Thoughts on Pentecost and John 20:19-23

by Rev. James Laurence

Next weekend we celebrate one of the great festivals in our church year, the Day of Pentecost. When we think of Pentecost, most of us probably think of the famous account of it in the Acts of the Apostles, which was our first reading today (Acts 2:1-21). We think of the “sound like the rush of a violent wind”; the tongues of fire resting on the apostles; and those apostles speaking miraculously in other languages. It was an exciting day for those apostles and for all those present, a day that is important enough that we remember it every year on this particular Sunday. 

But today’s gospel reading offers us a very different Pentecost – quieter, but no less important. Because it shows us that the Holy Spirit comes to us in a wide variety of ways, and often not in a way that is as dramatic and as obvious as what happened on the famous Day of Pentecost. 

Chances are that you have not experienced the Holy Spirit coming to you with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. You probably haven’t experienced divided tongues, as of fire, dancing on your head. And you probably haven’t miraculously preached in other languages that you have never even studied. But that’s okay. Neither have I! The Holy Spirit comes to us in an incredible variety of ways, many of which are far less dramatic than that. 

Today’s Gospel Reading

We can see that very clearly in today’s gospel reading (John 20:19-23) – the Holy Spirit being given in a much quieter, but no less important way. This story actually takes place fifty days before the Day of Pentecost, on that first Easter evening; and it takes place in the upper room. The same place where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and celebrated the Passover meal. And on this Easter evening, the disciples find themselves back in that same room – with the door locked, trying to figure out what they should do now. They are no doubt lost, confused, scared, and definitely not looking for a grand, Pentecost miracle.

So what happens? Jesus came, and stood among them. He offered them peace. And, he breathed on them, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And he sent them out of that room on a mission, saying: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” It’s a Pentecost-moment, when the Holy Spirit is given to the disciples, but very different from the events that will take place fifty days later. It is a much quieter, and less dramatic, Pentecost.

And I suspect that for many of us, this is closer to how we experience the Holy Spirit: God coming to us in an hour of need, when we are lost, scared, and confused. And the Holy Spirit, not coming like the rush of a violent wind, but in a still, small voice. Offering the gift of peace, in the quiet of an anxious moment. Jesus comes to us all, through the Holy Spirit, and often when we need him most. But not usually in a loud, obvious way. It is more often in a quiet, subtle way. Maybe through a note from a friend. Or through a song that we hear. Or through a coincidence that we know is more than a coincidence. Or through a Scripture passage we come across that is just what you needed to read or hear at that time. It is through any number of quiet, subtle occurrences in our day, that tell us that the Holy Spirit is active in our midst. These quiet Pentecost-moments remind us that Jesus really is fulfilling his promise to be with us always, and that God’s presence in our lives is very real, even though it is often not very dramatic. 

These Pentecost moments can be missed, of course. We must pay attention; watch and listen with the eyes and ears of faith. Slow down. Pray. Discover ways in our life to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit all over again. Jesus tells us earlier in John’s gospel that the Holy Spirit is like the wind. We can’t see the wind; we can only see its effects. And that’s true of the Holy Spirit, most of the time, for most of us. We can’t see the Holy Spirit. But when we pay attention, we can see its effects. We can see the difference that God is making in our life through the promised Holy Spirit. We discover that Pentecost-moments take place all the time, in more ways than we can possibly imagine. God is very much alive and active in our world, through the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Our First Pentecost: Baptism

There is one particular Pentecost-moment in all of our lives that I want us to remember today. And that is our baptisms. I received the gift of the Holy Spirit when I was 19 days old. I don’t remember it, but I know it’s true. It was a Pentecost-moment in my life, the first of many. There was no violent wind (that I know of!), no speaking in tongues, but I was baptized into Christ and began my journey with him, a journey that has led me to this very moment. And that’s true for us all. Every baptism is a miracle, because every baptism represents a Pentecost-moment. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit as we are baptized into Christ. 

When we affirm our baptisms, we pray that this gift of the Holy Spirit is “stirred up.” And whenever we hear God’s Word and receive Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit comes to us again. But the Holy Spirit is certainly not confined to these avenues. The Holy Spirit comes to us wherever and whenever God wishes. These are simply times when we know that the Holy Spirit is present. They are all Pentecost-moments. And it all begins at our baptisms. 

Each Is Given a Manifestation of the Spirit

But what happens when the Holy Spirit is given to us? What changes? Does Scripture give us an idea of what to expect? The answer is yes. Something happens. And Scripture does give us an idea of what to expect. When the Holy Spirit is given to us, we are called into this community, the church, to share our gifts through the body of Christ. That is what we learn from Scripture, and a good example of where we learn this is in our second reading today. 

In 1 Corinthians 12, right before Paul’s famous poem on faith, hope, and love, Paul teaches us that each of us is given a manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good. There are varieties of activities, he writes, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. I like how the Message paraphrase of scripture puts it: 

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit … 

Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people!

Yes. Each of us is given something that can help to make this world a better place. And it takes all kinds of people; in fact, it takes us all, to do the work to which God is calling us. But, again, what we do usually won’t be loud and dramatic. Sometimes, it won’t even be noticed, by anyone except our Creator. But everything that we do in his name matters. No act of love is ever wasted. And we all have gifts and a part to play. The Holy Spirit makes sure of that. All we have to do is pay attention. The needs of the world will make themselves clear. And the part that we play will, too. Open our eyes, open our hearts, and be ready to share our gifts. That’s all it takes. And every act of love done in God’s name becomes like a Pentecost-moment. Most of them will be quiet. They won’t make the news. They won’t make us famous. But they just might stir up the Holy Spirit in someone, someone who may have grown a little cynical, or discouraged. All they need, perhaps, is what we have. We all have been given a manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good. That is what Pentecost is all about.  


So, come back to the upper room for a moment. When Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, and gave them the Holy Spirit, he also said to them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus gave them – and us – the Holy Spirit so that we could carry on his mission. We are given the Holy Spirit to go – in whatever way that we can right now – to be witnesses of God’s life and love. We are given the Holy Spirit to continue what Jesus did on this earth. We are given the Holy Spirit to be his apostles in the world. To offer encouragement, strength, and hope to others. To serve others. To love others. To pray and share our faith with others. 

You and I can do that. Because the Holy Spirit has been given to us. So let’s celebrate today the glorious miracle of Pentecost. But let’s also celebrate all the quiet, little Pentecost moments that happen throughout our lives. And then let’s go and do what those first apostles did, guided and empowered by the same Holy Spirit, to the glory of God. Amen.


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