Today is probably my third most favorite day in the Church year calendar: Pentecost. I first encountered the term, “Pentecost,” reading stories about King Arthur and Sir Galahad — Sir Galahad was the knight in pursuit of the “Holy Grail,” the legendary cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and into which Joseph of Aramathea captured some of Jesus’ blood, so you can see that recognizing a Christian festival was not out-of-place in the story of this legendary king. In reading stories of King Arthur and Sir Galahad and the Knights of the Round Table, I first encountered the term, “Pentecost,” but I had no idea of what “Pentecost” was. In fact, despite being a faithful church-goer for many years, it was not until 1982, and there is a reason I remember that date, that I really paid any attention to the idea and origin of Pentecost.
That was the first year in which my long-time friend, Jim Russell, the pastor for whom I had headed the Pastoral Nominating Committee, was the pastor at Ogden Dunes Community Church in Ogden Dunes, Indiana. Jim talked Pentecost up as “the birthday of the church”; I was singing in the choir for which we had a catchy anthem quoting the lines from the Hebrew prophet Joel that appeared in our reading from Acts, "And your sons and your daughters will prophesy”; and that was the first year I recall hearing about wearing red on Pentecost. Ever since, Pentecost has for me been one of my absolute favorite days on the Church calendar, and I try almost as hard not to miss it as any of the days of Advent or Lent or Easter. I love the language of the Joel passage and our reading from the Book of Acts.
I have fun with, but also am stimulated by, as I wrote in this month’s newsletter, stimulated by how what the writer of Luke and Acts describes as happening on that first Christian Pentecost can be seen as how Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit undo the division of God’s children suggested by the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel, the story that relates — from an ancient Jewish perspective — how God caused humans to speak different languages from each other.
This year, I dug further into the Jewish festival, “the Festival of Weeks” — in Hebrew, Shavout, in Greek, Pentecost, — the Jewish festival being celebrated in our reading from Acts. It is a minor festival, but one of the five annual festivals that called for Jewish males to go to Jerusalem.
Shavout was the reason that those gathered together in Jerusalem as described in our reading from Acts had done so. At least some Jews believe — and it is not really a biblically supported idea — that this Jewish Pentecost marked the day when God gave the Hebrews through Moses the Ten Commandments, and that God’s giving of the Ten Commandments occurred fifty days after the first Passover. For Christians, Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter — counting in the same way that gives us Easter Sunday as three days after Good Friday.
In other words, those first Christians were in fact Jews celebrating the day when God gave the Ten Commandments, the Law, and as they were celebrating, God gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit!
Think of how neat that shared celebration is: Pentecost as celebrating the handing down of The Law, and at the same time celebrating the sending of the Holy Spirit, both of which we need.
Whether or not fifty days between the first Passover and the giving of the Ten Commandments is supported by the Bible, which it really is not, simultaneously celebrating these two gifts is a conceptually awesome idea. Whether or not one completely accepts his work as historically accurate, the writer of Luke - Acts clearly was no dummy.
But for an oddball reason that I think will become clear, this year’s Pentecost Sunday suggested to me my first date with Patricia, whom I met through one of the earlier online match-making services some months after the death of Carol, my first wife, my high school sweetheart, and the mother of my sons. That first date was a four hour lunch at an Indian restaurant in Chicago. Of the several subjects, mostly theological, we covered in that four hours before they asked us to leave so that they could set up for dinner, two particular items that came up during our conversation show that we were probably fated to be together. The first was simply this: many of you may have undoubtedly used the expression, “Is the Pope Catholic?” to express the sureness of what you are saying, but during the time when John Paul II, the former Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła from Warsaw, was Pope, just to be different, I would say, “Is the Pope Polish?” I had never heard anyone else say that, until during our lunch, Patricia used that same expression!
But the second item was, if perhaps not such a surprising coincidence, one with longer effect. Very early in our conversation, she discussed being raised by her paternal grandmother, but she used the name, “Mum-mum.” “Mum-mum,” I almost shouted out, “That is the name that I have used since I was little for my maternal grandmother.” We spell those names differently, but Patricia’s spelling is the name she goes by with our four granddaughters.
I told her how the next day I was going to be taking my “Mom-mom” and my parents out for dinner after church to celebrate my Mom-mom’s one-hundred-first birthday.
I was the first grandchild for all three sets of my grandparents. Mom-mom was my step-mother’s mother; some of you might not have heard me tell before how my birth mother died when I was two weeks old from complications of a Caesarian, and how some months later, my dad began to date my mom, who worked as a clerk in the factory where he was an engineer working on increasing the horsepower of the engines for the B-29 bombers during World War II. She lived at home with her parents and at least one or two of her three siblings. I thus grew up and began to speak, if you could call it that, with her parents in my life, and apparently as I was unable to say “grandma” and “grandpa,” I said “Mom-mom” and — how I came up with this I have no way of knowing — “Bapa,” names which were adopted by all their subsequent grandchildren, my cousins.
