Today we celebrate Pentecost – an outpouring of the Holy Spirit – sent just as Jesus had promised – enabling and transforming those who were willing to receive it, with physical signs of flames and wind and a universal understanding of the truth being spoken to those listening and watching this in amazement. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied here was a gathering of the nations to hear the Word that would then spread out like wildfire from Jesus’ own land to ignite the flame that would become a global phenomenon – the birth of Christianity, with its message of faith, hope and love.
Here was something new then – or was it?
Surely people had had faith before? Jesus himself was a Jew, part of a well organised and structured faith; and whilst there were not necessarily a large number of organised religions as we would think of them today, there were many faith traditions. The Roman and Greek pantheon for example, Norse and Celtic traditions, many of which were Polytheistic, and often had an emphasis on communal public worship, and sacrifice (either of animals or humans) as an offering to the Gods; going right back to simple sun worship and pantheism.
Hope is perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure prior to Christianity. What is it people were hoping for? For many it did centre on there being more to life than our brief span of three score years and ten – four score at a push. For the Greeks, a favoured few, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in places like Elysium. For others it was the ability to be reincarnated and to have the chance to live again, back on earth, albeit in a different way; but for most people, at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul, endlessly swirling around in a cosmic soup.
And of course there was love, whether it was a strong feeling of affection and concern arising from kinship or close friendship or accompanied by sexual attraction. We all know that the Greek and Roman gods indulged in love with a relish, both among themselves and mere mortals, but rarely was it considered a love that was for all peoples, a love that begged relationship and which sought reconciliation as its ultimate goal.
Christianity though was and is different. Faith was not just something you did, it is how you live; hope was not limited, it is tangible and everlasting and love was not exclusive, it is mutual and unconditional. This wasn’t some distant deity dandling human beings like puppets, this is a God who lives right alongside us.
In order to love one has to engage with our minds and our hearts. The two organs in a human body that not only sustain life but which enable us to understand what life is all about. But it is our hearts that pump blood around our bodies to every other organ which enable us to think, to feel, to touch, to sense and which have become universal symbols of love; and a heart that does not love can be said to be as lifeless and useless as a heart of stone.
A heart of stone does not allow our ears to hear the cries of those in need or our eyes to see injustice being done. A heart of stone does not allow us to feel emotions of compassion or joy, it does not permit our arms and hands to reach out to hug or be hugged or comforted.
A heart of stone does not allow us the desire to know God and to become followers of Christ, because a heart of stone cannot love either itself or others. Even so, God is able to reach out to the most hard-hearted individuals and to use them for his glory.
‘A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.
However, having a heart of flesh is not an easy thing to live with. A heart of flesh can feel the keenest of suffering, the deepest of sorrows and the innermost pain. There are times when it is almost unbearable to experience these things, but our hearts do not give up
The fact is that the heart it is the hardest working muscle in the body – the first organ to form during development of the body, and the last to shut down in death. But that’s just physiology. The difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in the form of love that enables us to ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.’
When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, it was the Spirit that enabled him to declare so boldly that despite what the people had done to Jesus, there was no power on earth that could have held him down and he used the scriptures to back up this declaration.
Quoting from Psalm 16, the Michtam of David, or the Golden Psalm, he spelt our very clearly the faith, the hope and the love Jesus knew was his in God,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”
It was the witness of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit that persuaded others that indeed, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah. As it says, ‘they were cut to the heart’. To the very centre of their being.
When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish, whether it is showing compassion, sharing joy, or seeking peace. When our hearts beat to the same rhythm as God’s then nothing will be the same and everything will be transformed by love