One of the most important festivals of the church year is the Festival of Pentecost, which falls on June 4 this year. The English word “pentecost” is actually a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.”

In the 1st century, Greek-speaking Jews used the phrase to refer to a Jewish holiday known as the Festival of Weeks or, more simply, Weeks ('Shavuot' in Hebrew). This name comes from an expression found in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs people to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture).

Shavuot was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It was originally a harvest festival (Exodus 23:16) but, in time, became a day to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.

The Book of Acts records an extraordinary event which occurred on the day of Pentecost. For the earliest believers, it was also seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. But what happened in Jerusalem on that day was a spiritual moment of such great magnitude that it empowered the earliest Christians for their mission to the world. It was the beginning of what we have now come to refer to as “the church.”

The Book of Acts describes that moment in great detail ... “like the rush of a mighty wind” ... people who spoke in different languages from different nations suddenly were able to communicate with each other, understand each other, hear each other, listen to each other. The Holy Spirit enabled this to happen in a miraculous way.

But the fact that the Spirit was given to a gathering of believers is not incidental. It underscores the importance and the centrality of the church in God’s work in the world. The Holy Spirit is not only given to individuals but also to the gathered people of God. In I Corinthians 3:16-17, the Apostle Paul describes the church as God’s temple, and that the Spirit dwells in the midst of the church.

More than ever in these days of conflict and dissension, we need that same spiritual power to come into our churches, to help us to listen to one another, hear one another, understand one another and communicate with one another. On this Pentecost, may we pray for an outpouring of the Spirit in the whole church as well as in our world.

The Rev. Knight Wells is retired from Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He can be reached at revknight.wells5@frontier.com.

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