‘They were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:4).
After Christmas and Easter comes Pentecost. ‘Today’, said St John Chrysostom, ‘we’ve reached the mountain-top of everything good; we’ve arrived at the capital city of all our feasts.’ At Christmas we keep the birth of our Lord; today, the birthday of his Body, the Church. At Easter we recall Christ’s dying and rising; today, the outcome of that, our resurrection so to speak: ‘They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’
Pentecost is a Jewish feast before it is a Christian one. It falls seven weeks after Passover, and it marks the end of the grain harvest. Crops round the Mediterranean ripen far earlier than here. And here’s something remarkable: according to the Old Testament, on the Sunday after Passover a sheaf of barley was taken to the Temple and presented to the Lord. That marked the beginning of the harvest. This was the day – Sunday after Passover – that Jesus rose from the dead, the first-fruits of the Resurrection. Seven weeks or fifty days later, at Pentecost, two full loaves of freshly-baked bread made from the new flour were presented to the Lord. This marked the end of the harvest. If the Passover sheaf of barley suggests Christ, the Beginning, the First-born from the dead, the two loaves of Pentecost suggest us, the harvest of believers, his completion, ‘his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph 1:22). And why two loaves? Because, say the Fathers, the Church is made up of Jewish believers, like the apostles, and Gentile believers, like us: two loaves.
‘They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’
Crammed together in a house in Jerusalem, fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection, there were the twelve apostles, and Mary, and the whole group of early disciples, 120 in all. They were there because Jesus before his Ascension ten days earlier had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high. They were there, doing what he asked, praying and waiting. And there today, ‘when Pentecost day came round’, after hearing a sound ‘like a powerful wind from heaven’, after seeing ‘what seemed like tongues of fire’ resting on the head of each of them, ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:1-4).
‘They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’
This is what Jesus had promised. This is what John the Baptist had said, ‘he will baptise you with the Spirit and fire’ (Lk 3:16). This is what the ancient prophets had foretold: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The greatest Old Testament prophet was Isaiah. And in the very last chapter of the book of Isaiah, he says that the Lord ‘will come in fire, and his chariots like the stormwind’. ‘I am coming, says the Lord, to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall see my glory’ (Is 66:15, 18). That’s fulfilled today. It’s fulfilled in the Church, born today, where the nations are gathered, and God’s glory can be seen with the eyes of faith. It was fulfilled when after fire and stormwind had come, ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’
So, after Christmas and Easter comes Pentecost. After the wind and the fire, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. And we as well: after breaking with sin and believing in our heart, we are filled with the Holy Spirit. ‘What shall we do?’, the people ask the apostles. And Peter replies, ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2: 37-38).
Everything God the Father has to give, everything his Son has to give, is summed up and given in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the life of God, the love of God. He is all this in person. And he is given to us. On Easter Sunday, Jesus risen from the tomb, that first sheaf of barley, breathed on his disciples in the Upper Room, and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (Jn 20:22). And they were filled with him. And we can be too. Even in our wandering minds and wavering wills and poor perspiring bodies, God can breathe. We can live with the life and love of God. And apart from what’s purely ours (namely the sinful, the deliberately wrong), everything we do can have the Spirit in it. He’s God’s yeast and we can be the wholesome loaves, the cereal offering, presented to the Lord and nourishing one another.
Let me end with the story of a saint. One cold snowy day in November 1831 in a Russian field, a layman, Nicholas Motovilov was talking to a monk, Seraphim of Sarov – now recognised as a saint. ‘What’s the goal of the Christian life?’, asked the man. It’s a good question: in the end, what’s the Christian life all about? This was a question that had bothered him from the age of 12. He’d asked it of many people. And he had been given many answers. It’s about going to church, some said. It’s about saying your prayers or keeping the commandments or doing good. But none of these answers quite satisfied. And so he put the question to Seraphim. And Seraphim, in so many words, said this: yes, these are all good things, and if we want to live a Christian they’re what we must do. They’re indispensable. But they’re not the end, the goal, they’re the means. The goal is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The goal is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And then St Seraphim took his friend by the shoulders, and said, ‘look at me.’ And in the falling snow Motovilov realised that Seraphim was ablaze with light, transfigured, shining with the Holy Spirit. And, said Seraphim, you are too,
‘And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’
This is it. ‘Today we’ve reached the mountain-top of everything good.’ Today the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world and wants to fill us. Today, I hope that everyone of us will go home filled with the Holy Spirit.
Let’s make our own today’s solemn Collect: ‘O God, who by the mystery of today’s great feast sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation, pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth and, with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers. Through Christ our Lord.’ Amen.