The story is told of a sailing ship during the 19th century on a voyage from Great Britain to South America. Towards the end of its journey it was blown off course in great storm and, to make matters worse, their water supply was contaminated by sea water. After more than a week with no fresh water to drink things were pretty desperate, and the crew were ecstatic when another sailing vessel hove into view. A signal was immediately sent by semaphore: ‘Fresh water urgently needed!’ To their surprise back came the answer: ‘Lower your buckets!’ What the crew had not realised was that they had sailed into the mouth of the great River Amazon where fresh water flowed out into the Atlantic Ocean. All that the crew had needed to do if they wanted fresh water was simply to lower their buckets and they could have had all the fresh water they wanted.
This coming Sunday (24 May 2015) Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians across the world will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost is not as well-known or as popular as the Christmas and Easter, nevertheless it commemorates a watershed event in Christian history. But what is the Christian Celebration of Pentecost all about? For Christians, Pentecost is the day when we commemorate God’s great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the embryonic Christian Community and into the world at large, in a powerful new way. The event is recorded in the New Testament book known as The Acts of the Apostles. Luke (the author of the book) tells us that ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, [the first followers of Jesus] were all gathered together in one place. All of a sudden, a sound came from heaven, like a strong wind, filling the house where the people had gathered. Something like tongues of fire rested on their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak’ (Acts 2:1-4).
Our English word ‘Pentecost’ is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos which means ‘fifty’. It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera which means ‘fiftieth day’. Christians, however, did not invent the phrase ‘fiftieth day’, we borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a Jewish Festival known as the ‘Feast of Weeks’ or more simply just ‘Weeks’. This name comes from an expression in Leviticus 23:16, where God instructs his people to count seven weeks or ‘fifty days’ from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next significant Festival. ‘Weeks’ was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of Festivals. Originally a harvest festival, it became, over time, a day in which the giving of the law on Mount Sinai was commemorated. This day became especially significant for Christians because, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish celebration of Weeks, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his first followers, thus empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a church. Jesus himself promised his disciples, on a number of occasions, that God would pour out the Holy Spirit upon the Church, and into the world, in a new and powerful way. Prior to this first Pentecost in the Christian era, God had empowered various individuals through the gift of the Holy Spirit for a specific task. For example, Samson (Judges 13:24,25), but oftentimes this ‘gift of God’s Spirit’ was only for the task in hand and not permanent.
Something more permanent, more long-lasting, was both needed … and promised. In what is called his ‘Upper Room Discourses’ (John 14-16) Jesus repeatedly made reference to the fact that when the time finally came for him to leave his disciples (following his death, resurrection, and ascension), he would not leave them alone but would send them ‘another Counsellor to help you and to be with you for ever’. This ‘Counsellor’ would be no ordinary person but none other than God the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, co-equal with God the Father and God the Son. The actual word Jesus uses here, translated as ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Comforter’ or ‘Advocate’ in English, is ‘Paraclete’ in Greek – literally ‘One who stands alongside of us in order to help’! It would be the role of this Person, from Pentecost onwards, to make everything Jesus made possible for us, through his Incarnation and Passion, a living reality in personal experience. Earlier, at another Jewish Feast, the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus had also foretold this remarkable outpouring of God’s Spirit.
The Apostle John tells us that, ‘On the last day, the climax of the Festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from their heart.'” (John 7:37,38). Explaining what Jesus meant by this, John goes on to say, ‘When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory’ (John 7:39). Here Jesus likens the experience of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, metaphorically, to having our thirst quenched by rivers of living water flowing up from within. Just as those parched and dying sailors in the incident cited earlier were able to quench their thirst by lowering their buckets and drawing fresh water from the mouth of the great River Amazon, so all those who are spiritually parched and dying are able to quench their spiritual thirst by drinking from those rivers of living water that our great God has provided for us through the outpouring of his Holy Spirit at Pentecost 2,000 years ago!
Discussing the impact that experiencing this wonderful Gift from God would bring, Jesus told his disciples ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’ (Acts 1:8). The word for ‘power’ here is the Greek word dunamis from which we get our words ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamic’. What we have here is Jesus’ promise that the Gift of the Holy Spirit will enable us to live effective lives for the glory of God and the blessing of others, both individually as Christians and corporately as the Church. What is more, this promised experience is not just for the moment but permanent, not just for ‘believers’ but for everyone. After his own experience of receiving the Gift of the Spirit that first Pentecost the Bible records that Peter, one of the leading followers of Jesus, stood up and preached his first sermon, interpreting the events of that morning in light of a prophecy of the Hebrew prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32) where God promised to ‘pour out his Spirit on all flesh’ empowering diverse people to exercise divine power. As a result Peter tells us all that the same Gift is freely available to all who will turn to God: ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God calls‘ (Acts 2:38,39). Luke goes on to tell us that ‘about 3,000 people were added to the church that day’ (2:41). Not a bad response to someone’s first ever sermon!
So here is a question for you: Have you received the Gift of God’s Holy Spirit? At Pentecost, 2,000 years ago, God poured out his Holy Spirit in a remarkable way, a way in which it was made possible for anyone and everyone to enter into all that God made possible for us through Jesus Christ in dynamic personal experience. The Spirit of God is at work in the world in a significant way today. God is literally ‘only a prayer away’. All we have to do is ‘lower our buckets’ … and drink!
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
~ Malcolm Guite