Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Western version of the ancient liturgical calendar in Christianity. (In Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecost is NEXT Sunday.) The Believers’ Church/Free Church tradition which includes my own Baptist heritage is not big on liturgical calendars, but I find that if Christians do not shape themselves by theological events as we move through time and space, then we will shape ourselves by secular ones (e.g., churches which celebrate nationalist or military-related holidays in their home countries–which have the effect of reducing the God of All Nations to a tribal deity).
When the Day of Pentecost came, they [i.e., the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now, there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in their own language. Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia [probably meaning the Roman province called Asia–roughly today’s Asia Minor], Phrygia, and Pamphilia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism) ; Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked each other, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them, saying, “They have had too much wine!”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem! Let me explain this to you–listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk as you suppose! It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams;
Even on my bond-slaves, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious Day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowlege; and you, with the help of wicked men, did put him to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. . . . [Skipping the rest of Peter’s Semon]
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–all whom the Lord our God will call.” [Acts 2: 1-39 NIV]
Differing groups of Christians put the emphasis of this day (and Acts 2) in differing places–all with good basis in the text:
Evangelists and missionaries stress the global mission of Christianity that began at Pentecost. From the approximately 3000 who were saved that day to the numbers added daily that followed.
Some emphasize Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church,” i.e., when the broken followers of Jesus of Nazareth became a distinct entity called the church–even though not yet called “Christians.”
Those who stress the rootedness of Christianity in Judaism point out that this came on Pentecost (the 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection) during the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks”) which celebrates the giving of the Torah from God to Moses and is commemorated 50 days after the Exodus. (This is why Jews from throughout the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem.)
Those who put extra emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., “Pentecostals and Charismatics”) focus on the speaking in tongues.
Eastern Orthodox and Holiness groups focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit as empowering to new lives of faithful discipleship.
Liberation theologians focus on the breakdown of barriers between various racial and ethnic groups and classes (bond and free) and even the healing of ageism and generation gaps.
Feminist theologians focus on the “sons and daughters” and “both men and women” –the equality in Spirit-guided service to God predicted by Joel and proclaimed by Peter as happening with this outpouring of the Spirit.
Trinitarians focus on the way the Spirit is given by God the Father and bears witness to the salvific work of Christ the Son.
Those who concentrate on small group formation for discipleship note that the empowerment of the Spirit came when the disciples were gathered all together and the continuing empowerment took place in continued daily breaking of bread together, prayer, and attention to the apostle’s teaching (today, Bible Study).
There are doubtless other emphases. All that I have mentioned are legitimately rooted in this day. I think any one emphasis without the others is unbalanced.
Happy Pentecost Sunday. And, to Jewish friends, Happy Shavuot!
Since this is Pentecost Sunday, I’ll take a brief moment to plug a book by one of my teachers. Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit (Judson Press, 2003). Baptists are not well known for writing about the Holy Spirit, especially since the rise of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement, both of which most Baptists perceived as threats and rivals. Here is a pastoral theology of the Spirit and the community of God in a feminist perspective by the President and Professor of Theology, Worship, Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kansas. Suitable for church studies, there is also plenty of meat here for serious scholars.
From Rabanus Maurus (776-856), German Benedictine Monk, comes this widely used hymn:
Come, Creator Spirit!
Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.
O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.
Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God’s hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.
Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o’erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.
Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.
Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.
Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.
In Genesis 11: 1-9, we have the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. If Babel was Babylon, then the sin in building this tower “unto the heavens” was not merely human pride (although clearly that), but domination. In Babel, as in all empires, we have a false attempt at human unity–a unity through the domination of all peoples by a single nation, a single language, a single ideology. In our day, this imperial vision is described by the social theorist Benjamin Barber as “McWorld.” (He calls tribalist revolts against McWorld globalism “jihad,” and says that both are death to democracy. I leave experts on Islam and/or globalization to decide whether Barber has chosen the correct symbols to describe these twin destructive forces. I am here just concerned to capture the economic imperialism of “globalization from above” represented by his term “McWorld.”) Babel is the universalism of an imperial meta-narrative that steamrolls into oblivion all suppressed particularities, local knowledges, ways of life, tongues. God confuses the languages to end such false unity, but the result are thousands of warring groups failing to hear one another. From the ashes of all imperial dreams comes confusion, chaos.
In Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born as a subversion of Babel’s curse. Acts 2:1-21 tells a story not just of a miracle of speaking, but one of hearing. The gospel offers the world a true unity–a unity in which particularities are still preserved: The multitudes do not hear the gospel in some miraculous Esperanto, but each in his or her own language and dialect, even though the speakers all continue to speak Aramaic with Galilean accents.
There are no “Christian nations.” God does not “save the Queen” of any particular people over others. There are no holy commonwealths or holy empires, Roman or otherwise. God does not “bless America” without blessing all other peoples. Biblical Israel was the Elect Nation of God, the Chosen Nation, but only in order to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all peoples. In Christ, the Elect One, the Messiah of God, we have no more chosen peoples, but God calling out a new people “from among every tribe, nation, tongue and people,” Rev. 7:9. The answer to the confusion of tongues, of warring tribalisms, is not empire, but Pentecost.
The Church is born with the mighty wind of the Spirit and is gifted to speak in new tongues: tongues of peace, tongues of unity. But we must be gifted also to listen, to learn from all localities, all particularities. In baptism, we put on Christ and therefore there is no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and free, no male and female, but oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:27-28) Our particularities are relativized, but not destroyed. In listening to the local stories of peoples steamrollered in globalisms, in hearing wisdom in unexpected places, in listening even to our enemies, then we listen to what the Spirit is telling the churches–and that fresh wind gives us tongues of fire.