4 JUNE 2017 – PENTECOST
One of the things we often take for granted about church communities is the intergenerational aspect of a healthy church. Having been a lifelong church attendee I have always known and interacted with people whose age is at times very different to my own. For most of my friends, particularly my non-church friends this is not the case. Most people only connect deeply with those of their peer group, or maybe those a year or two either side. For me church has given me connections with people far outside of my peer group, which has been an enriching part of belonging to a church.
I was struck by this last week during two different conversations with people I know through church. The first conversation was with Iris, one of the youngest parishioners at St Andrew’s. She was making sure that we don’t miss singing her happy birthday, when it’s her birthday later this month. Birthdays are very important when you are young.
The second conversation was with an older person who I also know through church connections. When this person was asked if they were 94 years old, they responded, “I’m almost 95!” I think this person’s enthusiasm for their upcoming birthday was possibly greater than Iris’.
Today, the feast of Pentecost, is often referred to as the Birthday of the Church. We don’t tend to celebrate with quite the vigour that we celebrate our own birthdays. I’m not sure that our gathering this morning is a party exactly and I certainly haven’t managed to spy a cake anywhere. But like our own birthday’s we feel that it is important to note that another year has come to pass in the life of the church.
What is it that we are remembering? Our reading from the book of Acts recounts the story of the apostles receiving the gift of the spirit. Christian tradition remembers this as a pivotal moment, the event that renewed the apostles commitment to the Gospel. The Acts story also suggests that it is the Spirit who equips the people of God with the required skills for sharing God’s message of redemptive love with the world.
Today I don’t really want to attend to those ideas, because we have walked over this ground many times. Instead I wish to share a small idea about part of the Pentecost tradition that has been lost.
Pentecost – the birthday of the church, like many other Christian festivals did not actually begin as a Christian festival. At the end of last year I picked up a copy of a really neat little book called A Christmas Cornucopia: The hidden stories behind yuletide traditions. Yes, I read the book because I was hunted Ng for material for my Christmas sermons. In his introduction the author Mark Forsyth comments on how when it comes to many traditions, be it Christmas, Easter or Halloween, lots of people like to comment on how the Christians stole the tradition from the pagans. The author states that people do this because it makes them sound terribly clever and it’s good to sound clever especially when making conversation at a party. He also suggests that while lots of people like to suggest the theft of pagan festivals out don’t know the slightest thing about what these ancient pagan festivals might have been.
Interestingly the author then points out that just because different cultures chose similar times to celebrate festivals this does not automatically mean that one culture stole another cultures idea. Certainly seasonally based celebrations have grown up in many different cultures and occasionally look quite similar despite the different celebrations being separated by thousands of kilometres. In anthropology this is known as convergence, meaning that isolated cultures have similar practices despite having no interaction with each other. We’ve dropped into a bit of a rabbit hole here. All this is simply a long way of saying that Pentecost was not a festival stolen from the pagans. The church has stolen it from Judaism.
Acts chapter 2 verse 1, “When the day of Pentecost arrived…” I have always read this verse from a Christian perspective. What I mean by that, is that I understand Pentecost as being the day when the apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit (window), so when I hear “When the day of Pentecost arrived…” I interpret it as an announcement about what is going to unfold in the following story. This interpretation is a misunderstanding, coloured by my ideas of what Pentecost is, rather than being based in an understanding of what Pentecost was.
In the book of Leviticus and in the book of Numbers we can find passages that talk about a Jewish festival called The Festival of Weeks. The festival of weeks was a type of harvest festival based around the first fruits of the season. The greater purpose of the festival was to remind the Jewish people of their liberation from slavery and that they have come to enjoy freedom and a land of abundance. The response to this prosperity was to take various offerings to the temple, the book of Leviticus spells out exactly what was to happen and when.
In the instructions about what is to be offered, there is also a specific instruction that when bringing in the harvest, Jewish people are not to harvest everything available, but rather to leave the produce at the edges of the fields. This is because the remainder was to be left for widows, orphans and foreigners. It is this final point that spoke deeply to Jewish identity. As a people who had known the pain of slavery it was important to respond to that memory by caring for the most vulnerable members of society.
The Festival of Weeks was a celebration, and as such it was not just about harvesting or making offerings at the temple. When the last day of the Festival arrived, it was time for a party! And here it becomes clear that the writer of acts didn’t really understand this, because of that passing comment suggesting that people wouldn’t be drunk at 9 in the morning, when in reality given that this was the end of the festival, the party was just beginning. This final day, the day when everyone let loose, was known as the day of Pentecost.
So the day on which the church began was a day already set aside to give thanks to God for liberation from slavery and for setting something aside for those in need. Only then would the party begin. I think that is part of the tradition worth recapturing. Perhaps today could be a day for reflecting on the ways God has set us free, or perhaps how God might be trying to free us now. Today could also be a day for setting something aside for the most vulnerable in our society, the poor and the homeless. Maybe if we focus on those two tasks, we will rediscover deeper reasons for celebrating the life of the church. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant