Following the crucifixion of Jesus, his disciples, his followers, were brought low. Was all this, this Messianic mission, all for nothing? Such hope, such possibility, but then he was nailed to a tree. He spoke of a new golden age, in which the first would become last, and the last first, in which the poor would be blessed, and peace would reign, in which love would be the guiding principle for all. But he died on a cross. He wasn’t supposed to die. In the days and weeks that followed, in that depressed and sad time, Jesus’ disciples feared for their lives. They kept low profiles, worried that at any moment the authorities would come knocking at the door. Emotions were running high, they were exhausted and exasperated. What was the point of it all? They had given every fibre of their being over to a cause, a vision, which now seemed futile. We read, at this time, that several people experienced the presence of Jesus. I take them at their word. I think they really did experience Jesus. It’s not at all unbelievable. When we lose loved ones it is quite normal to catch their scent in the air, to hear them in the next room, to feel their presence. There’s nothing magical happening, the world just shows up to us differently through the lens of deep aching grief. This highlights the importance of speaking to friends and family when we are going through an emotionally rough time. People outside of our dramas so often have a much clearer view of our predicaments than we do. In this way, we can benefit from their insights, and begin to recognise our own detrimental cycles. It’s why at funerals we are so often reminded to speak about our deceased, and not stop speaking, that we might process all that has happened, and regain some perspective, in order to re-enter the world.
Perspective matters. The way the world shows up to us can’t just be dismissed. It says a great deal about us, and it takes humility to recognise the validity of another’s perspective, especially when it lies so far beyond our own. And so, I think it is important to recognise the validity of the disciples’ perspective even though it lies so far beyond our own. After all, our own perspective of course is shaped almost entirely by the culture, the norms, the world, and the environment we grow up in. The ‘other's’ perspective is vital; a broader and more considered outlook is gained when we hear the other, and build their understanding into a tapestry, a network of understandings and perspectives. It is far richer to live in the world, not with the outlook of right and wrong, but rather, how you see it, and I see it. Because in this way, we are empowered to make a choice, and not simply be subject to our inherited perspective; a world in which more of us can look at the bigger picture is a better world for all of us.
From the resurrection (3 days after the crucifixion) to Pentecost, 50 days pass. It is very significant that it is 50 days. Pentecost today is celebrated as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. But in the Old Testament, or in the Jewish calendar, Pentecost was a harvest festival, celebrated seven weeks after the beginning of the harvest, upon the all-important day of the wheat harvest in the land of Israel, and the anniversary of the day God gave the commandments to Moses up Mount Sinai. Seven weeks plus 1 day - 50 Days. The festival was not originally called ‘Pentecost’, but the Feast of Weeks. The word ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek word ‘Pentekoste’, which means ‘fiftieth day’. The symbolism here then is important. We have Easter Day, when Christians celebrate the rising of Jesus, however we want to understand that. Then fifty days elapse and we get here to Pentecost. 50 days. 50 days ago, the harvest began. 50 days ago, we began to reap all that had been sown, because 50 days ago Jesus rose from the dead, we saw the first poetic glimpse that Jesus’ spirit, his mission of love and compassion, was not going to be hampered by death. 50 days ago, the first fruits of the harvest were reaped. Today the real staple of the diet is reaped, the wheat is reaped.
So, what does this all tell us? First of all, it undermines a reading of these events as strictly historical, because the events in the New Testament correspond too well with the traditions in the Old Testament. It’s not believable. The writers are clearly moulding the story to reflect and echo significant Jewish events and traditions. From our perspective, from a 21st Century westerner’s vantage, we tend to equate historicity with truth - the way these events are being portrayed in the New Testament are not strictly historically accurate, and therefore they are not true. This is not how the authors of the New Testament would have thought about it. They did not go out of their way to dupe us. Rather, these 1st, 2nd Century writers, in framing the Jesus event in the language of the Old Testament, communicated to their audience the significance of the Jesus event. By drawing upon their rich religious and cultural language, they could communicate just how pivotal Jesus is and was, and therefore get closer to the ‘truth’. The ‘truth’ then in the New Testament is communicated less through conveying historical facts, and more through this poetic echoing which is taking place. Because, it’s not enough to simply say Jesus died, and his disciples felt bad about it, but then they realised they could carry on doing his good work. These events went to the very core of their self-identity, their cosmic identity. The resurrection, then, was like the first fruits of the harvest. Remember, a good harvest was the difference between life and death. In the resurrection, there is a glimpse of life, a potential for life to well up within us, and continue to well up in the hearts and minds of his people. By the time we reach Pentecost we are reaping the wheat itself: the cornerstone of life, the bread of life, which sustains us, and will continue to sustain us, continue to be with us, feeding us daily as we go about our calling to emulate the work of Jesus, to bring about his Kingdom of love and peace.
You see, perspective matters. The New Testament authors’ perspective cannot be measured against the yardstick of our own perspectives. It must be taken on its own terms, and be valued accordingly. The central miracle of Pentecost is all about perspective bridging across one perspective to another, one language to another; finding a hope which translates across one worldview to another, one language to another. One love, one hope, one God. Those that didn’t get it, or were not willing to get it, those who scoffed from the sideline, Acts tells us thought the gathered crowd were simply drunk - drunk on new wine. Why ‘new’ wine? Well again it relates to the fifty days. Pentecost being the seventh week after the first fruits of the harvest, and wine taking 4ish weeks to ferment, meant that in Israel during and around Pentecost was the time of the year that wine was most abundant in Israel. In this day and age, we don’t think of wine being seasonal, the price of wine doesn’t fluctuate month to month, but in Israel it very much would have done. And given that the passer-bys assumed they were a crowd drunk on new wine implies also that at this time crowds being drunk on new wine would have been quite normal. But in fact, as we know, they are not drunk on new wine, but are experiencing the spirit move amongst them. You know that feeling when you listen to someone speak, and it resonates with you so much, it feels as if it was written specifically for you. This was the experience of that crowd. Even though the people gathered were from different countries and cultures - over a dozen countries from Rome and across the Eastern Mediterranean are listed - they still felt deeply connected, as if their very own home tongue was being uttered in that place. And then Peter addresses the crowd, ‘let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.’ He goes on, ‘In these days… young men shall see visions, and old men shall dream dreams’. Upon men and woman, the spirit of God will be poured out. Poured out amongst us, drawing together a multiplicity of people into a vision of hope and love. A joint vision. This is the miracle of Pentecost.