The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 20 May 2018

Acts 2:1-21, or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:22-27, or Acts 2:1-21
St. John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Background: Pentecost before

What was known in Judaism as the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot was focused on the harvest. It was celebrated seven weeks after the harvest began, hence the notion of Pentecost or fiftieth. You can see accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures related to this feast in Deuteronomyor in Leviticus. There are also references in Exodus, and in Numbers, where the feast day is referred to as “the day of the first fruits. This feast was observed on the end of the seventh week following the beginning of the harvest of grain, thus the name Pentecost or fiftieth. Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the festival took on a new focus. That became necessary when people could no longer make a pilgrimage to the Temple and offer there their first fruits. We see this in the Luke/Acts account of Pentecost, with people from many nations having made the pilgrimage for the offering. The new focus for Jews became one of remembering and celebrating the giving of the Law at Sinai. Luke endows this remembrance with a new meaning as the disciples and people are anointed with the Holy Spirit.

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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.

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?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But 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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, 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,
and your sons and your 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.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

This is not the account of a day, but rather of the fulfilling of God’s plan. Our translation blunts this important meaning and might be better rendered as, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled.” We can see the same usage in Luke 9:51, where the time for Jesus role in the plan is fulfilled in his being “taken up”. Just as Jesus had journeyed to Jerusalem for the final days, so many come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, but are drawn into a new plan – a new Pentecost. The people are gathered, and the disciples are gathered as well, in once place. There are signs given to them there: noise, wind, and fire. We are reminded of the Baptist’s prophecy, “(he) will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” 

One of the gifts of the Spirit is understanding. Here, the gathered people begin to understand what the disciples are saying – they heard in their own language the message, they were given the gift of understanding. In some segments of Christianity, the emphasis has been on the speaking in tongues, but here the emphasis truly is the hearing and understanding of the message spoken by the disciples. Luke takes this gathering of peoples from the Diaspora, as a sign that the Gospel will be opened to both Jew and Gentile. It is a divided audience. Some are amazed (Luke’s code word for believing) and others are simply perplexed. 

Peter offers an explanation. He does not apologize for their unusual speech, but rather offers up the new wine of Jesus. “These people are not drunk, as you suppose.” He then quotes from Joel who describes the wonders of a new day which is to be created by the spirit that will “come upon all flesh.” Joel does not describe a certain few, but rather a great many that will witness the coming of the spirit. This is part and parcel of Luke’s agendum – the giving of God’s good grace upon any who would seek God. That is the wonder of this day.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. The Jewish Pentecost celebrated the harvest and the Law, what is celebrated in the Christian Pentecost?
  2. What gifts of the Spirit do you count in your life?
  3. What new words have you been given by the Spirit?


Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus, says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So, I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus, says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

This pericope is one of four vision narratives, each introduced with the words, “The hand of YHWH was on me.” The location of this vision, or trance is the same as the first vision in 3:22-27, a valley close to the settlement of the exiles, a place of separation and seclusion. Here he hears a call to come out of the valley of the shadow of death “it was full of bones”and into a place of life. The bones are called back into life by the breath. The prophet would have us remember the spirit ru’ahhovering over the wasted deep, and the breath with which God calls the whole of the cosmos into being. The prophet is asked to transcend his traditional spiritual life and to walk into something new. He walks through the bones, which threaten his spiritual purity. God inquires of him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” He is then called upon to speak to the dead.

This is a poignant message in our time – speaking to the dead. If we look at the deeds and behavior of our time, we might think that it is indeed dead, spiritually dead. What might make it alive? Our message? The breath of our message? I’ve always wanted to use the Acts passage as the initial reading for the Day of Pentecost. Reviewing this text, however, leads me to wish that I had chosen this one more often.

Breaking open Ezekiel:
  1. What in your life are “dry bones”?
  2. Which need to be resurrected?
  3. How will God’s breath make them live again?

Psalm 104:25-35, 37 Benedic, anima mea

25    Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
26    Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
27    There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
28    All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29    You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30    You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31    You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
32    May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; *
may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
33    He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
34    I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
35    May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the Lord.
37    Bless the Lord, O my soul. *

The prior two reading choices are evocative of Creation and the presence of the Spirit. So it is in this psalm as well. The locale speaks of it, “Yonder is the great and wide sea.” The psalmist wants us to be aware of all the creatures in the wide sea, but we are also aware of God’s ordering of the sea, of being victorious over the chaos of the sea, of conquering Leviathan, “which you have made for the sport of it.” For most Hebrews, the sea was the very stuff of death. The sea is often used as a symbol of death. Here, however, the sea is a sign of God’s hand at work in creation. There are ships and beasts all for the good of humankind. One verse could be the antiphon for this Day of Pentecost, “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” The psalm reminds us that this is a day not just of words and language, but of deeds and breath – of recreation. Given that vision, the psalmist enjoins us to praise God – the Creator – the life-giver.

Breaking open Psalm 104:
  1. How do you understand water as death?
  2. How is it life for you?
  3. How are you renewed in your living day by day?

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The subtext of creation and breath comes to the front again in this reading from Paul. Looking back on creation we suddenly realize that it is not a task accomplished but rather an on-going process, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” I hope we see the pun in Paul’s text. The first fruitsof the Hebrew Pentecost is no longer the grain of the field, but it is us – we are the first fruits yearning for adoption and redemption. Paul sees us hoping for that which is yet to be revealed to us. 

Words – what words do we use when we pray? Here the concern with language is what shall be our language of prayer if not the words and language that the Spirit gives to us. The stuff of life is beyond words and beyond knowing at times. Here the Paraclete stands beside us to comfort and to speak so that God might know our true intent. So let us be in the mind of the Spirit.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. When do you have difficulty praying?
  2. How do you find the words?
  3. For what are you yearning in your spiritual life?


Acts 2:1-21
See above.

The Gospel: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Jesus said to his disciples,” When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Jesus is leading his disciples through what will be difficult times, he is leading them to promise in this second part of the Farewell Discourse (John 15:1-16:4a). He prepares those who wish to follow him with gifts that allow them to stay in the world, and to deal with the world’s dismissal of him. The promise and the gift are that of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the witness with them of the ministry of Jesus. “(the Holy Spirit) will testify to me.” Jesus’ coming absence becomes the cause of the Spirit’s presence and action. It is almost like the first day of school in which the teacher welcomes but warns that much more will be given and required as the students are taught and guided.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How is Jesus your teacher?
  2. What have learned in the last week?
  3. How do you teach others?

Problem: Where is the breath in my life, in my church, in my neighbor?

Observation 1:         The mere fact of living, of breathing in and out, is a sign of God’s presence.
Observation 2:         What is dried up in our lives, in our parish, that could use the breath of God – what might that breath be?
Observation 3:         How might we use our corporate breath to testify to the Risen One?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

or this

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller


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