Homily for Christ Chapel on Whitsunday, or Pentecost, 23 May, 2021
By Dr. T. Y. Hiter
Some parts adapted from a 2010 message by the Rt. Rev’d William Millsaps, EMC
St. John 14:15
Today is the day that many Christians celebrate the feast of Pentecost. It is, of course, 50 days after Easter, so those Churches that observe Easter differently also observe Pentecost differently, but that has little to do with the feast, itself. The New Testament lesson for Morning Prayer today is the very familiar story of Jesus and the woman at the well. The Gospel lesson from the “propers” for the day is almost as well known, but maybe not quite as much fun to preach about. No matter, though. Both deal with the same general topic: That is, God’s provision of the Holy Spirit, and that event dates to the day of Pentecost.
Actually, in England, Pentecost was rarely called that until very recently. Even in our own BCP, the seasonal heading says "Whitsuntide." Under that it says "Pentecost, commonly called Whitsunday." Why did the English-speaking Church change it? For, change it, they did. The Apostles most assuredly did not preach to the multitudes on “Whitsunday”. They spoke on Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them on Pentecost! So, why? Well, remember: in the early days of the Church, baptism and Church membership came only after a long and somewhat arduous period of instruction. Baptism was most often done only once a year, on Easter Eve. This was fine in Asia Minor and North Africa, and usually okay even in Greece and Rome, but in England and other northern climes, the baptisms were generally done on Pentecost instead. It was just too cold to do them earlier. We do not know who made this decision, or exactly when, but it was a wise one. The newly baptized wore white garments on the day, and that is where the name Whitsunday came from.
The word Pentecost comes from the Greek, of course, and means "fiftieth". The feast that is celebrated on this date is actually a very old Jewish feast. In that tradition, it is called Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. Shavua is the word for week and this feast is a week of weeks from the Passover. It celebrated the first harvest of the spring wheat. Eventually, it came to be associated with giving of the Law to Moses, which had taken place at the same time of year. Many Talmudic scholars think that this came about as the Jews became more of an urban people who did not identify with a purely agricultural holiday. They called the day Atzeret, which means "assembly". They saw it as the conclusion of Passover, and there were already traditions in the time of our Lord that the giving of the Law involved manifestations of wind and fire. Like all Jewish holy days, Shavuot was the occasion for many pilgrims to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. Many would even come from other countries. So it was on that very first Pentecost, related in the Acts of the Apostles.
We do not know how early in the Church's life the Feast of Pentecost was kept yearly, but we do know that Tertullian, in the third century, wrote that it was a well established feast day, then. In 399, Eusebius of Caesarea called it "all-blessed and all-holy, the feast of feasts." St. John Chrysostom wrote in a sermon for Pentecost," Today we arrived at the peak of all blessings, we have reached the metropolis of feasts, we have obtained the very fruit of our Lord's promise." What was or is that fruit? The Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit, if you will. Pentecost marks the first descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles and through them to all Christians. For that reason, it is sometimes called “the birthday of the Church”. Both the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches always called the holiday “Pentecost”, but in the Protestant west, that name almost died out completely. We ought to take a moment, this time of year, to say a silent “thank you” to our brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal movement within Christianity, without whom we might have lost it altogether.
This morning’s lesson, though, does not deal directly with the coming of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost. Nor, for that matter, does it really relate to Whitsunday, though arguably it does make reference to both salvation and the descent of the Holy Ghost. Our lesson for this morning comes from the Gospel of John, and like much of John, it deals with Jesus’ self-disclosure as the Son of God. Our lesson is a disclosure by Jesus that the Holy Spirit would one day come to the disciples. There is some question as to whether they even understood what He was talking about. He started off with a commandment to keep his commandments, and a reassurance that he would pray to the Father on their behalf. Then, he gave that little speech that we’re so familiar with, and that we have read about before, where He said “a little while and I will leave you, and again a little while and ye shall see me again”.
And then, he said words that mean so much to us, and meant it to them, too, even though they probably didn’t understand them. “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to thy remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” And, then, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled…, I go unto the Father”. Is there a clearer promise of what it means to be a Christian, anywhere? Not that I know of.
We ALL have received the Holy Spirit. Now, there is some discussion among theologians as to whether He comes at Baptism, or at Confirmation, or at some other time, but we need not trouble our hearts about that, either. He came. We have Him, in our hearts. And, if we have Him, then certainly, He has given us the gifts that Jesus promised He would, by coming: He will teach us everything we need to know, and He will keep the things Jesus taught in our hearts. That’s what the lesson teaches us! And also, of course, that Jesus gives us peace. His peace. The peace that passes all understanding. We have it. It’s in our hearts. All we have to do is access it. Like the knowledge of the Holy Spirit, the peace of Jesus is ours. Yes, I know, sometimes, it is horribly difficult to actually do that accessing, but you have to take my word for it that it is there. We CAN make use of it. Too many martyrs died happily while being eaten by wild animals, in too many arenas, for it not to be true. A whole Legion of Christian Roman soldiers, the Theban Legion, died to a man in Trier, rather than renounce it. Too many Christian men and women died under terrible torture in Nazi concentration camps and in Japanese prisons and in the Russian Gulag…, died peacefully, and in full possession of their faith, for it not to be accessible to us, too. It’s there.
So, today, let us each have a blessed and wonderful Pentecost! Or, an equally blessed and wonderful Whitsunday, whichever you chose to celebrate. It is the next to last “season” of the Christian year (and indeed the very last, in those traditions where they date their weeks to “Sundays after Pentecost, right up to Advent). We Anglicans, though, have Pentecost, then Trinity, though Episcopalians have forsaken it, of late. No matter. We are a Spirit-filled Church, and that filling dates to that first Pentecost. May God bless us all, and may the Holy Spirit be evident in all we do, during all the year. Most of all, let us learn the lesson that Jesus taught, this morning: let us treat all people with decency and respect, and in so doing, let us all reveal the Son of God to them, through our very own Holy Spirit.