In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.
All of us have been shocked about last night’s events. We are now living in London with the reality of random terrorist violence on our streets. However our faith communities can point to another way. And we all have to take that way.
On Tuesday evening a crowd assembled in the Reform Synagogue near Marble Arch – the West London Synagogue (WLS). Some of you may have been there. WLS was a pioneering synagogue in welcoming refugees, promoting women’s ministry and now is actively engaged in interfaith work.
On Tuesday, WLS was celebrating Shavout. Shavuot’s date is measured by 7×7: seven times seven days. 49 days from the feast of Passover. The day after is Shavuot – the feast of weeks –sometimes known as Pentecost, the fiftieth day. The feast of weeks in the Bible is an agricultural festival in which the first fruits of the harvest are offered to God. Later it came to commemorate the giving of the Law – the Torah – and the 10 commandments – to Moses. And because the children of Israel did not listen to Moses but built the golden calf instead, Shavuot is marked by intense study. Study sessions go on all night and at dawn people congregate on the roof of the WLS to celebrate the arrival of Shavuot.
But this year there was a difference in the celebration. Shavuot coincided not only with the Christian feast of Pentecost but also the start of Ramadan. When I got to WLS, I was directed to a room in which Muslims were celebrating the evening salat or prayer. Then we were all invited to a communal meal – an Iftar in which Muslims break their fast once the sun has gone down. We were given traditional Arabic food but also cheese cake – traditional for Jews to eat at Shavuot. Then an Iman spoke about the importance of Ramadan. The observance of Ramadan leads to Taqwa – God fearing. Fasting leads people to be dutiful to God. Fasting also makes one identify with people with no food or no clean water. And the Iman firmly stated that the Manchester bombing was the opposite of adherence to Islam.
Sometimes an action is more important than words. The hospitality of WLS and the gracious acceptance by the Muslims present spoke louder than the words uttered.
I learnt that Tuesday evening about two religious observances – Shavuot and Ramadan. But we have a trilogy of observances because Christians celebrate at this time our own feast of weeks, seven weeks and a day after Easter Day, our own Passover.
If we had to explain Christian Pentecost to our Jewish and Muslim friends what would we say? How would we describe our feast? And I have to say we start at a disadvantage. Jewish customs about cheese cake and Ramadan celebrations to break the fast are firmly incarnated in their societies. The move from the Whit Monday Bank Holiday to the Spring Bank Holiday has down-graded our own festival, Whitsun, in people’s consciousness. How many people in this country could say what Pentecost or Whitsun signifies?
But we need to recover why this feast is important as we too have something important to celebrate at this time. On one level, we celebrate an event in the same way that the Jewish people celebrate the giving of the Law at Shavuot. The event we celebrate is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is no longer physically with us but he promised not to leave us comfortless but to send the Paraclete, the advocate, the Spirit to be with us.
On this feast of Pentecost, we read that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. But it is not the event but the significance of this event which is now important for us.
For Jews, Shavuot represents the coming down of the Torah, the written word. For Muslims, the Qur’an starts to be revealed to Muhammad on 17th day of Ramadan, 610. For Christians the revelation is not in the form of a book but in a person, Jesus, and this revelation to us is guaranteed by the gift of the Spirit to us at Pentecost. And we believe that Spirit is not only at work in Christians but in the whole world.
At the beginning of the Bible, we read that God’s spirit swept over the face of the waters at the start of creation. We can identify with our Jewish brothers and sisters in seeing Shavuot as a festival about the environment with the giving of the first fruits of the harvest to God. In Genesis, the spirit or wind or breath brings the beginning of life. So on this feast of Pentecost we celebrate the Spirit of God and the gift of our life –our breath – in our environment.
But we are all too conscious that the need for healing is very much for humans within our environment. In the reading, Peter quotes the book of Joel: the promise that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh – you and me – so that:
- Sons and daughters shall prophesy
- Young men shall see visions
- Old men shall dream dreams.
We not only have Shavuot, Ramadan and Pentecost all jumbled together but we have a general election as well amidst the slaughter of Manchester and last night in London. A general election provides an opportunity for politicians to set out their visions. And this feast of Pentecost provides an opportunity to celebrate the human capacity to have visions – to have visions of inspiration and endeavour.
But not all visions are of God, are of the Spirit as we witnessed graphically last night. All our religious traditions have dark sides which need to be exposed by the Spirit. Christians and indeed people of all faiths need to differentiate those visions which may be of God and those which are certainly not of God. And we are helped to make that judgement because we have been given the Spirit. Our judgment as Christians must be based on the revelation of God we experience in Jesus.
And if we think tonight of Jesus the healer, we can ask which of the visions on offer is likely to bring about the healing of the wounds in our society and the world. And maybe we need to look at our non-violent tradition again and what has that to say today and reconciling that with the need for security and justice. The gift of the Spirit in Pentecost helps us to make that judgement.
But the feast of Pentecost makes us look at our own need for healing. Peter’s quotation from Joel contains the promise of salvation – another theme of Pentecost. ‘Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Here we have a cry and at the same time a promise for salvation, for wholeness, for healing by calling on the name of the Lord.
A little later in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that it is the name of Jesus which has made well the lame man at the Beautiful Gate. The gift of the Spirit makes us whole and brings healing. We become at one with ourselves and with our neighbour. The healings stories of Jesus continue in the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit continues to be at work. However, we interpret those stories, we may be able to see the Spirit at work in our own lives and those rather dark areas of our own lives being healed.
So Pentecost for us concerns healing:
- Healing for the nations and our big cities.
- Healing for our environment
- Healing for our relationships
- Healing for ourselves.
Those who went to the WLS on Tuesday witnessed an event of healing with Jews and Muslims sitting around tables in sharing bread with one another. Here we had our observances of Ramadan and Pentecost bringing a celebration of joy and peace. WLS and the Muslims who came that night showed there is another way to bring about peace. May this feast of Pentecost bring us to work in the Spirit for healing in our nation, in our environment, in our relationships and in ourselves.