Fire at Harvest Time

Jesus had left the disciples. They’d seen him ascend into heaven. He’d given them a mission, his mission. He’d told them to wait.

So, that’s what they did. They waited. For ten whole days. It must have been absolutely excruciating. Most of us find it hard enough to wait for a bus, let alone anything important. This would be one of the most important events in history, utterly life-changing for each of them, and there they were swinging their heels. Waiting.

The Jewish festival of weeks, or ‘Pentecost’, rolled around, like it did every year, fifty days after the first sheaf was cut in the barley harvest. Seven weeks after the end of the Passover. Seven weeks since the world turned upside down and a dead man walked out of a tomb.

Nothing was ever going to be the same. Except, it looked awfully similar to before, waiting around Jerusalem like a bunch of smiling malcontents.

Then their waiting ended. Having died, been raised, and ascended into heaven, Jesus completed his work by giving the Spirit to his people. His promises to make them into springs of running water, his promises that he would send a helper, his promises to return to each of them and be with them forever were fulfilled in that moment.

And then, again, everything changed. It’s like the dramatic twist in a film or book when all the threads come together and the story shifts and changes. He’s a ghost? He’s his father? They’re the same man?

Brightness appears above one of their heads, and spreads from one to another like flames in a fire. A sound, roaring past their ears, like standing in a gale. Or perhaps something different, it’s a little mysterious. Whatever they saw and heard, they saw and heard it. It was definitely visible, audible and dramatic. You couldn’t be there and miss it.

Our expectation of the Spirit doing something is so often invisible, inaudible and inconspicuous. We describe him like he’s the secretive silent partner in the Trinity, like an investor backing up a business. The manager makes the decisions but behind the scenes Mr. H. Spirit is providing the funds. Essential, but never interfering. It’s hard to back this up from the Bible: the Spirit is often big, bold, and in our faces. You can’t miss what he’s doing.

This fits with my experience as well. It’s rare to pray with someone, have the Spirit move on or in them, and not be able to tell. It’s often visible, most commonly in people’s reactions or expressions, but sometimes in a mysterious way that’s hard to describe, you can see the Holy Spirit on someone. It’s a shadow or a whisper of what we see described in Acts 2, but he still acts in the same way today as he did then. Nothing has changed. My expectation is very low, but that’s my problem.

This doesn’t mean that the Spirit is never subtle (though unlike wizards he isn’t quick to anger—the opposite, dear friends), he often works carefully and slowly. It does mean that we must expect powerful encounters because this is what most of the Biblical accounts allude to.

Silence turns to wind and fire. Waiting turns to action. A small group to a great multitude. A locked door to a teaming street. Timid believers to firebrands, bold as brass.

Pentecost was a festival celebrating both the harvest and the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai. On this particular Pentecost in AD 33 there is a harvest and a new gift. They would celebrate the “first fruits”, the first harvested wheat as a sign of the bounty and quality of the harvest to come. If that was good, you could count on the rest of it being good too.

The Spirit baptising and empowering the disciples here is a sign of the bounty and quality of the life available to all who follow Jesus. It’s the first fruits of the kingdom of God. We can count on the ‘rest of it’ being like this too.

When the Law was given to Moses at Sinai it was accompanied by fire, loud noises and the speaking of many languages. Similar signs happened when the disciples received the Spirit, who would write the Law on their hearts. For the first time people are empowered to keep the law as they follow the only man who ever managed it.

Because of the festival, Jerusalem is full to bursting with Jews, converts, and the curious, from all the nations of the Mediterranean rim. They could make themselves understood, but would have felt like foreigners, outsiders. Then they hear someone inviting them into a relationship with God that they knew was promised but hadn’t expected. The invitation isn’t in Greek, the trading language that they have in common. It’s in their own language, with their own local idiom and phrases. It’s delivered in the dialect they had used to speak to their mum. It’s such an invitation, so personal. The Spirit reminds them of home, and makes the new community they join a home for all believers.

The Old Testament is full of promises that one day the Holy Spirit would come to everyone. Peter quotes the most famous of these (Joel 2) immediately after he and the other followers of Jesus receive the Spirit. These are accompanied by pictures of power—wind, fire, strange speech—which remind them of the presence of God like in the old stories.

The man on the street in Jerusalem would have seen what was going on and wondered if this was it, the promised age ‘to come’ where everyone has access to the Spirit, and everyone hears from God. The Spirit received and experienced is the sign that a new age has come and that new life is available for everyone.

Jesus’ ‘promise of the Father’ (Luke 24) is that this promised Holy Spirit, God himself, would come to live with and in everyone who follows Jesus. Those who travelled to the festival to be near the presence of God, left with the presence living in them instead.

As Peter stood up to explain what was going on, some hecklers in the crowd accused them of being drunk on weak wine. They were suggesting that they’d stayed up all night drinking the cheapest wine they could find, making them the worst sort of drunkards—think White Lightning and you’ve probably got the right image. This was intended as a derisive jibe, but for it to make sense what they could see must have looked a little bit like having drunk too much.

Receiving the Spirit was utterly intoxicating. They must have been staggering around, laughing, talking too loudly, and making a complete fool of themselves.

From then on it was normal practice for the early Christians to offer the Spirit immediately when someone believed, repented and started to follow Jesus. We see this in Acts 2, Peter tells them to believe, repent, be baptised in water and then they will receive the Spirit. They would then lay hands on new believers and induct them into the same experience that they had at Pentecost.

This offer of the Spirit to everyone from the very beginning is the normal ‘birth’ of a follower of Jesus. We are supposed to offer Christ and the Spirit together, not as some added extra for older, more mature followers. It’s a gift for everyone from the very beginning. With modern technology we’re perfectly good at handling all sorts of abnormal births and complications, but even today nothing beats the natural way. This pattern of ‘meet Jesus’ and then ‘receive his Spirit’ is the natural way, and the practice of the early church everywhere they went.

This isn’t the norm in the UK, whether in charismatic circles who tend to delay, or sometimes avoid the question out of embarrassment, or in more evangelical circles who might ignore the experiential element to receiving the Spirit. We miss out on the spiritual life that is supposed to be every believer’s birth right. We miss out on normal Christian life.

Let’s not. Drink deeply, friends.

Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash

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