Acts 2:1-21; Ps 104; Ro 8:14-17; JOHN 14:8-17, 25-27
My peace I give to you…Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. AMEN.
Seders commemorate the Passover of Jews across the Red Sea in safety away from enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt. 49 days later, according to most Jewish traditions, Shavuot, one of the three pilgrimage holidays is celebrated. It commemorates the gift of Torah to the entire nation of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai. The counting of the 7 days in 7 weeks, called Counting of the Omer, is seen to express anticipation and desire for the giving of Torah. An omer-measure of barley was also observed as a sacrifice, offered in the Temple at Jerusalem, until an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple at Shavuot. Shavuot actually means weeks, so it marks the end of the counting of the Omer. People believed also that the idea of counting each day represented spiritual preparation and anticipation for the gift of Torah, around the same era, as was the Shavuot observance as a rain offering of sacrifice. One Jewish belief is that they were only freed from Egypt to receive Torah at Sinai, at Shavuot, and then to fulfill its laws. This back and forth weaving of meanings shows the antiquity of the traditions and their layers of understanding.
Here, being familiar with this Jewish theological practice and theology, we can welcome Pentecost with some additional attention. Jesus had promised the disciples, the crowds, and those following around his various post-resurrection groups, that after he’d ascended to the Father, he would send the people a Comforter, an Advocate, one to speak for the people to the Father, a Paraclete. People waiting had no understanding of who or what that would be, how it would work out, what that meant, when it would happen, and whether it would really ever happen. They were understandably anxious, because the future is always unknown, even when promised by seriously trust-worthy people. The future is just unknowable.
The disciples and followers knew the pattern of a Seder followed by another observance 49 days after the second day of Passover. They were used to being mindful of honoring the Seder and sacrificing with a daily reminder for weeks. Then they would be mindful of some period of anticipation, followed by the enormous gift of G*d’s holy word to them. The patience, hope, and spiritual disciplines connected with these 49 days, until the 50th day was part of their faith and upbringing. (Note: they count 7 weeks as 49 days, while we count both ends of the 7 weeks, making 50, or Pentecost, from pentecosia, meaning just 50, though it clearly here means 50 days.
The occasion of marking the 50th day following Easter, as special, marks two things. It’s 50 days after Easter, 50 days after being freed from the enslavement to death. It allows for a time of careful spiritual observance and sacrifice or donation to the Temple. It’s a longer season than Lent’s 40 days marking the period of Jesus’s time in the wilderness and Satan’s tempting of him there. The 50 days are both longer and more important, by practice and meaning. Lent’s a preparation for Easter, while Eastertide, the longer season after Easter, observes the importance and the joy of the new freedom from sin and death. When we recall that, by reminding us each and all of our own baptisms with the weekly asperging and the continuous burning of the Paschal candle, we also echo the earlier waiting for the observance of the gift of Torah, the gift that was the long-term shaper of the Jewish community, identity, and faith.
Liturgical practitioners, the Holy One, or biblical scribes could have arranged these numbers into parallel seasons or it could have just happened that way by happy coincidence. Jewish disciples after Easter might well have wondered whether there would be a comparable gift on day 50. They’d heard Jesus’s promises, and they must have wondered how he would fulfill them. Then after 40 days, Jesus announced, as he was ascending, that something good was coming. Then they must have wondered what could or maybe, what would parallel the gift of G*d’s Word—G*d’s word made flesh, and then returning in living Spirit, to comfort, shape, advocate for and with the people. Torah was a gift that had come to the whole nation at Sinai, so it was one that transcended particular languages developed in each of the twelve tribes and others who’d become part of the nation. While the comparison is often made between G*d’s destroying easy communication between peoples at the Tower of Babel with the restoring of peoples with different languages, as Luke narrates, in today’s great Pentecost Acts reading, a broader comparison could also be made. The Pentecost return of people being able to understand each other as part of the gift of the Spirit is like the unifying action given to the nation at Sinai with the gift of Torah.
Peter quoting Joel, explained at this astonishing event that God had said, “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,” (and more) and “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Also to the people in Rome it was explained that “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…for you have received a spirit of adoption… so when we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Again it’s a statement that all are welcome heirs, inheritors, and members of G*d’s nation shaped together through the Holy One’s gift transmitted in Torah and Spirit.
Somehow in the years that brought strength and numbers to the followers of Jesus, these Christians grew away from their Christian forebears. It seems they lost the parallelism of these occasions and feast days. Jesus promises that the Spirit will stay with his followers, and that they’ll be left “Peace.” He “gives them peace, not as the world gives. [He] does not give to them as the world gives.” And urges them “not to let (their) hearts be troubled, nor let their hearts be afraid.” Christians didn’t hear how similar were these promises were to those building community around a Spirit of comfort and advocacy. Gradually differences divided the groups over belief in Jesus as the Word made flesh, the Son of G*d. Since Jews believed that G*d’s name and reality could not be approached by humans safely, they took offense at the assertion that Jesus was the physical son of G*d.
Hearing these readings again this year two things occur to me. First, the connections and echoes of these two Jewish pilgrimage occasions, the Seder and Shavuot, in the shape and practice of Christian seasons and feast days are striking. Comparing and contrasting them highlights the structure and center of ours, in a way that deepens the meaning of ours. It makes the number of the days mean more than a simple number. In connects us indelibly to these roots as ours too.
Second, it’s almost impossible for us to hear these readings as though for the first time, as though they were happening to us, as though we didn’t know what the Spirit would bring, that Jesus’s astonishing promise of a Comforter has come true. There’s no way for us, sitting here at St. John’s and thinking about the merger, about The Vote, that we can know, know, how it’ll all turn out. Jesus was trustworthy; he promised the Spirit and it has given life to Christians in mission, in community, in faith, in hope, and in loving G*d.
We’ve been preparing for months to bring ourselves to this vote. Jep and our Bishops and our friends throughout the church, and in particular at St. Paul’s, are trust-worthy. While no humans are as exactly trust-worthy as are Jesus and the Spirit, we both know these people and trust them, and we trust the Spirit to shape our work for our communities linked in our following Jesus, in our heartfelt eagerness to serve our community in mission, in our love for the Holy One, and in wanting to shape our worship, love, and attentiveness to the Holy One in our tradition’s mystery, beauty, and awe. We can have no more guarantees of the presence of the Comforter, the Spirit, than did those people of old, and yet consider what they started and continue to build in the world in service, in policy, and in beauty. We can expect the Spirit to be as attentive and present to us; we can trust that. We can have faith that Jesus will be with us in the Real Presence in mission and in liturgy here and on Tremont Street. The Spirit’s flames will incite us to new life and its forceful whooshing winds will fill our lungs with new abilities for prophesy and welcome, new breath for work, preaching Jesus, and telling it out to all nations. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come Spirit fill our longing hearts. It has come; it does come; it will come: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 19 May 2012 St. John’s Boston