My Struggle with Pentecost as the Church's Vacation Home Not its Residence (Acts 2:1-21)
By Billy Honor
Pentecost is not a modern word.
In fact, it's fair to say that if it were not for its significance in Christian and Jewish history we contemporary folks would seldom, maybe never, utter the word "Pentecost".
Yet, here we are, 7 weeks after Easter, observing Pentecost (the Christian celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his Ascension) once again.
But what does Pentecost really mean for us today? And why should it even matter?
If I'm honest, I've personally struggled with the celebration of Pentecost for years. On the one hand, I'm completely in love with the New Testament Pentecost story of the Spirit falling on the post resurrection followers of Christ like a "mighty rushing wind" and filling them with power to experience sacred community in a new and spiritually electric way.
I'm in love with how according to the second chapter of Acts, the followers of Christ were all together on one accord with singleness of mind before the Spirit visited them. (Acts 2:1)
I'm in love with how the Spirit was so heavy upon them that they saw divine images and were able to speak to each other in languages they hadn't previously learned. (Acts 2: 3-11)
I'm in love with how one of the followers of Christ, named Peter, stood up and gave an impromptu sermon to the crowd about the Spirit moving among the young and old, the women and the men-basically, EVERYBODY! (Acts 2: 14-39)
Without question, I'm in love with this beautiful picture of a spiritually alive and unified humanity.
But despite all my love for the beautiful story of Pentecost, my struggle is that historically Pentecost is experienced much more as an occasion than it is as a lifestyle.
Pentecost as Visitation not a Dwelling Place
Most often Pentecost comes to us as a momentous Christian occasion of spiritual power, ethnic unity, gender equality, multi-generational comradery and immigrant hospitality. But then when the moment has passed it gives way to the more ignoble features of life and community like spiritual apathy, sexism, racial prejudice, ageism and xenophobia etc.
It's almost as though Pentecost is like the Church's vacation home but not the place where it actually resides. It's like the place where we retreat to remember our mission but it's not life as we intend to routinely live it.
For example, consider the story of the modern Pentecostal movement in the United States of America. It began in 1906 with the preaching of W.J. Seymour, a self-taught, traveling, African American, Holiness preacher. As the story goes, Seymour journeyed to Los Angeles and two weeks after arriving he started a prayer meeting that quickly grew into a large gathering of those seeking to experience the movement of the Spirit. Eventually this prayer meeting ignited a movement. Later named Pentecostalism, the movement placed special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism with the Holy Spirit as accounted in this week's passage.
The interesting thing about the early Pentecostal movement is that it was atypical insomuch as it was interracial and largely egalitarian. Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, and Asians were all drawn to the early Pentecostal movement and regularly worshipped and fellowshipped together without confusion. This was very significant, perhaps even miraculous, considering the fact that during this time, racial tension and separation in the United States was rapidly growing, not decreasing.
As society in general was burning with the fires of racial division, the early Pentecostal revival was burning with a different fire that seemed to bring people together rather than tear them a part. At one point this racial harmony was so distinct that one white preacher who observed the movement wrote in his diary that in Pentecostalism "the color line has been washed away in the blood."
But had it really?
Very quickly the racial harmony and egalitarian bliss of early Pentecostalism began to give way to familiar nagging problems like racial dissension and theological dispute. Many whites became disgusted with other whites worshipping with blacks and encouraged early Pentecostal whites to reject black leadership and interracial fellowship. This friction eventually ended up in the formation of a new denomination. The Assemblies of God was started by whites who no longer wanted to have credentials in the Church of God in Christ because it was a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination.
These social and theological conflicts among early 20th Pentecostals are just one example among many of how Christians have historically experienced the wonder of Pentecost, with all its spiritual vitality and social harmony, only to eventually fall back into patterns of social disunity and dispute. This Pentecost struggle is still alive and well today. Consider the recent controversy surrounding Joel Olsteen (televangelist and pastor of Lakewood church in Houston) being invited to preach at the Church of God in Christ's Holy Convocation (an annual gathering of over 40,000 black Pentecostals). In response to this invitation many black Pentecostals find themselves upset because they see the invitation of Olsteen, a white minister without any explicit public Pentecostal theological message, as not fit to preach at such a major Black Pentecostal gathering. Others argue that Olsteen's invitation is gesture of coming together and unity, which they think is a good example of true Pentecost.
Coming to Terms with the reality of Pentecost
This is my struggle with Pentecost. It seems more like a moment than movement. It feels more like an experience to visit not to live. But after years of struggling, I think I've come to realizations:
First, I've realized that Christianity is a journey of peaks and valleys, high points and low points. It is a journey of both the bitter and the sweet. Occasions like Pentecost, though sporadic, are sweet moments from the Divine Presence that make the bitter moments easier to endure.
I also realize that the story of Pentecost is not intended to be reenacted or recreated. It is a story meant to be remembered by the Church. Hopefully each time we return to the story, it becomes a communal guide for life and a judge to take account of whether we are being faithful to the cause of Christ.
I've grown to realize that Pentecost is not simply a Christian happening. At its best it is a portrait of a redeemed humanity in all of its fullness. Which means Pentecost moments provide a door for all to enter in, no matter if you are Christian, Jewish, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, immigrant, native, gay or straight.
Lastly, I've come to understand that Pentecost is about awe and mystery. It's not a story to be comprehended or a doctrine to be espoused. It is a tremendous mystery to be experienced. In this I find comfort, even as I long to see Pentecost become a way of life for the Church and not just an occasional moment.
1. What meaning does Pentecost have in the 21st century?
2. Read Peter's sermon to the crowd on the day of Pentecost. Consider who is named and who is not among the crowd. Consider this sermon in our context, who is not named that the Spirit is moving among today?
3. How can we make the spiritual vitality and social harmony more lasting in our Christian experiences and communities? What are the best examples of Pentecost today?
For Further Reading:
Blount, Brian, (General Editor), Felder, Cain Hope. Marin, Clarice J. and Powery, Emerson. (Associate Editors). True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Minneapolis: Forstress, 2007.
Willimon, William. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988.
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