Shavu’ot is one of the three great historical and agricultural festivals in Judaism, the other two are the festival of the Passover and the festival of Sukkot.
Agriculturally, Shavu’ot commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and offered to God, in accordance with the rules laid down in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Historically, Shavu’ot celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai. Both of these important commemorations come together in this one great festival, when Jews celebrate not only the provision of the harvest but also the giving of the Law: powerful signs of God’s ongoing faithfulness to his people. Signs, every harvest, that God has still not given up on his people regardless of what they have done in the previous year. Signs, through the Law, that God is still concerned that this people live life to the fullest.
So it is no accident for the Jews that the giving of the harvest and the giving of the law go hand it hand together. The giving of the harvest is God’s provision for the body, the giving of the law is God’s provision for the soul. One (the harvest) provides physical sustenance, the other (the law) provides the ethical framework which will sustain God’s people from the temptation of wandering off into the self-destructive cycle of making other gods, and distancing themselves from God’s best plans for them.
The date of the festival of Shavu’ot is worked out from the Festival of the Passover. It occurs fifty days after the commemoration of the momentous night when Moses led the people out of slavery towards freedom in the promised land, because in the Exodus account it is fifty days after the Passover that Moses first goes up the Mount Sinai to be given God’s law (the ten commandments) for the Hebrew people. That’s why the Greek name for the festival of ‘Shavu’ot’ is ‘Pentecost’. Pentecost isn’t a Christian title, it is the Greek word for ‘fiftieth day’ – the fiftieth day after the Passover when the Festival of Shavu’ot is celebrated.
For the first Christians, who were also Jews, the Passover had taken on a new and momentous significance. It was at the Passover that Jesus shared the Last Supper with his friends. It was at the time of the Passover that Jesus was crucified, and rose again from the dead. Whatever the significance had been of the first Passover, when the Angel of death passed over (but did not harm) the first born in the houses of the Hebrew people in their slavery in Egypt, this paled into insignificance in comparison with the passing of Jesus from death to new life. The freedom of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt after that first Passover night, became (in the minds of the first Jewish Christians) merely a foretaste of the freedom which they now experienced in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So on the Jewish festival of Pentecost these first Jewish Christians were gathered together in one room, to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest and the giving of the Law, and all around them in Jerusalem Jews from many nations were also gathered for the same celebrations. And in all probability they had absolutely no idea that God was about to do yet another new thing amongst them. As these first Jewish Christians worshipped together a sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire place in which they were gathered, and fire appeared to rest on each of them, and this largely uneducated group of disciples began to speak in languages which they had not known. And they obviously spilled out of the house and onto the street, where a crowd had gathered because of all of the commotion. And each of these Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the great festival heard the good news of Jesus in their own language coming from the mouths of the disciples.
But the intention of this account in the Acts of the Apostles is clearly to convey something much more powerful, much more significant than the ability of the first disciples, by the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate miraculously to the group of people who gather around them. God is transforming these first followers of Jesus from being people who have been given the good news of Jesus for themselves, into his messengers to share this good news with others – and not just to their own people, who speak the same language, but to all people – from every nation around the world. The disciples, through this powerful Holy Spirit experience, come to understand their own calling, not to stay huddled up in a room in Jerusalem, but to share the earth-shattering, world-changing message of God’s love with the whole world. And so it should be no surprise that the first evangelistic sermon given by any of the followers of Jesus flows out of this experience. Peter stands and preaches from the Old Testament prophets proclaiming that what has been awaited for so long has now come to pass in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Festival of Shavu’ot now has a new significance: the first fruits of the harvest is no longer simply to be understood in terms of crops, the first fruits are now about the harvest of people; the giving of the law (the giving of a standard about how to live in God’s will) is no longer simply about the ten commandments, it is about being refreshed and made new by the power of the Holy Spirit who enables people to live within a new life giving ethical framework defined by the love and power of God.
