The last time I preached on the feast of Pentecost, it was a very different setting; a family service celebrating the admission to holy communion of a group of children. I used a visual aid to illustrate to those children and to everyone else there what difference the Holy Spirit can make. When one of my colleagues heard that I was to be preaching again this Pentecost, she asked me if I would be using the same illustration again this evening. No. I’m sorry. There will not be a large inflatable cube floating around the church this evening.
Instead I want to talk about Peter’s experience of the Holy Spirit and what he had to say about Pentecost, as we heard in our second reading.
This text, from Luke’s story of the Acts of the Apostles is an absolute gift to any preacher. Not simply because it is a passage rich in scripture and in theology but because it presents to us the first Christian sermon of the early church. Indeed it is perhaps a model for ALL Christian sermons.
It begins, in fine tradition… with a joke. Peter protests to those who had witnessed the coming of the holy Spirit on the disciples: No, these men are not drunk… after all it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.
For those gathered the apostles, Pentecost must have been a rather shocking experience. Tongues of fire, the sound of a rushing wind and then all that curiously coherent babbling in different languages. I don’t think the average Anglican evensong congregation is in that state. However I think there is often a moment of trepidation, of expectation perhaps of apprehension when a preacher steps up into the pulpit.
Perhaps this is the root of the common practice of setting the listeners at ease with a light hearted comment or perhaps something to catch the attention. Whatever the motivation may have been, Peter is demonstrably the first to have begun his sermon in a light mood.
Yet soon thereafter, Peter proceeded to the first, rather meatier course of his speech. He quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. A good solid piece of biblical teaching. Yet, again, somewhat reassuringly for the modern preacher, and as the juxtaposition of the reading from Joel with the reading from Acts this evening shows, Peter didn’t actually get his scripture word perfect. What matters is Peter’s choice of scripture and his accuracy of its message. That he does get right. Peter picked a passage which spoke to the situation he was in. He showed that the passage had relevance to his audience not only in terms of being an important religious text from the past, a link to their religious and spiritual heritage, but also as a description of the events they have just witnessed and the future they will face.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that 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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
This is a message of inclusion for all.
And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Joel, a minor let’s be honest, lesser known book of prophecy might seem like a curious choice for such a momentous day. One might expect a meaty bit of Isaiah, something from Moses, a speech by Elijah – some big player. Yet Peter’s use of Joel is not, I don’t think, inappropriate. The book of Joel is a later prophecy and sits, in terms of its composition on the cusp between the age of prophetic texts and the age of apocalyptic texts. This passage we have heard contains something vital for Peter’s message. Peter could have sought the authority of the great prophets to illuminate for people what they have just witnessed but instead he chooses a more lowly text. A text which makes clear that the day itself had been foretold. The gift of prophecy that he and the other disciples have received is a sign of the universal gifting of God’s people. It is no longer to be the great prophets alone who will have the gift of God’s inspiration. More than that, this gifting of God’s people with his Spirit is, for Peter, a mark of the fulfilment al that God had promised to his people. Moses himself had asked God that “all people might be prophets”. To Peter, this is what is happening at Pentecost. ALL people are being given the chance to receive the Holy Spirit.
After recounting this historic, old covenant text Peter springs from that foundation to talk about the new covenant with Jesus. Peter’s message for the people gather that day on Pentecost was that it is essential to grow out from their history. To see that their past not only precedes but also shapes their present and their future. That following Jesus was not some new-fangled idea but something rooted and grounded in his people’s history. Joel had talked about how times were bad but how they could and one day would be good. Peter considered that time to have come on the day of Pentecost.
As Peter’s audience are caught up in this image of Young men having visions and old men dreaming dreams he goes on again to remind them of their history and again he backs this up with more scripture.
He states clearly that this man Jesus whom he has been describing was the one David had spoken of and the one the Jews had been awaiting; the Messiah.
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.”
This passage from psalms is also one which speaks of life after death. Part of the essential message of Jesus’ salvation
“Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, "He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.”
Peter has talked about the history of his people; the distant history of their ancestors and about their immediate past – of the life and ministry of Jesus; of his passion and resurrection. Yet there is MORE.
In the true style of the sermon, Peter doesn’t not only tell people about their faith, but tells them more. Peter concludes as all good sermons should conclude. Having set out his texts and interpreted them’ having made his message clear, he has already made an impact on his listeners but finally he presents them with a challenge. He tells them not only what they should know but also what they should DO.
He tells them to turn away from sin, to be baptised and then, being forgiven of their sins receive the Holy Spirit.
Peter is saying that you can have tradition and history but that is not enough. That is not the end. You need to turn from that to look forward to receive the Holy Spirit. Just as the richness of the music we have heard comes from a strong tradition so too, it can’t merely stay as a tradition, as something written down. For the message of those words and notes to come alive, they need to be breathed. Not only by our fine singers but by the Holy Spirit. If those words were merely sung and not prayed through the Holy Spirit they would mean nothing. So too if our Christian beliefs, our history our practices are not breathed through by the Holy Spirit, then it means nothing.
You have heard the message of Peter:
Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.