It is actually Bapa of whom I wish to speak ever so briefly. Edward Joseph LaCroix, a Quebec French name whose spelling led to others’ mispronouncing it as “LaCroiks,” to my mother’s consternation, but her family’s pronunciation of it was also not true to the French, which would be — phonetically — “la qwa.” My memories of “Bapa” before I was seven or so are very blurred, though I remember Saturdays when he would spend the whole day at a neighborhood bar. But I have a fairly vivid memory of an uncertain date, probably around 1950 or ’51, when, riding from our home in Elgin, Illinois, to Oak Park, where my grandparents lived, we stopped outside a hospital — where years later my older son, Michael, would be born — while my parents went into the hospital for some time to visit, as I later found out, Bapa.
Bapa, who once he got out of the hospital, took up golf as part of a change in lifestyle in which he never again took a drop of alcohol.
Alcohol, “spirits,” he later told me, had nearly killed him. He was an alcoholic; he had been, in common parlance, a drunk. And “drunk” as in “drunk from consuming spirits,” is the description that some were wont to apply to those faithful gathered on that first Christian Pentecost, when they were not drunk, but possessed by — or possessing for the first time — the Holy Spirit.
All this is a long way of saying that there are bad spirits as well as good spirits, there are even, as our Native American friends might have said, “Evil spirits.” More particularly, there is the Holy Spirit that the Book of Acts tells us first came upon humans on that Pentecost Day fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. the Holy Spirit is a spirit that enlivens us and enhances our being by gifting us with the indwelling of God himself. There is the Holy Spirit, but there are also spirits which lead us away from how the Holy Spirit would have us live and which can result in our death, not necessarily a physical death, but a social and moral and, paradoxically, spiritual death. Temptation — as temptation for those liquid spirits that cursed my grandfather — can give rise to a sense of “moved by the spirit,” but what do we Christians and Jews call temptation? Satan; Satan is the Hebrew and Greek term, and it is indeed an evil spirit.
But, OK, on this day when at least some Jews celebrate having been gifted with both the Ten Commandments, which we should celebrate as well even as we celebrate what the writer of Luke and Acts tells us happened more than 1200 years later, God’s giving us the Holy Spirit, how do we know whether what is moving us or directing us at any point in time is that Holy Spirit and not some other, less healthy, possibly destructive spirit?
Allow me to suggest some tests for that.
Which comes first to your mind when you reflect on your mate, whether still alive or not, or reflect on your kids or on your parents, “If only he or she or they,” or “Thank you, God.”
Do you contribute to a charity other than the church?
Which check do you write first, to your cable TV provider, or to your church?
When you are in a hurry, do you allow another car to merge in front of you?
When you are checking out at the grocery store with half-a-cart of groceries, do you go to the “10 Items or Less” express lane if no one is there?
If there is no express lane, suppose a person comes up right behind you with only two items; do you let that person go ahead of you: Always? Only if older? Only if a woman with a child? Only if a woman — or a man — who is a “knockout” or a “hunk”?
If a person drops something on the ground, do you try to pick it up for them? Does it matter whether the person is older or younger, male or female?
If you are physically able, will you hold a door open for the people behind you?
When a child is near and you happen to bump your knee on an object, do you watch your language?
Do you more often say “I wish” or, “Thank you, God”?
And last but least: When there is only one chocolate chip cookie left at fellowship and the pastor has not yet appeared, do you save it for the pastor, or eat it before he gets there, so he will not know about it?
Just kidding with that last one; there is only one correct answer. The gist of these questions relates to what Jesus says is the central aspect of those Ten Commandments celebrated by Jews gathering that first Christian Pentecost and gathering today: Love God with your whole being; love your neighbor as yourself.
Any “spirit” that leads us to follow any direction different from that simply is not the Holy Spirit. After all, for those who believe in Satan — the “tempter” or “tester,” — Satan, too, is a spirit.
But there is only one Holy Spirit, that p-i-e-c-e, piece of God within us that directs us to follow God’s will, God’s law, and on this Day of Pentecost, this day of the Jewish Shavout, let us give thanks that God gave us God’s Law, specifically the Ten Commandments, and that God gave to we who follow Jesus the gift of God as Holy Spirit.
We do not need to memorize those commandments; all we need is to allow the Holy Spirit to put God and others ahead of our own interests. Not to pretend we have no interests, but to recognize that because of Jesus Christ, we have a heavenly reward that is greater than any of our earthly interests could rival.
And in the name of Jesus. Amen.