By Matthew S.C. Olver
“When the day of Pentecost had come”: If you are listening closely, you may hear something that doesn’t sound quite right. “When the day of Pentecost had come.” Luke stands out among the Gospel writers with his distinct interest in history, in taking great care to set the birth of Jesus within a particular time and place.
His language is as familiar to us as the pine of the Advent wreath: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The fact that most of us know that it was Quirinius who was governor of Syria when Jesus was born is thanks to Luke’s insistence on the importance of particularity.
So when Luke begins this second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles with the clause “When the Day of Pentecost had come,” we can assume that he’s not getting ahead of himself. We breeze through this seemingly innocuous verse in Acts, assuming that Luke is retroactively applying the title Pentecost to this day when the Holy Spirit came. But nothing could be further from the truth. Pentecost is a stolen title.
In the Old Testament, we hear of a “feast of the harvests” or, more commonly, “the Feast of Weeks,” celebrated 50 days after Passover. This was no blasé decision on Luke’s part to tell his readers that this final piece of the Salvation Story occurred on Pentecost, and so we would be remiss if we did not ask ourselves why Luke gives us this detail.
A development within Judaism had occurred, one that any faithful Jew of the first century would have known about, but a development, nonetheless, that was too late to be included in the Old Testament. The evolution was this: the Feast of Weeks gradually became known under the title Pentecost and had morphed into a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
By overlapping the giving of the Law and the coming of the Holy Spirit, Luke wants to tell us that God’s preliminary way of bestowing forgiveness and redemption has come to an end. Something irrevocable and completely new has come. You can hear it in St. Paul’s words: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).
The Spirit has come and replaced the Law. Striving to fulfill a complicated system of requirements has been transformed into learning how to receive the Spirit that Jesus promised to his Church. The struggle to do, do, do is replaced by the invitation to be: to be a woman or man who has been baptized and received the white robe of righteousness, the faithfulness of Jesus fused into our very beings by the working of the Holy Spirit—that is Pentecostal.
“Now where the Spirit of the Lord is,” St. Paul tells us, “there is freedom.” Freedom. Freedom is a word that most of us think we’ve got a handle on. I mean, we’re Americans, for crying out loud. And as Americans, when we talk about freedom, we usually mean something along the lines of the capacity to exercise choice. You are free to own a gun, you are free to disagree with the President, you are free to dye your hair pink, and you are free to come to worship whatever god you choose whenever you please in just about any way you like. We have television shows where people actually sign up to have the opportunity to choose between eating one of two varieties of insects, each of which would make most of us sick to the stomach.
But this is not the freedom that St. Paul describes. He does not mean that the Holy Spirit offers us license to do as we wish, or even that the Holy Spirit allows us to choose right from wrong. No, what St. Paul means to communicate is that what the Holy Spirit brings is not freedom — full stop — but freedom from something in particular. We’re free from a system of redemption that requires us to perfectly keep a list of dos and don’ts. St. Paul uses a splendid metaphor to make this point: when someone turns to the Lord, asking for the Spirit, it is a like a veil is pulled back from their eyes.
So what exactly is this freedom? St. Augustine wrote beautifully about this. Freedom, he tells us, is not the capacity to choose between options or even to choose between right and wrong. Rather, freedom is like scales slowly falling from our eyes that give us the ability, more and more, “to cleave to God, to love God rightly, to know and to do that which is good and holy.”
This morning we will commission many from our parish who will be going out to serve the world in the name of Jesus Christ. Folks will be fanning out to places like Honduras, Brownsville, Texas, and Belize. And even though none of them may have thought about their mission in exactly this way, they are demonstrating for us the kind of freedom that St. Augustine tells us comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Their salvation doesn’t rest on whether they go on this mission trip or that one. But, as people who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, they are free, the more they say ‘yes’ to Jesus, to love and to do that which is good and holy. There’s a preview for a movie that has just come out about a couple who break up and get back together. One of the snippets in the trailer has the woman telling her partner, “I don’t want you to do the dishes; I want you to want to do the dishes. The freedom the Holy Spirit brings is not just the ability to do what is right, but the freedom to want and to love doing what is good and right.
