Pentecost Past and Present

Pentecost is one of the major dates in the church’s calendar, along with Christmas and Easter. Our word Pentecost derives from the Greek word for 50. The feast occurs 50 days after Easter. Pentecost was (and is) a Jewish festival celebrated in late spring, 50 days after Passover. Its biblical name is Weeks (Shebuot in Hebrew), because it takes place seven weeks after Pentecost.

In Jesus’ time the Jewish feast of Weeks was associated with the gift of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Christian community. It is also traditionally regarded as the birthday of the church, since with Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Spirit the church began its missionary activity. Today’s Scripture readings remind us that Pentecost is an event of both the past and the present.


The reading from John’s Gospel combines two of the Paraclete passages from Jesus’ farewell discourses at the Last Supper. In Greek the word Paraclete has a wide range of meanings, including advocate, counselor, comforter and even defense attorney. The first Paraclete text (15:26-27) identifies the Advocate as the Spirit of truth and describes one of the Spirit’s functions as bearing witness to Jesus. The second Paraclete text (16:12-15) promises that the Spirit will guide Jesus’ followers, declare what is coming and glorify Jesus. In the Johannine context the Paraclete functions as a stand-in or replacement for the earthly Jesus and sees to it that the movement initiated by Jesus will continue and flourish.

Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit at the Last Supper becomes a reality on Pentecost Sunday. The fullest account appears in Acts 2. On the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the apostles and their circle had gathered for prayer in Jerusalem. Since the risen Jesus had departed, the problem facing them all was how they might carry on the movement begun by Jesus. The answer is given in the Pentecost event—that is, through the help of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2 portrays the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in a concrete and dramatic way. There is first “a noise like a strong driving wind.” This is an appropriate image, since in both Hebrew and Greek the words for wind and spirit are the same. Then there are “tongues as of fire” resting on the disciples, and each is filled with the Holy Spirit. The first manifestation of their reception of the Holy Spirit comes when the apostles begin to proclaim the good news of Jesus, and everyone there (regardless of their many different native languages) is able to understand them. The miracle of the tongues on Pentecost reverses the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.

Luke describes Pentecost as an event that took place long ago and far away. But the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians reminds us that the coming of the Holy Spirit is also an essential part in our Christian life in the present. Paul first contrasts the spirit and the flesh as two opposing aspects in the makeup of each human person. The flesh is the aspect that is under the dominance of sin and death, while the spirit is that aspect open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. In naming the “works of the flesh,” Paul presents a list of vices or evil dispositions pertaining to sexual immorality, idolatry, failings in interpersonal relations and debauchery. He warns that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul entitles his second list “the fruit of the Spirit.” Here he refers to the human spirit acting in concert with the Holy Spirit. This list includes nine items: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Instead of labeling them virtues, Paul suggests that these good dispositions are really gifts from God and flow from the action of the Holy Spirit guiding, directing and empowering those who live in the Spirit. The point is that what enables us to live out our Christian commitment is not so much our natural excellence or talent as it is the Holy Spirit leading us forward. Those who seek to live in the Spirit must follow the promptings of the Spirit. Such persons will inherit the kingdom of God.

Here and elsewhere Paul reminds us that Pentecost did not end some 2,000 years ago. Rather, he insists that all of our individual and communal lives as Christians take place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and so are prolongations and actualizations of the first Pentecost. Paul summarizes neatly the challenge of Pentecost for us today and the distinctive character of Christian ethics when he says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.”

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