Matt Skinner: Pentecost: When Christians Dream

Please don't refer to Pentecost as "the birthday of the church." The day is much more interesting -- and risky -- than that.

Because Pentecost is a time for Christians to be reminded that we're a bunch of dreamers. All of us are, whether we prefer to worship with our hands at our sides (as I do) or with a little more fervor.

I'm not talking about individual "dreamers" who insist they've "got a gift" or claim some special access to God. I'm talking about communities of faith that discover they -- together -- can be a vehicle for manifesting God's vision for the world.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost brings the 50-day Easter season to a close. But it also points forward toward new beginnings, for it's when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the new horizons this opens up in the story of God's commitment to the world.

When the Acts of the Apostles (in chapter 2) describes the imparting of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' followers on Pentecost, dreams and visionary experiences are part of the discussion. These details make many of us nervous. But they should also make us expectant, eager to play a part in the emergence of God's hopes and dreams.

The biblical story goes like this: The Holy Spirit fills Jesus' followers and they begin speaking about "God's deeds of power" in other languages, which people visiting Jerusalem from regions all around recognize as their native tongues. The confused crowd asks, understandably, "What does this mean?"

Everything that follows in Acts 2 attempts to answer their question. The Apostle Peter kicks off the explanation with a speech, beginning in this way:

This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: "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, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." (Acts 2:16-18, NRSV)

There's lots more to Peter's speech, but I've stopped the quote there to keep this brief.

What Peter offers isn't an exact quote from Joel. Among other things, he (or, more likely, the author of Acts) adds extra emphasis to something Joel wrote about the Spirit of the Lord: it will lead people to prophesy.

"What does this turn of events mean?" the crowd wonders.

"What you see and hear today means God's Spirit is here," Peter insists. "Expect to hear prophecy, dreams and visions. From all of us. This could get weird." (OK, I've started paraphrasing in this paragraph.)

Words like "prophecy" and "visions" may evoke memories of wild-eyed doomsayers distributing leaflets in Times Square, late-night commercials promoting the Psychic Friends Network and other foolishness.

But Pentecost isn't about that kind of prophecy. I don't think Peter is saying God's Spirit gives people ability (or license) to see clearly into the future. He's more interested in saying that the Spirit helps us make sense of the present. Because that's what his whole Pentecost speech does: it offers an explanation of what God is making possible in the here and now. He's naming places and ways in which God is active or visible in the world now that Jesus has gone and the Spirit has arrived.

We can call what Peter is doing in Acts 2 "prophecy," insofar as Peter is interpreting the bells and whistles of that day and interpreting the more ordinary-looking work that lies ahead. He gives an explanation of the crowd's experience. It's a theological explanation, saying that the day's events point beyond themselves to suggest something about God and God's purposes. Yes, unusual stuff is afoot. But that's what happens when God shows up.

It's not just Peter. Drawing from Joel, he characterizes the community of Jesus' followers as a community of prophets. Male and female. Old and young. Slaves and freepersons. It's a community of meaning-makers. Interpreters. Dreamers.

What a scary thing to assert, that people might dare to speak about how events and circumstances could connect to God's desires. It can be downright dangerous. Probably everyone reading this can think of occasions where someone claimed God's authority or God's desire when making a stupid promise or justifying a bad idea.

The hazards of self-appointed or zealous prophets are obvious. As the book of Sirach (aka The Wisdom of Ben Sira aka Ecclesiasticus) warned, even without the aid of modern psychology, sometimes people's dreams are just projections of their own values and desires (34:3). Any act of prophecy (or any interpretation of either texts or circumstances) done without humility and ongoing openness is simply dogmatism.

But it's wrong to assess those risks and run away. Because there's an even greater mistake at the other extreme, when Christians, for the sake of caution or in the pursuit of respectability, totally disregard their prophetic vocation.

And so Sunday's Pentecost observances are more than a celebration of the past. They are not merely an end to Easter or a chance to launch summer programming. They are not opportunities for stoking nostalgia about the church's supposed glory days. Who needs those?

Pentecost is an invitation to dream. For when a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world.

Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what's possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. They help us see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach. Maybe I can find freedom from what binds me. Maybe there can be justice. Maybe I can make a difference. Maybe a person's value isn't determined by her income. Maybe the future of our economy or our society or our planet is not yet determined. Maybe God is here with me, even if my current struggles never go away.

The Christian faith has its roster of exceptional dreamers, who, like Jesus, insisted that God could make possible the things that other people couldn't see. The last century gave us Martin Luther King Jr.Dorothy DayFannie Lou HamerOscar Romero and so many others.

But dreams need not always be dramatic, and the prophetic task of describing how a new, God-given possibility is coming to life is not restricted to public figures with magnetic personalities. Remember, according to Acts 2, God promises the Spirit to "all flesh." It belongs to a whole community. And even when this community's dreams are smaller, more localized or slower to develop, they can still be revolutionary.

Christians will look back in time on Pentecost, as they should. But they'll also need to be looking at the present, dreaming with their eyes open and daring to consider where God may be found today.

[Originally posted on The Huffington Post, June 12, 2011. Used by permission.]