Later, as the Early Church looked back on this first experience of the power of the Holy Spirit, and as they searched more deeply into the Old Testament (which was their scriptural reference point for making sense of what was going on until the New Testament Canon came together) they drew two further parallels which we could easily miss from this first Pentecost experience.
Firstly, they came to see that the pattern of Jesus’ ascension before the coming of the Holy Spirit had been embodied in a kind of foretaste in the giving of the law to Moses. Moses went up Mount Sinai whilst the people waited for him at the bottom, unsure of what to do next, and he returned with the Law – the framework by which they would live as God’s people. In the same pattern the Early Church came to see the ascension of Jesus (like Moses going up the mountain) was followed by Jesus returning to them again in a new way by the Holy Spirit. The wind and flames don’t just come from anywhere. They are not like a normal rushing wind blowing through the trees on a stormy night – they come from heaven. Jesus goes up in the ascension and God’s spirit comes back down in the power of the Holy Spirit – to be a guiding presence, like the Law was, enabling people to live to the fullest as God intends for them.
Secondly, the Early Church came to understand the inter-relationship between the Pentecost experience and the making right of what had happened at Babel right back at the start of the story of the Hebrew people. You remember the story in the Book of Genesis. The peoples of the world are all speaking the same language, and through their pride they build a tower to signify their greatness. And God moves amongst them and confuses them by giving them different languages so that they can no longer continue to build a society in which, through their pride, they believe that they have no need for God. And immediately after that account of the scattering of people into multiple language groups, in the Book of Genesis, God makes his Covenant with Abraham, and says to him that through him and his descendents God will bless the whole world. And for the first Christians as they looked back to this experience of the Holy Spirit, they came to understand that in some sense God was over-turning the curse which prevented the people’s of the world from communicating with each other, in order for the Good news of Jesus, the final decisive revelation of God’s love for humanity to be shared across the boundaries of race, and tribe and languag
So for the first Christians, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is about much more than a momentary special experience, it is the further assurance that God’s great plan of salvation, since the earliest times, is being fulfilled through the Gospel of Jesus. And it requires a decisive response from those first disciples. There is one other thing which it would be easy to miss in all of this. For the Jews, including our Jewish neighbours today, the Festival of Shavu’ot is not only a commemoration, its not only looking back. As the first fruits of the harvest are brought to God, there is a looking forward, anticipation of the fuller harvest which is yet to come. As the giving of the law at Mount Sinai is commemorated, the receiving of that law in every generation requires an active and engaging response. The first fruits of the harvest look forward to the full yield of the crops, the giving of the law looks forward to a day when the law will be fully received, and applied in every generation, and lived out in the lives of the Jewish people. And so it is for us, as we celebrate the Christian festival of Pentecost.
Our own calendar mirrors that of the Jews. The Passover for us has been superseded by the passing of Jesus from death to life, and the liberating freedom which is now offered to all humanity. And fifty days later – today – we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, not only as a past event, but as a present and future reality. This is a festival of first fruits. We bring to God our limited and imperfect faith as the first fruits, the first signs of what God is doing in us.
We bring to God our willingness to be a part of God’s plan, to be witnesses to his Kingdom, to be the mouth, and hand and heart of his action in the world as the first fruits of what God has begun in us. Whether this is our first learning weekend (for those commencing the Certificate and Diploma programmes) or our last learning weekend (for those who are completing the Diploma programme in a few months time) we bring our willingness to be formed into God’s people by our studies, as the first fruits. But all of these are only the first fruits.
By the coming of God’s Holy Spirit we pray that these first fruits will be multiplied into the full yield of a momentous harvest in which God’s law of love, God’s framework for being all that God desires us to be will be received not only by those of us in the Church, but in every cultural and contextual language of our neighbours in the communities which God has called us to serve.
Today at this Eucharist we bring the first fruits, and we wait expectantly, just like on that first transforming day of Pentecost, for God fill us with his Holy Spirit, to use us to bring in the harvest of his love for the world. And so we pray, ‘come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people. And kindle in us the fire of your love.’