Pentecost Sunday — which the Wesleys would also know as “Whitsunday” — is celebrated as the time of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church. Both are important, as long as it is remembered that it is the Holy Spirit who brings the church into existence.
It is not that the Holy Spirit had been absent prior to Pentecost. Kings, prophets and other leaders had been anointed by the Spirit in the Old Testament. But the promise of Pentecost was different: Citing the prophet Joel, Peter proclaims to the Pentecost crowd “In the last days it will be God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17) With Pentecost the Holy Spirit is given not just to some but to all of God’s people.
What we often miss in thinking about Pentecost is that Jesus came not only to die for our sins and defeat evil and death but to give us the Spirit. John the Baptist had proclaimed that there is “one who is more powerful than I that is coming” who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) Commenting on this verse, John Wesley says “He shall fill you with the Holy Ghost, inflaming your hearts with that fire of love which many waters cannot quench. And this was done, even with a visible appearance of fire, on the day of Pentecost.”
Jesus himself was baptized and led by the Spirit throughout his ministry. He then promised his disciples that although he would be gone, they would receive power illumination, teaching, and guidance through the Holy Spirit who is to come. And even after he had ascended to the Father, Jesus could promise to still be with them through the Spirit.
It could be said that Pentecost is also the birthday of Christian witness. Those baptized by the Spirit, who Paul calls the body of Christ, continue to do the ministry of Jesus, only now proclaiming him as the crucified and risen Savior and Lord. Throughout the book of Acts we see the Spirit empowering and leading the church as it spreads the message of good news throughout the Roman Empire.
Wesley recognized that what gave that message credibility was the witness of the church itself in its life and ministry. He believed the marks of a Spirit-baptized church was that its members were either seeking holiness or growing in holiness; that is either seeking to have their hearts renewed in love or growing in love for God and neighbor. Others then can see in the church itself something of the new life that the gospel promises.
This Pentecost may we pray with Charles Wesley to receive that love afresh:
Come, Holy Ghost my heart inspire,
Attest that I am born again!
Come, and baptize me now with fire,
Or all Thy former gifts are vain
I cannot rest in sin forgiven;
Where is the earnest of my heaven?
Where the Indubitable seal
That ascertains the kingdom mine?
The powerful stamp I long to feel,
The signature of Love Divine:
O’ shed it in my heart abroad,
Fulness of love, of heaven, of God!