One Christmas many years ago, my father-in-law gave my mother-in-law the gift of a microwave oven. I’m pretty sure he meant well, but let’s just say that one didn’t go over great.

It was an interesting gift choice for any number of reasons, not the least of which is this: a gift that requires the recipient to do something can be complicated. The disciples definitely learned this in today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles.

It is, of course, the story of the first Christian Pentecost — read in churches all over the world on this eighth Sunday after Easter for a few thousand years now — the day on which God bestowed upon the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I refer to it as the first “Christian Pentecost” because this was a holiday in the Jewish tradition long before this. The Feast of Weeks (also known as Pentecost), which commemorates both the spring harvest and the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, is celebrated (per God’s command) on the fiftieth day after Passover.

In Christianity, Pentecost marks the appearance of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’s first disciples in Jerusalem (though it bears mentioning that these disciples also understood themselves to be observant Jews). 

Pentecost is arguably the third holiest day in the Christian calendar — Easter and Christmas being the obvious first and second. And yet we definitely don’t celebrate Pentecost in quite the same way as we do those other holidays. I mean I don’t plan to give anyone a Pentecost present or to fill anyone’s Pentecost basket with candy this year, do you? But what’s behind this relative lack of enthusiasm about Pentecost? There are three reasons for it, I think.

For starters, the Holy Spirit, who is clearly the star of this Pentecost story, is a lot tougher for us to wrap our minds around than Jesus is. Not that the idea of God coming to live among us as a first-century Jewish peasant, and then dying and being resurrected, isn’t difficult to comprehend, but Jesus was an actual person — he was born like we are, he lived and died just like we do.

Even when he returned after having been resurrected (which admittedly doesn’t happen every day) Jesus went through a whole lot of trouble to show his disciples that he was, in fact, a real human being. He told them to touch his wounds; he invited them to a fish fry on the beach. All of this serves to make Jesus (and the Christmas and Easter holidays on which we celebrate him) a bit more relatable.

In contrast, I dare say that not too many of us have encountered rushes of violent wind and tongues of fire from heaven, and so seeing the Holy Spirit depicted through such images can make it (and thus Pentecost) seem kind of distant and otherworldly.

Truth be told, though, the Holy Spirit shows up in our lives in ways that are not quite so over the top; the Spirit’s movement among us is often more like an inkling or a feeling than a loud voice; more like a soft, gentle breeze than a violent wind; more like a flickering candle than a raging inferno. And discerning that kind of presence requires ongoing attention and real effort on our part. The Spirit’s movement among us is a gift, for sure but it’s one that requires us to do some work — and, like I said earlier, a gift like that can be complicated. 

And so the second reason for people not getting all fired-up about Pentecost is that it’s a challenging day: it doesn’t present us with a challenge that lasts for just one day; what transpired that day challenges us always.

On Pentecost, we are reminded, in no uncertain terms, that we are called to go out and proclaim God’s presence in the world through all that we say and do. And Pentecost likely gets overlooked because we don’t want our holidays to be that difficult, because we don’t want the gifts we receive to require anything of us. On the surface Christmas and Easter seem so much simpler (even though they’re really not); we can come to church and sing “Come, let us adore him” or “Christ the Lord is risen today” and be on our merry way.

But Pentecost, not so much; it underscores the fact that our words and our songs, our thoughts and our prayers, in and of themselves, are not enough — we need to act too; I think we’ve all come to understand that at this point, haven’t we?

It would have been so easy for those first disciples just to hang out during the Festival of Weeks, reminiscing about their time with Jesus and reveling in the memories of all that they had experienced together. In fact, as our story begins, it seems as though they’re content to do exactly that — after all, as Luke tells us at the end of his version of the gospel, they’ve been sitting around there in the Upper Room for a while now.

But God is clearly having none of it. The blowing wind of the Holy Spirit literally forces them into the community, compelling them to get out there and work for the common good. Jesus is gone (at least for now, anyway) but his mission goes on.

They’ve been given the title of “Apostle,” but they’ve also incurred the responsibility that goes along with it. Truth be told, the “Chosen People” to whom God first gave the law had the same kind of responsibility. Pentecost underscores the idea that God’s work in the world never stops, and the fact that we are called to do it.

Which leads me to my last point about Pentecost — the timing of God’s challenges is sometimes inconvenient for us. In the church, today kicks off the lengthy period known as “Ordinary Time,” which can be a nice way of saying, “Let’s throw the church on cruise control for the summer and start up again in the fall.”

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Ordinary Time aligns pretty well with the beginning of vacation season. School’s out for summer, so why not church too? Admittedly, the liturgical calendar doesn’t have a whole lot going on until we get to Advent again in late fall.

But Pentecost reminds us that God has other plans – and that Ordinary Time can be anything but ordinary. As was the case with those very first disciples who were kicking back and enjoying a little bit of R&R when the Holy Spirit showed up to get them moving, we have to understand that being the church — the hands and heart of Christ in the world — means that there is always more for us to do.

But maybe, just maybe, we could actually look upon this opportunity with enthusiasm and joy. We can, like a young graduate, or a teacher finishing up another year, revel in all that we’ve accomplished thus far and look forward — with that complicated mix of excitement and fear that the unknown always brings — to what comes next.

We truly celebrate and honor the important moments in our lives, and all that has led up to them, with what we choose to do after them and in light of them  — with the ways in which we continue to rise to the challenge of doing God’s work in this world — a challenge that we are presented with every single day of our lives.

Because every end is also truly a beginning. The last days of spring are the first days of summer; the ends of school years are marked by graduations — also known as commencements —because they are the start of what comes next.

In his sermon to the Pentecost crowd, Peter reminds them to think big: “Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall have dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit,” he tells them. In other words, God is present for all and for always, so get out there and be bold.

We all need to stop and take a breath now and then, to pause and reflect, to gather our strength for dealing with what lies beyond the horizon. Even God took a day off, after all.

But we can’t ever stop dreaming about what God’s reign here on earth might be like, we can’t ever stop thinking about ways to bring it about, and we can’t ever stop working to make it a reality in our place and time.

And we can’t ever forget that God’s Holy Spirit is there with us always, strengthening and sustaining us along the way — each and every one of us.

This is what Pentecost is all about. May it be enough to light a fire under each and every one of us.