains why Jerusalem was at that time filled with devout Jews “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).
So even way back then—2,000 years ago, when Peter and the others caught their hair on fire—even then, Pentecost was a time-honoured observance, harking all the way back to Moses and his tablets of stone.
Yes. Sinai. Moses. Ten Commandments. Torah. The giving of the Law which imparted life and identity to the people of Israel—a life and an identity shared by Jews everywhere, no matter what part of the world they lived in.
At Pentecost, they came to Jerusalem not only to celebrate the harvest and trade in grain, but also—and more importantly—to lift up those ancient traditions which knit them together as one people. All by itself, that was amazing and wonderful and life-giving. A gift of God, for the people of God. To be once again in Jerusalem; to present one’s offering (bikkurim) at the Temple; to visit with friends and relatives after long separation … what could be better than this?
Ah, but … The Lord God of Israel, the One who says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old” (Isaiah 43:18) … the One who says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19) … the One who says, “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5) … the Lord God of Israel, who is always creating, always renewing the heavens and the earth, this God we worship never ceases to surprise us.
And so, on that long-ago Pentecost Day, when the cyclone hit and the flames burst forth and the heavenly dove spoke loud the languages of God’s love … Out of everything that was good and right and glorious about Jewish tradition came something entirely unexpected.
For God blessed his people with a new life and a new identity. A new law, a new way of being. As the apostle Paul would later put it, the law of the Spirit who gives life has set us free (Romans 8:2).
Yeah. The Spirit who gives life. The “Advocate”—as Jesus called him.
“The Spirit of truth who comes from the Father” (John 15:26). The One who guides us into truth, because he declares to us the things of Christ (John 16:13-14).
The Holy Spirit. He still speaks to us, you know. That’s the whole reason why the festival of Pentecost remains so important that we give it a whole season—the longest season—on the liturgical calendar. It’s because Pentecost continues. The gift of the Spirit is still being given. The voice of the Spirit is still loudly speaking to us, guiding us, prodding us, leading us in the way of Jesus.
In whatever language we can understand, with whatever tongue of flame can light a fire under us and get us moving, the Spirit of the living God issues our marching orders. He whispers words of love and shouts words of encouragement, all to remind us of who we are and to whom we belong.
And when we have the good sense to listen … wonderful, amazing things happen. The God who is always making things new—always creating a new heaven, a new earth, a new people—this God whom we worship and adore … He always has new tricks up his sleeve. He is always, always, always working for our good.
Whoever has ears, let them hear.