Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021
Rev. Debra Slade, St. Francis Episcopal Church, Stamford, CT
Psalm 90:12 says: “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” I have always loved that verse as it says so much to me about making the most of each day, and really making each day “count” given so few we have, relatively speaking. The verse also came up for me this week when I was researching the subject of Pentecost (today is Pentecost Sunday), and all the numbers that seem to be related to our liturgical calendar around this time of year. The first rather amusing thing I found is when you google: “How many days from Easter to Pentecost?” the third result, before Wikipedia, comes from dummies.com.religion.christianty who tell us: “Pentecost is a Christian holy day that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit 40 days after Easter.”1 In fact, that sentence is often highlighted in the result without even having to open the website. Well, we know that 40 days is an important number in the bible, isn’t it, so I guess that makes sense. No, unfortunately Dummies.com.religion christianity got that one wrong (maybe the name of the website should have been a clue here). Pentecost is actually 50 days after Easter Sunday – with the tip being the “pente” meaning 5 (from the Greek) part of Pentecost. It’s Ascension Day, where Christ ascended to heaven having spent 40 days on earth following his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Whew, you say – I knew that 40 days featured somewhere in this Easter season! Okay, so it’s 40 days from Easter to Ascension Day, and 50 days from Easter to Pentecost, with ten days between them, right? Or is it?
Remember, I started this sermon with “teach us to count our days” well it’s not so easy!! Have you ever had a deadline that said you have 21 days or whatever to do something? Did you ever wonder if you counted the first day or the last day or both in your calculation? I have, and I always give myself the longest time, and do not count the day at the beginning. I think most people do it that way. Well, if we didn’t count Easter Sunday in our 50 days – then today is the 49th day, and Pentecost should be tomorrow. But it is good to go from Easter to another Sunday, and my research said that the Jewish people at that time counted the days that way, meaning they included the first day in the calculation. We can also say, as Pentecost is the 50th day of the Easter season, we would need to count Easter Sunday , of course. And the same thing goes with Ascension Day – that counts Easter Sunday too in its 40 day calculation which makes it always fall on a Thursday. And then there is the ten days between Ascension Day that counts Ascension Day as the first day, right? Nope! It actually counts it the way we would normally do it – it counts the next day as day one. Now I know some of you are using your fingers to count that one. But maybe we can get away with this discrepancy. It doesn’t actual tell us in the bible that ten days after Christ ascended to heaven is when the Holy Spirit came. What we learned from Jesus is what he heard in today’s Gospel, that Christ promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to his disciples, and to the world saying: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” (John 15:26). The promise of what happened on Pentecost Sunday was given to us by Jesus.
And earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live… But the Advocate the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:16-18, 26).
And, as we know, the Holy Spirit came into the upper room where the disciples were hiding and fearful, and came in like a mighty wind, that set their tongues on fire, and allowed them to speak a language – to speak in tongues – but which was understood by everyone who heard them regardless of the languages they spoke. And on that day Peter addressed the crowd and spoke of Christ, and invited them to be baptized by the Holy Spirit and three thousand people were (Acts 2). And on that first Pentecost Day, the Christian Church was born, which is why today is also considered to be the birthday of the Christian Church. And so from this comes our symbolism for today – our swirling red, streamers representing the mighty wind, and red representing the tongues on fire. And we also have red balloons that celebrates the birthday of the Church that is also Pentecost. And in so many other symbolic ways, this Pentecost also marks time and celebrates rebirth like the dry bones in our reading from Ezekiel: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” Here, we see the power of God, symbolized by the breath and the wind to breathe life into something that was thought to be dead but that bone by bone could come alive.
In the last 15 months, we have been also counting our days. We have also been in hiding, and in fear. For many people, there have been questions about where God went in the midst of all the suffering the pandemic has brought to the world, and bewilderment about the power of evil to continue to allow racial inequity and the murder of the so many innocent people, including George Floyd whose death occurred almost one year ago -- on May 25, 2020. This has surely been a very long, year. A year of illness and death, and a year of separation from those things that define us relational beings – being together with those we love, seeing each other’s faces, touching hands, embracing each other in happy times and in sad. We mourn those of us who did not survive, and we may feel guilt around those deaths, and our own survival. But as the seasons changed, we saw that God’s creation through nature continued to be renewed, and it did this spring as well. The Holy Spirit, as represented by the power of love, renewal and hope never deserted us during this dark time. We were never left as orphans – God was always with us, and held us through our pain, and rejoiced with us in our small and large victories over fear.
And so we come to today – the celebration of the church’s birthday – and a testimony to the Holy Spirit’s abiding love for us in all of the times. And we come to this Pentecost Sunday of 2021 with hope and with many lessons learned. As the beautiful spring flowers and trees show us God’s creation, ever renewing, ever life affirming, and as we saw the model of Christ exemplified in the actions of so many millions of people who helped the most vulnerable to heal, often at great sacrifice to themselves, we see the Holy Spirit as the fresh, new wind that tells us God is with us, and that there is always hope. And today we see this hope – there is hope is the miracle of the vaccines that will prevent and reduce the virus’ stronghold over our lives. There is hope that in America we will work hard to prevent discrimination of all forms, and we will look within ourselves to understand our own prejudices as painful as that is. There is hope that we will reunite in person with each other, those who are family, those who are friends, and those in our beloved church community of St. Francis. At my hospital, I recently organized a day where the healthcare workers planted trees, flowers and shrubs in a newly transformed courtyard, we named, the Garden of Hope, dedicated to the staff who had gave so much during the pandemic. There was a beautiful energy of the spirit in the work they did to plant the trees, and make the garden their own. This is time of recovery and renewal. This is a time when reunions will bring reconnection and restoration. May you feel the rejuvenating power of the Holy Spirit in your lives as we move forward with hope, love and God’s peace. Amen. 1 https://www.dummies.com/religion/christianity/what-is-pentecost/