The events recorded by Saint Luke in the second chapter of Acts hold a well deserved place in the hearts of Christians around the world. The Holy Spirit’s decent, Peter’s inspired preaching, and the faithful response of a great and diverse crowd—these are nothing less than the beginning of the new age about which ancient prophet spoke, the birth of the Church on Pentecost, the reason for this festival day.
There’s also a back story to Acts 2, however, a narrative known to Luke and those gathered in Jerusalem so long ago, that proves just as enlightening to our faith and instructive of authentic discipleship as the words of scripture read around the world today.
Pentecost, you see, as an important day on the Jewish calendar long before the time of Jesus. It’s actually mentioned way back in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, which calls for God’s people to celebrate each year’s first wheat harvest, a time—after the hard work of planting, tilling, and gathering were complete—to take a day off from their labors and give thanks to God for the season’s bounty.
In time, Pentecost also developed an incredibly important spiritual dimension. According to tradition, God delivered the Law to the Exodus pilgrims on Pentecost. The day, therefore, became so much more than a harvest festival. It became a time to remember God’s steadfast love and everything God did to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, especially giving them a law, their law, not the law of their oppressors, to guide them in the way that they should go and to give their lives shape.
In addition to observing the ritual laid out for them in the Law and remembering the day’s connection to the Exodus, at Pentecost the people also told and retold a much admired story that seemed to capture the essential significance of the moment. It was a story about an incredible friendship between two women, the elder of whom was named Naomi, and the younger, the story’s namesake, was called Ruth.
We call this story the Book of Ruth.
I’m sure that some of you know that story, but just to make sure we’re all on the same page, here it is.
A young woman named Ruth marries a woman named Naomi’s son. When the son dies, leaving his mom and widow without any kind of social network of support, Ruth dismisses custom, logic, and, most of her friends would agree, her good judgment in order to stay with her mother-in-law, someone to whom Ruth technically owed nothing and whose presence in her life would drastically limit Ruth’s marital options.
Ruth’s pledge of devotion to Naomi, however, gives us one of the most beautiful expressions of friendship in the whole Bible.
“Where you go, I will go,” Ruth declared, “[and] your people shall be my people, and your God [shall be] my God.”
Love—steadfast love—a love that will not let the other go, a love that will even sacrifice it’s own advantages to maintain that bond—that’s how Ruth loved Naomi, and the faithful recognized that that’s how God loved them, too.
So Pentecost pilgrims told this story in the same way that we read “The Gift of the Magi,” watch “A Christmas Carol,” and sing Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas time. The story reminded them what the holiday, the holy day, was all about.
And so it was that pilgrims filled the streets of Jerusalem at Pentecost with thanksgiving in their hearts and thoughts of God’s steadfast love on their minds.
In the season following Jesus’ resurrection, there was another group in the city at Pentecost, too. They were Jesus’ disciples and they had been through a lot in the last two months.
Eight weeks earlier, those disciples watched as Jesus rode into the city on the back on a donkey while crowds lined the streets to cheer him on. A few days later, however, the unthinkable happened. One of their own betrayed Jesus, the Romans arrested him, and the crowds called for and received his life on a cross.
It was just as difficult to believe that seven weeks had passed since that crazy Sunday morning in the garden where the unthinkable happened again. Jesus rose from the dead and for the next forty days they sat with him and ate with him, and listened to everything that he had to teach them.
And then he was gone. He ascended into heaven leaving with them one last instruction. He told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. And that’s how it came to pass that these two groups found themselves in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost—the faithful and grateful pilgrims and the faithful and expectant disciples.
The story about how these two groups came together brings us Good News this morning. A sound like the rush of a violent wind, the sight of flames dancing over Jesus’ friends, the Gospel proclaimed to an awestruck assembly, and an accusation of drunkenness—that was the scene.
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say…Peter went on to talk about the ministry of the ancient prophet named Joel who envisioned a time when God would pour out the Spirit on God’s people.
He told them that Joel’s vision had become their reality because God was, in that very moment, pouring the Spirit upon the young and old, men and women, the powerful and the powerless.
Peter then invited the people to enter into that new age by taking hold of the Spirit, grace, and new way of being Jesus offered to them.
And three thousand Pentecost pilgrims embraced the apostle’s preaching, accepted the Good News that God would not let them go, they received baptism.
From that moment, all who’ve followed in the apostles’ steps recognize that, in his triumph over death through his glorious resurrection, Jesus picked up Ruth’s script and, forsaking all advantages and privileges, spoke powerful, hope filled words to a hurting world.
“Where you go, I will go, and your people will be my people.”
“Where you go, I will go, and your people shall be my people.” We do will to remember that these words speak to us nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ for it is always with a love that will not let us go that God holds us.
“What can separate us from the love of God?” asked another inspired preacher.
Nothing! Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
It’s upon this strong foundation, then, that God calls and equips us, through the Spirit’s work in our midst, to boldly, hopefully, and courageously love and serve others as we bear witness to God’s grace.
That’s why we pray these words before we get up from the Table,
Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others following the loving example of Jesus Christ, our Lord.We make this our prayer when we celebrate the Eucharist because the One with whom we commune in this Holy Meal, the One to whom and for whom we give thanks, is the One who promises to hold us for eternity, the same One who sends us out to the world to be known for the way we love, especially the way we love our poor, lonely, and forgotten neighbors.
“Where you go, I will go, and your people will be my people.”
Love—steadfast love—a love that will not let the other go, a love that will even sacrifice its own advantages to maintain that bond—that’s how Ruth loved Naomi, how God loves the world, and how Jesus loves the Church—the love in which the world hears Good News.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.