Summary: The first Pentecost is examined in light of its character as the birthday of the Church.
Homily for Pentecost, or Whitsunday
I was born at 5:45 P.M. on Wednesday, March 5, 1947. For the past 58 years, I have commemorated that birthday with friends and family. You also celebrate your own birthdays and the birthdays of other friends and family. Those days in history are unique. As far as this world is concerned, you are only born once, no matter how many times you subsequently commemorate that event.
And, so it is with the Church. Pentecost from the earliest days of the Church has been known as the Birthday of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ, and that Body is formed by the work of the Holy Spirit of which Paul speaks in the epistle appointed for today:
12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.
That work of the Spirit of Christ began on the Day of Pentecost, in the scene set before us in the first lesson for today, from Luke’s account of that Pentecost recorded for us in Acts. 2.
On this Birthday of the Church I want to spend some moments on the remarkable details in Luke’s account, some of the well known to you, others perhaps not so well-known. Luke begins by telling us that “they were all assembled in one place with one accord.” These persons are identified in the first chapter of Acts where Luke records the names of the eleven disciples, and he also adds that they were with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. This, then, is the setting for the Day of Pentecost:
The next thing that Luke records would have resonated with those who had heard familiar passages read in the synagogue all their lives. Luke says that “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Early Jewish Christians reading these words would have likely thought of something we do not usually think of. “The House” is a common Jewish term for the Temple, because it is the dwelling place of the Lord on Earth. Jesus referred to the Temple in this way, he was driving out the money changers and telling them, “My father’s house is a house of prayer.”
But, more than calling to mind the Temple, Jewish Christians would have remembered a similar event at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. When the Ark was carried into the Holy of Holies, we read in Chronicles that: [2 Chron. 2:13] …the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, 14 so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.”
Here, then, on the Day of Pentecost, the Lord was returning to his Temple, but it is not a Temple made of stones, but a Temple composed of what Peter would later refer to as living stones. The Church is the Temple of the Lord, and God’s Spirit took up his abode in that Temple on the Day of Pentecost following Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
Imagery from the Temple is what we need to think of when we ponder these details of the first Pentecost. Take the tongues of flame, for example. People often link this with the prophecy of John the Baptist, when he said that one was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. For sure, it is the Holy Spirit here, but the tongues of fire on that day have nothing to do with the fire that John the Baptist spoke about. In John’s prophecy, fire refers to the fires of judgment, as he clearly explained. John the Baptist, on that occasion, said [Matt 3:12] 12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
No, the fire we see in Luke 2 doesn’t have the fires of judgment in view. Rather, it has the tongues of fire that were standard sources of light in the Temple, from the lampstand.
This is what those gathered together would have understood, for two reasons. First of all, the golden lampstand that had burned in Solomon’s temple was taken away to Babylon and never returned. According to Midrash Rabbah [Numbers 15:10 and 2 Baruch 6:7–9] five things from the first temple were absent in the second temple but would be restored in the messianic age; these are the sacred fire, the ark, the menorah or lampstand, the Spirit, and the cherubim. Against that background, therefore, the details Luke supplies from that first Day of Pentecost take on added significance. The tongues of flame over everyone’s head is a sign that the light of the old temple, the light that was carried away, has now returned to the New Temple. In fact, the ark is also present in the person of the Virgin Mary.