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The Fiftieth Day

Thomas J Parlette

“The Fiftieth Day”

Acts 2: 1-21


Today we celebrate Pentecost, the third most important celebration on the Christian liturgical calendar – a celebration that trails behind Christmas and Easter by a good bit. But that doesn’t make it any less important. On Pentecost, the awesome power of God is revealed fifty days after the death and resurrection of Jesus. A disheveled and mournful band of eleven gathered in the house of one of the disciples. They came together as the group with whom Jesus had spent most of his time; this was the group who lived everyday life with Jesus. They understood now that Jesus had a supernatural connection with the God of their ancestors Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as well as Isaac and Rebecca. These disciples believed that this son of Joseph and Mary was Emmanuel, the Messiah, the living Christ.(1) Although they had gone their separate ways over the course of the last fifty days, they had gathered in Jerusalem once again.

The word “Pentecost” is literally translated “fiftieth day” – it was originally a Jewish holy day celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of the Passover week. It was an annual harvest feast and was one of the three great annual feasts of Israel – Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Booths.(2) Jews from all over the Mediterranean region would pour into Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, including Jesus’ disciples. And since they were all together again, they decided to gather for worship, since they lived a faith that was in the minority back home in Galilee.

As they worshiped, there was a noise so loud that it could not be ignored. So startled were they that they lost control of themselves – their senses were flooded with adrenaline so that their minds and bodies processed intensely the sound, the energy, the feeling of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit had come, just as Jesus had promised – and it was an experience rather than something cognitive. Rational theological reflection could not adequately explain the knowledge, the feeling conveyed in the sensory event. All of the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, not one of them was excluded.

The word used here for wind is an interesting one. The word this comes from is “Ruach” – a word that can mean wind, but also breath and spirit. Luke is very intentional about the wind blowing through this scene to bring the Holy Spirit. The same wind, the same breath that breathed life into Adam at the creation is blowing new life into the church here in Jerusalem. The same wind that blew back the waters of the Red Sea and allowed the Hebrews to escape from Egypt and become God’s people – is the same wind that blows here on the Fiftieth Day to create God’s new people – the Church.

When the disciples gathered together they were hoping for more than just knowledge. They were hoping for an experience of God. That’s the way it should be whenever we gather for worship. We don’t come here as we come to a museum or a theater. We don’t come to be fascinated, educated or entertained. At least we shouldn’t. We should come here each week prepared to receive a life-changing encounter with God’s Spirit. As Annie Dillard once wrote, “if we really believe in the mighty power of God, we ought to come to church wearing crash helmets.” We should echo the old prayer: O Lord, may something happen this morning that is not printed in the bulletin.

Author Anthony De Mello tells a story about the man who invented the art of making fire. When this man had perfected his craft, he decided to share his knowledge. So he took his tools and went to a tribe in the far north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there how to make fire. The people of the tribe were fascinated. He showed them all the uses for fire – they could cook, keep themselves warm and provide light after sundown.

The people of the tribe were very grateful, but before they could express their gratitude to the man who had taught them how to make fire – he left. He just disappeared. He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or their gratitude – he was simply concerned with their well-being. He went on to another tribe, to share with them his art of making fire.

People were interested there to, a little too interested for the peace of mind of their priests – who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So the priests decided to do away with this fire-starter. They poisoned him at dinner one night. But now they were afraid that the people might turn against them. But they were very wise, very crafty, and they came up with a plan.

They had a portrait made of the man who started fires and they mounted it on the main altar of their Temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to worship the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire – which they dutifully did for centuries. The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no more fire.(3)

Too often that describes the life of the church today – not just our church, but all churches. The worship goes on, but there is no fire. Today, on Pentecost, the Fiftieth day, we are reminded of the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t just gather to sip coffee and pay our respects to the crucified Christ. We gather here with the expectation that the Risen Christ will send the Spirit once more. We gather with the expectation that we will be changed – and the world will be changed as a result.

Nadia Bolz Weber  is the founding pastor of a church in Denver Colorado called House for All Sinners and Saints. She has been described as “a foul-mouthed, tattoo-loving Lutheran Pastor who was once a Pagan, an alcoholic and a stand-up comedian.” She is also someone who is changing the church. In a sermon at the Festival of Homiletics, she told a story about her church.

“A few years ago a local Lutheran church gifted House for All Sinners and Saints a full set of used paraments. My church is like every other church’s little sister – so we get a lot of hand-me-downs. As a group of us went through these beautiful altar cloths, we came to red set and found one with an image of a descending dove with completely crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons. Yep, it was as though the Holy Spirit was a raptor, an eagle, a hawk, a hunter from the heavens.”

“Man,” someone said. “We can’t use this one. It makes the Holy Spirit look dangerous.”(4)

Maybe that was the point. The Holy Spirit brings fire, energy and the power to change ourselves and the world. And that is dangerous. Thrilling… but dangerous. Maybe we should listen to Annie Dillard and bring crash helmets to church. For we should expect that something will happen when the Holy Spirit comes to visit.

May the Spirit be to us as a breath that blows away the dust and makes everything clean.

…as refreshing cool water to a parched throat.

…as a cleansing brush fire that burns away all the thick undergrowth so that something new can rise out of the ashes.

May the Spirit be to us as a potter who starts with an old lump and molds and shapes it into something beautiful.

…as a renovator who uses what is already there and strengthens, refreshes and revitalizes what’s there.

…as a loving spouse whispering reassurances of love and support.

…as a parent guiding and helping a confused child.

May the Spirit be to us as a tour guide who points us in the right direction to see things that we would have otherwise missed.

…a gentle tap on the shoulder that makes us realize “I need a new direction and a new beginning.”

…as a fierce shaking that wakes us up; reminding us that there is more to life than earning money, relentlessly pushing ourselves until we are tired, stressed and depressed.(5)

On this Fiftieth Day, may the Holy Spirit revitalize, renew, refresh, empower and create.

May the Holy Spirit descend upon us to remind, guide, and comfort the church, and lead us into the future.

Will you join me in the Litany for Pentecost printed in your bulletin….



1.    Linda E. Thomas, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 15.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, p. 38.

3.    Ibid… p. 40-41.

4.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 3, p. 27.

5.    Ibid… p. 27.