Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
RCL – Pentecost B – Sunday 31 May 2009
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
In our corporate prayer as monks, we come across a prayer from Psalm 51 that seems fitting for this feast of Pentecost:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your holy spirit from me.
A new day is dawning - Originally uploaded by Randy OHC
God chose a most auspicious day of crowded diversity in Jerusalem to usher the body of Christ on their new and various endeavors. There was no happenstance on the day chosen for the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Christ, to take center stage.
The name Pentecost comes to us from the Hellenist name for one of three pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish tradition. The Hebrew name of this festival is Shavuot. Our contemporary Jewish brothers and sisters started celebrating their version of Pentecost/Shavuot this past Friday.
Shavuot in the first century had many layers of meaning, some tracing back to Passover. On Passover -- another pilgrimage festival -- the Jewish people had been freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh. On Shavuot, they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.
Shavuot also was a festival for the first harvest of wheat and was also referred to as the festival of first fruits.
Shavuot attracted a lot of pilgrims in Jerusalem. As one of the three main festivals, it would have obligated all male Israelites within 20 miles of Jerusalem to come to the temple for worship.
Many proselytes (gentiles who had converted to Judaism) and many Israelites settled abroad would have made the effort to travel to Jerusalem for this occasion.
The reading from Acts today describes Jews who have traveled from regions as remote from Jerusalem as present-day Libya, Italy and Turkey - and remember, this is before Amtrak or JetBlue.
And for this festival of the end of grain harvests, servants would traditionally have been given leave for the day. Many servants and probably quite a few slaves would have taken this opportunity to join in the celebrations.
So, I hope you get a sense of how crowded, cosmopolitan and busy Jerusalem would have been on this day of Shavuot. Think: St Peter’s square on Easter morning or Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
And most of this crowd would have communicated in a variety of languages. But the most useful to communicate with other linguistic groups than your own would have been the Koine. Koine was a common form of the Greek language.
Koine is important to mention for this feast of Pentecost for you could argue that’s the only language that would have been needed.
It was, to the first century eastern Mediterranean, what international English is today to the arena of globalization. How often nowadays do we consider that if the message has been broadcast in English, the whole world has surely heard it?
Most people would have understood a good deal of Koine. Many educated people would have been proper speakers of it. But for most of them, it would not have been their mother tongue -- with all that a mother tongue carries in emotional richness and nuance.
Pentecost was the Koine name for Shavuot because it came on the 50th day after Passover. The root of Pentecost is Pente for 5. Why 50 days? Well, one of the Passover mitzvahs (good deeds) was counting up daily a “week of weeks” until an offering of the first harvest of wheat could be made in the temple at Shavuot. Seven weeks is 49 days. Shavuot comes on the 50th day. Most Jews to this day, consider the word Pentecost does not capture what Shavuot means.
So our Christian narrative of Pentecost is not happening on Shavuot gratuitously. By the way, you may ask me at dinner, to tell you a bit more on some of the shared motifs interlaced in the Jewish Shavuot and Christian Pentecost. It’s fascinating.
On Shavuot, the disciples of Jesus are hoping for a “breather” of a holiday together, but not the “breather” they’re going to get. The disciples have been on an emotional roller-coaster for about 2 months now.
It started gloriously with the festive entry of their teacher into Jerusalem. It then quickly unraveled in confrontations culminating in the arrest, torture, crucifixion and death of Jesus on the eve of Passover (of which Shavuot is a continuation).
And then, when they felt most lost, anguished and guilty, came the incredible and yet real resurrection of Jesus. But that did not constitute the happy end yet.
After his appearance and teaching to a variety of disciples, Jesus is removed into heaven, leaving the disciples at a loss once more, though a very different one this time.
Would you feel a bit stressed in their place? I reckon I would be a thorough mess of paradoxical feelings and disorientation, if I were in that Jerusalem house on the morning of Shavuot.
And on that very morning, these good Jews have gathered together, supposedly to celebrate this festival as a community; a group of insiders glued together by amazing experiences.
As our Br. Randy suggested last week, they now feel “Home Alone”, without the physical presence of Jesus to exhort them to do the right thing.
He has promised them an Advocate, one who would go with them, teach them, and ultimately defend them in judgment. But for now, they are staying put in Jerusalem and going about their usual ways.
And then, quite suddenly, the house seems to come alive with rushing currents of wind that howl. I imagine the house, as in a cartoon, when an explosion makes all the shutters and doors bump on their hinges and buckle as if expanding. And just as suddenly, the disciples’ heads are as if on fire. If nothing will throw you out into the streets, this probably should.
The disciples become part of the Spirit’s rush; they flow with it. And they start to converse with the crowd of onlookers in the adjacent streets who have come to see what the commotion is all about.
And whatever language it is that the disciples think they are speaking, they are heard in their interlocutors’ mother tongue, whichever that happens to be.
I imagine the disciples hearing themselves and hearing the questions and interjections that respond to them in various languages that they don’t know, and yet, now do speak, and trying to not stop to think about it, for it’s too weird for words but it is obviously working anyway.
They proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, risen and ascended in words that touch the hearts and minds of the many Shavuot pilgrims they meet.
They convey to their fellow Israelites and to the proselytes that the “Age to Come” is here and now, Peter even channels the prophet Joel to convey that.
And word gets around, in whatever language. And more locals and foreigners come running to see and hear -- in their own tongue -- what these simple Galileans have to say.
And so, millennia after Babel divided humanity in misunderstanding and mistrusting entities, the moment of Pentecost gives birth to the universal church. It reverses the curse of divisiveness; not by effacing the differences but by making deep communication possible across them.
As a man who became an Episcopalian on the day of Pentecost 2000, I appreciate how the Holy Spirit, with a somewhat Anglican touch, I may add, demonstrates the effectiveness of spreading the gospel in the vernacular of the people you are reaching out to -- no matter what your language of origin may be.
And so, on this day of Shavuot, God chooses to change the arena and the medium of the gospel. After freely constraining himself to the human limitations of a human life (time, space, suffering); after experiencing human life from within, as Irenaeus described in the sermon we heard last night, the Spirit chooses to give godself to the nascent church.
We now host God in our deepest self; whether we let God inform us or resist God’s inspiration. For we are still free; free to tune into the Spirit or not, but unconditionally provided-for in God’s Love. We are all sharing in the first fruits of God’s harvest in the Christ Jesus whose Spirit lives in us.
So,will I let my heart, mind and soul catch fire? Will I turn to whatever neighbor is at hand and share the best news ever in a way that transcends our differences? Will you?
It’s early days yet. It’s quite soon to tell whether the Early Church, here assembled, will hear the gospel and stand up for God.
But it’s never too late to be joined to the cornerstone which the builders rejected. We can yet build up the Kingdom of God’s Love, God’s Republic of Universal Welfare.
Let us pray.
May the eye of God be within you,
The foot of Christ in guidance with you,
The shower of the Spirit pouring on you,
Richly and generously.
And now that our furrow is deeply drenched in the shower of the Spirit, may our grain of mustard blossom into a tree to shelter the birds of the air.
Come Holy Spirit and cleanse our hearts with your fire.
The Easter fire - Originally uploaded by Randy OHC