Sermon: At Pentecost
Preached on 27th May 2007
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Today's readings are not quite what you would expect on Whit Sunday: Moses and God on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament, and St Paul's commentary on that story in the New. The connections seem arcane, to say the least. But help is at hand in the shape of the man we commemorated on Friday, our own St Bede, the greatest biblical scholar of his day. He has a sermon for Pentecost that I am tempted to pass off as my own (for it's rather good). Here is part of it.
‘The Jewish feast of the Law is a foreshadowing of our feast today. When the children of Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt by the offering of the paschal lamb, they journeyed through the desert toward the Promised Land, and they reached Mount Sinai. On the 50th day after the Passover, the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire, and with the sound of a trumpet and with thunder and lightning, he gave them the ten commandments of the Law. As a memorial ... he decreed an annual feast on that day, an offering of the first-fruits, in the form of two loaves of bread, made from the first grain of the new harvest, which were to be brought to the altar.... Just as the Law was given on the 50th day after the slaying of the lamb, when the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire; likewise on the 50th day after the resurrection of our Redeemer... the grace of the Holy Spirit, descending in the outward appearance of fire, was given to the disciples as they were assembled in the upper room.' So the point is that today is Pentecost: the 50th day of redemption. Let's take the three points Bede makes and see how they help us understand some of the many layers of meaning in Whit Sunday.
First, the law of Moses given at Pentecost. Bede quaintly links Moses ‘going up' a mountain to receive the law with the disciples being in an upper room when the Spirit is given. ‘The height of the mountain and of the upper room show the sublimity of both the commands and the gifts. At the sealing of the first covenant, the people remained at the base of the mountain, a handful of elders went partway up, and only Moses ascended to the summit. At the sealing of the second covenant, the whole community of God's people was gathered at the summit, in the upper room.' Moreover, the gift of the law was given to only one nation, the Hebrews; whereas the gift of the Spirit is for the proclaiming of the Gospel to every living person on the face of the earth. And this is St Paul's argument in our second reading. There was a glory disclosed to Moses, he says, and we heard in Exodus how Moses prayed, ‘show me your glory'. But in the new covenant, there is an even greater splendour, for the gift of the Spirit is to remove forever the veil that obscures the glory of God, so that we are transformed into his image ‘from one degree of glory to another'. And this is one of the aspects of Whit Sunday for which we give thanks today, that in Jesus, it is given to us to know and to love God face to face, as Moses says, ‘as one speaks to a friend'. So the high mountain on which the law is given becomes an image of how, in this era of the Spirit, our covenant relationship with God is filled with the most precious intimacy. The covenant means, quite simply, to know God, to love God, to obey God. So Bede's first insight is about discipleship.
Bede's second point is how the Hebrew feast of Pentecost originated in the offering of the firstfruits of the harvest of the land. In a beautiful passage elsewhere in the Torah, a worshipper is required to bring a basket of firstfruits and set it before the Lord, and celebrate how God has made of wandering semi-nomads a people settled in their land, filled with gratitude for all the goodness he has bestowed on them. For Bede, this is a picture of how, in the era of the Spirit, the gospel is preached with a new power: people of every nation both hear and believe. These new believers, he says, are the first fruits of the new covenant. ‘So every year on the feast of Pentecost, the Church baptizes, and so offers to the Lord an offering of the first-fruits of the redeemed from the face of the earth, an offering of both Jews and gentiles'. The Acts of the Apostles tells how Pentecost was a truly defining event, both in the transformation of lives and in the energy with which the gospel is proclaimed in every place. Those first Christian converts demonstrated the truly international, universal character of the gospel - how it was not a sectarian message for the few, but a summons of good news addressed to the whole of humanity. Acts tells how these firstfruits of the response to the gospel were harvested. This harvest continues today: mission is part of our lifeblood. And if we want to live out the meaning of Pentecost, then like the first Christians in their explosion of confidence and joy, we will gladly share our faith with others in order to ‘make God believable' as Rowan Williams puts it. So Bede's second insight is about mission.
Finally, Bede comments on how the Law was given to the Hebrews on the 50th day of their journey to the promised land. ‘The grace of the Spirit' he says ‘was given to the people of the new covenant on the 50th day, so that we might know how our journey is directed toward that heavenly country that is our eternal rest, our place of deep and abiding satisfaction'. He links this with the law's command to keep a jubilee every 50th year as a memory of God's redemption and an incentive to celebrate his praises. In that year, debts were cancelled, slaves set free, and even beasts of burden eased from their yokes. ‘This number indicates the tranquillity of that greatest peace when, at the sound of the trumpet, the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed into glory. Then, when we are freed from every yoke of sin, and our debts ... have all been forgiven and cancelled, the whole people of God will give themselves to the heavenly vision, and the Lord's command will be fulfilled: Be still, and know that I am God.' Which is to say: Pentecost is a promise of something greater than we can ever see or know. It's the firstfruits not only of the human family's ‘yes' to God but of the gift of his own glory and the transformation of all things, the new heaven and the new earth. There is work to do here and now, and we shall spend and be spent in the tasks of discipleship and mission to which we pledged ourselves in baptism and for which the Holy Spirit empowers us. But a greater and more enduring glory awaits, when all things are God's, and we know him as we are known, and see him face to face. This is Bede's final insight about hope.
Hope is perhaps the greatest gift of Eastertide. It keeps us alive, sustains us day by day, makes our alleluias possible, gives purpose to our discipleship and mission. I can't add to Bede's magnificent and moving words immortalised on the wall of the Galilee Chapel by his shrine where we stood last Friday and rekindled our hope in the God who was his and is ours today: ‘Christ is the Morning Star who, when the night is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day'. For him alone we live; to him alone be praise and honour on this festival day and all our days.