The Torah and the Tongues of Flame
‘Pentecost’ is a Greek word. It means ‘fiftieth,’ and it did not always designate the Christian festival that we are celebrating now. Originally, ‘Pentecost’ was an ancient Greek name for the Hebrew ‘Shavuot.’ Shavuot is a holiday on which Jewish people still commemorate the moment when God spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai. On the first Pentecost, God gave the Jews the Torah – the words of law and history which fill the first five books of their, and our, Bible.
Shavuot is called ‘Pentecost’ in Greek because it comes fifty days after Passover, which marks the Exodus – the liberation of the Jews from their bondage in Egypt. Not long after the waves of the Red Sea parted, Mount Sinai was shaken with the sound of trumpets and veiled in a cloud of fearsome glory. Moses entered that cloud to speak with his great and terrible God.
What did God say? He said who he was. The mysterious life-force which pulses behind the veil of heaven made his will and his character comprehensible to the people he had freed from slavery. He expressed himself in the story of the Jewish nation, chosen and saved from oppression, and in the ritual observances of their shared life together. The words of the Torah describe and record these things. In so doing they reveal how God is to be known: as liberator. As conqueror. As righteous judge; as lover and forgiver of a race in need.
So on Passover, or Pesach, observant Jews celebrate freedom from Egypt. And fifty days later, on Pentecost or Shavuot, they celebrate the gift of God’s word. That Pentecost is the one on which our reading from Acts takes place. Jesus was handed over to be crucified during the Passover festival in Jerusalem, and throughout the days that followed he showed himself to have been resurrected. He was lifted bodily into heaven shortly before Shavuot, leaving his disciples glad but still scared and bewildered. As Pentecost dawned, they were waiting for a sign to help them understand. Today we contemplate how that sign came.
All throughout the history of Israel, holy men and women had seen a day coming when the Jewish God would be worshipped around the world. The prophets especially: in the 8thcentury BC, Isaiah predicted that ‘throngs of every race’ would ‘come flooding’ to God’s temple (2:2-3). Joel, whom Peter quotes in today’s reading, foretold a moment when God would ‘pour out [his] spirit upon all people’ (2:28).
But there was a problem. If you have ever tried to translate something from one language to another, you will know that it is impossible. At least, it is impossible to do perfectly. You can’t capture the full nuance of even a single sentence in sounds and phrases from a completely different time and society. The feel of the thing and its cultural associations are always to some extent ‘lost in translation.’
How much more so God, who is bigger than any human language and who has expressed himself to one specific people through one specific culture and set of traditions. You and I were not slaves in Egypt and we are not native speakers of Biblical Hebrew. How can we come to know God without having shared the history in which he was revealed?
Christians have an answer to that question, and his name is Jesus Christ. As the incarnate word of God, this Israelite peasant embodied in his life and teachings the full selfhood of the almighty. We say with Saint Paul that ‘Christ is our Passover’ (1 Corinthians 5:7) because on the night before he died Jesus offered bread and wine at a Pesach supper which was to be for us his body and blood. From that day forward, the meaning of the Exodus was totally contained in Christ’s act of self-sacrifice and conveyed to us by the new ritual of communion.
Before his death, Jesus said, ‘I will gather all people to myself’ (John 12:32). This, I think, is what he meant: that his life, death, and resurrection would sweep up within them the whole significance of God’s action throughout history and universalise it for all to grasp. As the Israelites were released from Egypt’s chains by God’s intervention, so we are released from our sins by Christ’s forgiveness. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood, gentiles with no Jewish heritage can come to learn what it means that God sets his people free.
Hence the enormous consequence of the Christian Pentecost, when on the day of Shavuot the disciples were supernaturally empowered to communicate in every language to every race. What is impossible with men has shown itself possible for God, as Jesus said it would (Luke 18:27): here is the perfect translation. Our transcendent and sublime creator has expressed himself in language that everyone can understand. Having first clothed himself in the visible unfolding of Jewish history, he has then entered into that history as the living man who is Jesus Christ. Whatever your language or your background, here is God made known to you as a human person with whom you can form a relationship.
Behind me right now is a row of sculptures depicting the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. David the shepherd king, Elijah the hunted visionary, Moses who first received the Torah – sons of Abraham from millennia ago whose customs were not ours and who did not speak our language, but whose God, thanks to Christ, is our God. Pentecost is the miracle which makes this possible, fulfilling Joel’s prophecy that you and I would someday bend our knees and worship the one true ruler of heaven and earth.
We call this ‘the communion of saints.’ It is the work of the Holy Spirit, crashing through barriers of language and time to make all one in Christ. Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Reverend Martin Luther King, the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: all of them join Abraham in the transgenerational and multiracial company of heaven. We take our modest place among those ranks not because we deserve it, but because in Christ we are grafted onto the tree of Jesse and of life.
Have you ever felt chained to your own past failures? As if no one and nothing could set you free to move beyond your shame? It is not so. The God who parts oceans has shed his own blood to clear away every obstacle between you and him. The one who gave the Torah is here at this table to give you himself. Liberator, conqueror, and righteous judge. He who loves you and forgives you in your need. Taste and see: here is your Pentecostal God.