Today, on the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate—we celebrate in our own language, in our own culture, in our own lives. Pentecost is the Greek word for 50; and so we celebrate 50 days after Pascha. In the first century, the Jews of Palestine celebrated the Feast of the Harvest, 50 days after Passover. Their feast marked the gathering of the wheat—a very important crop in an agricultural society, bringing food for the coming year. The epistle for today, from the Gospel of St John, the last 15 verses of Chapter 7 and Chapter 8, Verse 12, tells us how in the first century Christ Himself celebrated this important Jewish feast.
On this occasion, Christ stood in order to teach. On most occasions at that time the teacher sat while he taught, but Christ wanted to attract people’s attention. His opening words were: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.” This would no doubt have puzzled his listeners: How were they to come to Christ and drink? What did He have to offer? The next sentence was even more puzzling, when Christ said: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.” What Christ is speaking of here is spiritual thirst—longing to be one with God the Father. Already, Christ had told the Samaritan woman at the well: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give shall never thirst; but the water that I will give … will become … a well of water springing up to eternal life.” Now, St John explains that Christ is speaking here “of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive, for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
St John Chrysostom tells us that it is difficult to know the precise passage from Scripture to which Christ is referring, perhaps from the prophet Isaiah. However, the central point has been clearly expressed by the fourth-century pioneer of the Antiochian approach to Biblical interpretation, Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia who explains that Christ is calling the apostles to faith in Him by telling them: “Anyone who follows the Scriptures and believes in Me will be filled by grace, and [that person] will not only be like a river that never dries up but [water] will also flow out of him, so that [this water] may provide not only for him but for many others. And so the apostles, after they received the Spirit, provided for many others thanks to the gifts they had received.”
Today on Pentecost all of us can receive those gifts of which Christ spoke to the apostles. Pentecost has now happened. Because we follow “the Scriptures”—that is, the Old Testament telling us of the coming of Christ—and we believe in Christ, every one of us, like the apostles, have been “filled by grace.” So what happens when we are “filled by grace”? What happened to the apostles when the Holy Spirit came down upon them on Pentecost?
The opening verses of the Book of Acts, Chapter 2 tell us that “a violent rushing wind filled the whole house where [the apostles] were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire … [resting] on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Let’s look more closely at those three things that happened to the apostles and can happen to each of us today—the rushing wind, the tongues of fire and the being filled by the Holy Spirit.
St John has already explained in Chapter 3, Verse 8 that the wind is a sign of the Spirit of God drawing us to baptism—drawing us into a spiritual life of commitment to Christ; and, as St John says, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but [you] do not know where it comes from and where [that wind] is going; so [it] is [for] everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Do you hear the wind of the Spirit of God in your life? My experience is that the wind is often not very loud, but often more like a gentle breeze that does indeed fill “the whole house” of one’s personality, guiding us into prayer and action. That wind is not simply your conscience reminding you of a good deed that you might or might not choose to do. No, the wind of the Spirit of God reveals that, in the midst of the various prayers and actions you might take in your life, there is a path, a choice, that God wishes you to take.
Now, the wind does not blow only once in our lives, but continually. God is patient with us. He waits for us to be ready to receive Him. Sometimes, we have to wait for Him, but He continually offers choices to us about how we might live; and then He guides us into the choice that is right for each of us at different times—at different seasons—in our lives. Often there is a certain calmness associated with what we sense is the Lord’s choice.
What then might be a sign that the Spirit of God is on some particular action—some particular path—for your life and for my life? The apostles received a very powerful sign, “tongues as of fire ... resting on each one of them.” As St Augustine suggests, now that the apostles have received the Holy Spirit, Psalm 19, Verse 3 has been fulfilled: “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard; their sound is gone out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” In other words, what the apostles are being told is that they will have the power to communicate Christ to everyone they encounter on the day of Pentecost. That power to communicate is a practical gift. Yes, there is later to be a mystical dimension linked to fire and water and the Book of Revelation and judgment, but for the apostles on the day of Pentecost, they were simply being told: Each of you now have the power to communicate Christ to others.
Even the apostles did not have the power after the day of Pentecost to communicate Christ to everyone at all times in all places; however, they, like us, did gain the power to communicate Christ to those who wished to listen. That willingness to listen to Christ—to listen to Christ within ourselves and within those that we encounter in our lives—is, I believe, one of the signs that the Spirit of God is on some particular person or some particular path. What we often need to do is indicate to others that we are Orthodox Christians, that we have a gift to give them—the gift of the Holy Spirit that we received at baptism—if the Lord wishes to communicate that gift to them, and if they wish to receive the Holy Spirit. Mammas who has been baptised today no doubt will be especially aware of this great privilege of witnessing to the power of the Holy Spirit in human life.
I close with a small example about someone I met a few years ago. I did not know him well at that time; in fact, it was our first meeting. We sat down to a meal together; and, for reasons I don’t remember, I said to him, “I am an Orthodox Christian.” He replied, “That is a problem for me.” I had no idea what to say. In that kind of situation when I am struggling to think, “What do I say to that?” I often simply repeat back what the person has just said to me, but as a question: “That is a problem for you?” “Yes,” he replied, “my wife is a Christian, but I believe that as long as you worship God, your religion—whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, or any other religion doesn’t matter.” Our conversation that evening was inconclusive. Over the next two years, we struck up a friendship; and he later said to me, “Teach me to listen and to be a Christian.” I was very impressed by that request. However, unfortunately, he is still not a Christian, although I think he does listen a bit more than earlier.
To experience the fullness of Pentecost, we each need to search the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, to pray and to learn to listen to Christ. May we all learn to listen better and to receive that same Holy Spirit that the apostles and thousands of others received at Pentecost.
Let us stand and pray: “Christ, teach us to listen, teach us to choose the paths in our lives where you wish us to walk thereby empowering us to manifest the Holy Spirit to others. Amen.”
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn