We live in troubled times. As if the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t present enough of a challenge, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has placed a spotlight on the reality of white privilege and the pain of the black community. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is once again rearing its ugly head. A Montreal synagogue was recently torched, and fully 20% of Britons surveyed blame a Jewish conspiracy for COVID-19. And this is only a partial list.
In the midst of all this turmoil comes the Biblical feast of Pentecost (Shavuot in Hebrew), celebrated by Christians today and by Jews three days earlier. Originally a harvest festival, Shavuot was one of three festivals (the others being Tabernacles and Passover) for which Jews were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Book of Acts records that after Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier, the community of about 120 disciples had gathered and were holding an extended prayer meeting. Meanwhile the city was filling up with Jewish pilgrims who had come from various places in the Roman empire to celebrate Shavuot. On the feast day, as the apostles were praying – probably on a rooftop terrace – the Holy Spirit was poured out in power, a crowd gathered because they heard God being praised and proclaimed in their various languages, the apostle Simon Peter preached a bold and powerful message, and three thousand Jews turned from their sins on that day, received Jesus as Messiah, and joined the community of His followers. While a nucleus stayed in Jerusalem, many of the pilgrims would have eventually returned to their homes, taking the new faith with them.
The new community of disciples was marked by several powerful features. They were full of joy by the power of the Holy Spirit. They stood in awe of God’s power and holiness. They lived together, shared their goods, walked in humility, loved their enemies and prayed for those who opposed them. Miracles of healing were common. Before long, persecution began to flare up as the new faith was a challenge to the established order. Yet many were drawn to the new faith because of the undeniable sense that God was with these lovers of Jesus.
Two millennia have passed since those early days. The new movement, which began as a persecuted minority among Jews, soon spread to Gentiles as well and after a couple of generations had rejected its Jewish origins as it began to penetrate Roman society. Within three centuries, the church had become an established institution, supported by the state. Its history is a mixture of good and evil. The list of wrongs perpetrated in the name of Christ is too long for this blog. Yet many of the best features of our Western society are also directly attributed by secular historians to the influence of Christianity. By God’s grace, the same Holy Spirit who fell on the eagerly waiting fellowship on that first Pentecost has continued to bring repentance and renewal, and the number of those who truly love Jesus and His ways, and seek to follow Him in sincerity, has continued to grow.
In these troubled times, when many things are being shaken and stripped away, I believe it’s time for God’s people to return to basics – to our first love. The Holy Spirit was given to empower His people to proclaim the good news. He has given us many gifts of power. But His first assignment – His very nature – is to draw our attention to Jesus himself. I’m very grateful for the gifts of the Spirit. But I am even more grateful that He gives us the power to grow in love for Jesus and His ways. He is the living flame of God’s love, poured into our hearts. Whatever good we do – whether preaching the gospel, giving to the poor or caring for the sick – it counts for nothing with God unless it springs from love. But consistent love for God and His ways – which Jesus called the first commandment – is the one thing we are incapable of without the power of the Spirit. I can’t even love my own wife consistently without His help. We need the Holy Spirit.
In these times of growing turmoil and trouble, it’s increasingly evident that no-one has a solution to the challenges we are facing. There is only one leader capable of bringing peace, justice and healing to the earth – King Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, who will bring in His Kingdom when He returns. But He has given His people a deposit on our inheritance – the blessed Holy Spirit. In the chaos of our times – in the midst of adversity, when everything within us is crying out to God to change our circumstances – the Spirit empowers us to love and choose the Lamb and His ways. He is coming for a people who have learned to persevere and grow in love. In the end, that is how we will be evaluated.
Come, Holy Spirit.