What can the first Pentecost teach us?
(This is a reflection I gave at a Pentecost evening service at Allsaints Parish Church, Otley)
Today we’re going to be continuing our prayers as we join with other Christians across the UK on the last day of this prayer campaign, Thy Kingdom Come. It’s no surprise that the archbishop wanted the last day to fall on Pentecost, the day when traditionally we remember how the Holy Spirit fell on the early church as Jesus had promised, and they were filled with power, spilling out onto the streets for all to see.
But perhaps like me, you find Pentecost services a bit difficult. A bit awkward. Even in the most traditional of churches, there’s every chance that someone might invite the Holy Spirit to come, and people might do weird and wonderful things. Get visions from God, shout out passionately, or even speak in tongues! It’s all a bit unpredictable.
Some of you might be used to that, in fact some of you might welcome it. And the truth is, it is unpredictable, because that seems to be God’s way sometimes. But if we glance back at the original Pentecost, it might give us a little confidence.
When I used to go to Pentecost services, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disheartened. We hear of how this same Holy Spirit that fell like tongues of fire on the apostles is available to us now, and yet things often seem less like a flaming wind and more like a damp squib. How come I don’t see these signs and wonders, amazing healings and prophecies and all that sort of thing? That seems like being the ultimate Christian, doesn’t it? Again, when we look at the original Pentecost, I think it takes some of that apprehension away.
Pentecost was the second of the three major Jewish festivals. The first was Passover; some of us celebrated that together recently. For Christians, even though we live in the knowledge and the freedom of Easter – the death and the resurrection – it can be useful to look back at the original Passover to see what was achieved. I think the same is true for Pentecost.
Pentecost just means 50th day (50 days after Passover) and it’s the day Jews celebrate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Like all of these feast days, a specific offering was to be given to God, but this one is a bit strange; it was an offering of bread with yeast in it. Yeast – also called leaven – represents sin to Jews and Christians. And in all the other offerings, God asks them to keep yeast out, to show that we understand God’s perfect nature by making what we offer Him symbolically perfect.
But God seems to feel differently about Pentecost. Here’s the passage:
From wherever you live, bring two loaves of bread to be lifted up before the LORD as a special offering. Make these loaves from four quarts of choice flour, and bake them with yeast. They will be an offering to the LORD from the first of your crops. Leviticus 23:17
So He asks for the loaves to be baked with leaven.
What happened at Pentecost was amazing – and can still be amazing today – but it’s not the end of the story. We’re still flawed human beings. Like those loaves with the yeast mixed in, we’ve still got sin mixed in to us. Yes, Jesus paid for those sins on the cross, but here and now, they’re still a reality in our lives. But just like baking a loaf of bread in a fiery oven kills the yeast in bread and stops it rising any more, so when we ask the Holy Spirit into our lives, God comes to put a stop to the sin that’s currently a part of us. And actually, that’s a process that takes time.
Don’t be scared of welcoming the Holy Spirit. He’s not there to make you do weird, unpredictable things, He’s there to work God’s power in your life. That’s only ever a good thing. People doing prophecy, and speaking in tongues, and seeing miracles done – that’s fine – but that’s not actually the aim here, nor is it the end of the story, and nor does it imply some kind of Christian perfection. Far from it actually: Paul makes it clear that it’s a deposit, a down-payment, but it’s not the whole shebang. Pentecost is about God recognising that we’re broken, accepting what we bring Him, and working His power in our humble lives.