But we actually have two Pentecost accounts, don’t we? The Gospel lesson from John describes a different scene, but one that is no less startling. We see the disciples, huddled in an upper room on the evening of resurrection Sunday. They are trying to figure out whether they actually believe Mary Magdalene’s story that she has seen the Lord.
Suddenly, Jesus appears in the room and offers them an oh so Episcopalian greeting: Peace be with you. And then he does something rather uncouth: he breathes on them. I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think about this, but it is rather difficult to breathe on someone in a dignified fashion. But of course Jesus never made any promises about fitting into the rules of decorum. No, he came to set the world free form sin, and breathing on 12 scared men huddled in a room with a locked door was an essential part of that mission.
Funny as it may sound, this emphasized exhale is not a singular event in the history of God’s dealing with humanity. If we are to hear this text fully, it is helpful to keep in mind that the words for wind, breath, spirit, all have the very same root form in both Greek and Hebrew. This verb “to breathe” in our Gospel lesson is found at a number of crucial junctures in the story of salvation.
In the second creation story, when God sits in the dirt and forms the figure of a man out of the clay, he breathes the Divine Spirit into the man, and he becomes a living begin. Elijah breathes three times into the mouth of the widow’s dead son, crying to the Lord, “Let this child’s soul come into him again,” and it does.
Ezekiel, in that glorious passage that is read at the Easter Vigil, sees the dry, brittle bones in the desert and is commanded to prophesy, “Thus says the Lord God: come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these who are dead, that they may live.” “Jesus said to them again, ‘peace be with you,’ and when he had said this, he breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
John’s Gospel is peculiar in many ways, and one of them is that there is no description of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. In each the first three Gospels, Jesus uses the very same language when he institutes the Eucharist: “Take, lábete, take, eat, this is my body.” The only other time this word, lábete, comes out of Jesus’ mouth is right here in John when he says, lábete the Holy Spirit. We take the Eucharist every week because we believe Jesus actually meant it when he told us that we needed to do this. His language is no less commanding here in John. You must receive the Holy Spirit. The sacramental connection should not be lost to us.
The question of course, is how we receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus isn’t here in the flesh to breathe on us.
However, the Medieval Baptismal rite that lasted all the way up until the Second Vatican Council, included a reenactment of this scene from John. If you happen to have seen the first Godfather movie, you may remember this. Near the end of the film, Michael’s son is being baptized, and as the priest begins the Baptismal rite, he says in Latin,accipite Spiritum Sanctum—receive the Holy Spirit—and then breathes on the child three times.
Clearly in the Sacrament of Baptism, the Holy Spirit is given to us. “Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit,” we pray. In the Sacrament of Confirmation, we come before the bishop for our ordination for ministry; he lays his hands on our head and prays for more of the Spirit, interceding for a daily increase of the Holy Spirit. This final prayer gives us a clue about the nature of our relationship with the Holy Spirit. We don’t meet the Holy Spirit just once or twice. The fact is that have met the Spirit many times, and will experience and be filled by the Spirit many times in the future, God willing.
And that just might be the clue to why we have more than one Pentecost event in the Scriptures. Scholars and theologians have attempted many answers to this question, but in the end, I think it is enough for us to read in these two Pentecost stories the depth breadth of how the Holy Spirit meets us and fills us. I once heard someone ask why we need the Holy Spirit to keep filling us. The answer? We need the Holy Spirit to keep filling us because we leak!
And that’s the truth of it. We leak. God isn’t going to force us to exercise the freedom that he gives us in the Holy Spirit. To change metaphors and return to St. Paul’s image of the veil, we refuse the freedom of looking out without the veil and instead keep pulling it back over our eyes.
The fact is that sin is just plain easier much of the time, a lot easier than exercising the freedom of the Spirit. “To cleave to God,” in St. Augustine’s words, “to love God rightly, to know and to do that which is good” — that takes a lot of work. It takes a decision to engage our will and say, “Come Holy Spirit. Teach me to love what is good and true. Teach me to cling to Jesus.” Amen.
The Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and the director of St. Mary’s Chapel.