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Whitsunday or Pentecost--June 11, 2000
Fr. William Sisterman
St. Dunstan's Anglican Church, Minneapolis, MN 
Readings: Acts 2:1-11 and John 14:15-31 
Jesus said, "Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words." 

A few minutes ago you heard a narrative from the Acts of the Apostles describing the first Pentecost Sunday. The reading, I am sure, is very familiar to you. As St. Luke was writing the Acts of the Apostles and describing for us the first Pentecost Sunday, he used beautiful and symbolic language in order to convey to us the richness of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. If you understand some of those symbols, it will help you, I believe, to comprehend why this is such a great festival in our Church's Year. 

First of all, I would ask you a question: What makes a Jew a Jew? (I don't expect you to shout out your answer.) One thing that does make a Jew a Jew is his fidelity to the Law, to the Covenant. There is an outward sign of that fidelity which is called circumcision. But it is his fidelity to the Law that makes a Jew a Jew. 

That is why in Jerusalem were gathered Jews: devout Jews from all parts of the known world. They had gathered together in Jerusalem for one of the three festival days that was enjoined upon them in the Book of Exodus (Ex.23:14-16). The three are Passover, Tabernacles, and this festival day, which is Pentecost. It celebrated the harvest, but it also celebrated the fact that they were People of the Covenant that God had struck with them on Mount Sinai. They came together on Pentecost in order to celebrate their harvest feast, particularly the wine harvest. That is the reason why all of these people were in Jerusalem. These devout Jews from every nation were there in order to celebrate their identity as a people. 

Now come the apostles, having received the Holy Spirit. They go out from the Upper Room and they are able to speak to the assembled Jews in the language that they can understand. The harvest of souls has begun; the Jews were struck with amazement at this. We can't help but think about another event from the Old Testament, from the Book of Genesis. You remember the story of the Tower of Babel: how those folks were going to build a tower and reach God. They were going to reach to God, not by grace, but by their own bootstraps. So God confused their language. Up until that time all languages were the same. It's a very primitive story that found its way into Scripture, first of all, to teach the people why there are so many different languages. 

More importantly, it's in the Scriptures for another reason. It is a description of the rippling effect of sin. You see, sin is not only between ourselves and God, but there are also effects that ripple out from that. Adam and Eve sinned against God by their disobedience and pride. The next ripple was - what? Cain killed his brother, Abel. The story of the Tower of Babel teaches so graphically that the disintegration that sin causes has reached masses of people. Alienation, isolation, separation: these are all the effects of sin. If we could quote a familiar phrase from an old movie, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." They couldn't communicate any more with each other. They were no longer one. This was the effect of sin. 

Now in St. Luke's description of the first Pentecost, we have a reversal of the Babel story. All of the people are brought together and they can hear and understand the Word of God spoken in their own language. They can hear the good news of salvation. 

We also have those mysterious tongues of fire that parted and descended on each of the apostles in the upper room as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Fire was a wonderful symbol of the presence of God throughout the Old Testament. Remember the story of Moses and the burning bush. Remember that as the people of Israel were led out of Egypt, by night they were led by a pillar of fire. Isaiah: his lips were cleansed with a burning coal in order that he might proclaim the word of God. Ezekiel ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. Fire becomes a symbol of the presence of God and His power. Luke uses it to describe the presence of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles. 

There was also "a sound as of a rushing mighty wind that filled the whole house". Again, we go way back to Genesis, as Saint Luke did, for that imagery. As the Spirit of God moved over the waters, the waters of chaos, God began to create. He breathed life into this world of ours. In the second story of creation in Genesis, when God molded man out of that lump of clay, he breathed into him and he was brought to life. Saint Luke is saying that there is a new breath now and we are alive with a new life and that life is the very life of God himself that he has deemed fit to share with us. All of these symbols surround this event which is Pentecost! 

Perhaps the most important idea is one that we really don't think about: why all of those folks were there in Jerusalem to celebrate their identity as Jews, as Israelites. Today, you and I would do the very same thing. For it is because God has deemed fit to make a New Covenant with us that we are who we are. "Once you were no people; now you are God's people," writes St. Peter (I Pet. 2:10). The people of the Old Testament made a covenant with God. He established the terms of that covenant. It was not negotiable. "I will be your God; you will be my people. I will lead you to a promised land. In exchange for this, you are to keep my Law." The people said, "All the things that the Lord has enjoined upon us this day, we will do" (Ex.24:lff). They entered into a covenant with God himself, a covenant that was sealed with the blood of animals. 

Now we have a New Covenant with our God and it isn't an ethnic covenant. It embraces the whole world, all of mankind. All of us are called to be the new people of God in a new relationship with him. That is why Jesus said in the Gospel reading today, "Anyone who loves Me will be true to My word." You see we have to keep His word, His commands in order to be faithful to the covenant. "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you". "This is my command to you," says Jesus, "in exchange for the keeping of those commands I will be your God; you will be my people and I will lead you to a new Promised Land" - heaven! 

The relationship that you and I have with our God is based on the covenant that the Holy Spirit brought to the apostles, to the people of Jerusalem gathered there. You and I are brought into that covenant relationship with our God through the sacrament of Baptism. For it was when we were baptized that you and I became members of a people, a spiritual race, if you will; a race chosen by God in a new and special way. 

God cared for the people of Israel according to the terms of the covenant. He did bring them to the promised land. He did care for them even though, time after time, they broke the covenant. When they returned to him, he blessed them. This is what Jesus said this morning in today's Gospel, "Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him. We will come to him and make our dwelling place with him." God dwells in us: He dwells in our very being, in our souls by grace. He has graced us with his presence. He makes His dwelling with us and in us. 

For us, this festival of Pentecost is the celebration of our identity as the people of God. This is why we are here today. This is why we have a few extra frills in our ceremonies, if you will. It's because we want to celebrate the idea of who we are. We are God's people. He has made us such in his infinite love. In turn, we are to keep His command that we love him and one another. 

The people of the Old Testament said, "All that the Lord has enjoined upon us this day, we will do." This is what you and I say together in this Eucharist, for every Eucharist is a Covenant Meal. Every time we celebrate Eucharist, we are renewing the covenant. The Lord died once for all; His sacrifice is re-presented to the Father and we are a part of that. We offer perfect sacrifice to the Father and then the Lord feeds us with his Body and Blood. We are saying, "Yes, this is how close we are to our God. We are truly a people. He has made us such. We are that spiritual race of people and we will keep the Covenant. We will keep his command to love him and one another." 

Today, as we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, remember why we are here: Once we were no people, but now - right now - we are God's people. Let us rejoice and give thanks to God in this Eucharist.

Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.