Pentecost Goes Like This

For lots of enlightened, sensible Christians, Pentecost is like the crazy uncle: he can tell some real barn-burner stories, but you sure as heck want him out of sight anytime company’s over. It’s easy to see why we’ve arrived here, with Acts’ wild images of the holy tempest blowing and the fire dancing on heads, not to mention the zany circus show you land on with late-night televangelists.

However, Pentecost tells us the story of how Jesus’ promise to bring heaven to earth is happening now, right in front of us. The Holy Spirit’s wind arrived “from heaven,” and it blew right past all the inhibitions, all the religious resistance. God decided it was time to send a shockwave of mercy, hope and renewal; and so the Spirit came. And life exploded. Grace erupted. In a matter of hours, those who’d been sworn enemies were locking arms, those who’d been rejected were welcomed like long lost family, those who didn’t have two pennies to their name were all of the sudden eating like kings. When Heaven arrives on earth, it can look lots of different ways, but it always looks at least something like this.

Pentecost: Absence and Creation

Pentecost by Jan Richardson
Jan Richardson

If we want to hear what's on another's heart, we'll have to shut up every now and then. If we are to receive, there has to be some empty space within us that is able to receive. Miska has been studying the Enneagram, an ancient way of describing our unique gifts and seductions. Miska tells me one of my perennial temptations is to be consumed with my inner thoughts, to be so stuffed with my ideas, with myself, that there is no space for others. It is true of my narcissistic self as it is true for all of us: something has to be lost in order for something to be found.

Last week, we walked through Jesus' ascension, that odd moment where Jesus returned to the Father. The way we imagine this story, either with an abracadabra and vanishing poof or with Jesus shooting into the Galilean sky like a Tomahawk missile, it's hard to be anything other than perplexed or embarrassed about the whole event. Jesus' ascension doesn't get much play because for the life of us we can't imagine why it happened. Whatever else, we think it must have been a sad day. Jesus was here, and then he wasn't. A cruel joke to rise from the dead only to disappear again. Of course, this wasn't the disciples reaction at all. After Jesus ascended to the Father, the Scriptures tell us that the disciples returned to town filled with joy, overwhelmed with hope and possibility. 

Jesus told the disciples that it would be good for them if he departed because when he did, the Spirit would come. And the Spirit would be everywhere, in every corner, in every heart. Jesus would have to be absent in one way in order for Jesus to be present in a pervasive and powerful new way. So the disciples gathered to await Pentecost, to await this powerful gift of God's Spirit. They felt the absence, but they eagerly anticipated the new reality God would soon create. 

With the disciples, we know the absence, even as we anticipate new creation. In the Christian year, Pentecost arrives Sunday. But Pentecost also arrives every moment. The invitation of Pentecost is to allow for the absence, for the undoing, for the emptying. And then, receiving the life God brings into that void, cooperate with God by unleashing our energy toward creative life.

Absence then creation is God's tandem maneuver. Creator-God moved into the earth's formless void and, with words that drop life like seeds, spoke our very existence into being. God moved into the dark empty that was Israel's Egypt and, from that barren sand, created a home, a place of belonging. Jesus surrendered to – and then erupted out of – the vast void of death. In other words, if you are in a wasteland, do not despair. Rather, hold on to your hat and your seat because these are exactly the places where God sends the Spirit. And where the Spirit goes, life and creation erupt.

God is, if anything, a creator, sculpting new beauty out of old and discarded fragments. This is why artists have so much to teach us. This is also why all of us are, in some form, artists. 

When you give your people your Spirit, life is created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
{Psalm 104.31}

We’re All Pentecostals

For most churches, last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, the day 50 days after Easter when we celebrate that God’s Spirit has come to us, that God’s act of redemption has broken free in the world. The days of the old order are numbered; a new world comes.

I grew up with a poor stereotype of Pentecostals. Pentecostals were the folks with bad hair styles and large broods of kids. They spouted crazy noises and did insane things like pull snakes out of boxes and dance with them, daring them to bite because neither scorpions nor vipers could harm the Holy Spirit-smitten child of God. Of course, they had stereotypes of us too. We were the folks who considered drums to be devil-inspired and who preached on the evils of mixed bathing (google it), believing the mere sight of a woman’s bare thigh might induce pregnancy.

The doctrinal turf-wars between our respective churches were nasty. The Pentecostals said (so I heard) that we weren’t filled with the Holy Ghost because we hadn’t spoken in tongues or performed signs and wonders (and if any of those signs and wonders were linked with snakes, I preferred to not be filled). We, returning the volley, said these so-called signs and wonders and strange tongues were signs they had indeed been filled – by demons. This was scary stuff for a kid who didn’t appreciate snakes or demons but who did appreciate several of the pentecostal girls.

You wouldn’t have guessed it by us, but the prime signal of the Spirit in Acts was unity. Everyone heard God’s good news in their own language – but they heard it together. Undoing the judgment of Babel where language separated the nations, God’s Spirit now used language to bring the nations together again. This was the first visible act of God’s promised New Creation, the remaking of the world through the power of the risen Christ. And, as Peter preached, this was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy, where old and young, women and men, slaves and free, would all be brought together by God’s Spirit.

But the Pentecostals had demons. And we were faithless. And those girls were out of bounds. We have a knack for taking a good thing and mucking it up.

I find it rather marvelous that the Spirit used language, words, as the raw material for God’s first strokes of new creation. Of course. Language shapes our hopes and our fears. Language communicates what we love and what we desire. Language opens up new worlds. Language helps us see and understand. There is a reason Guttenberg changed the world with a printing press. There is a reason Dostoevsky or Charlotte Bronte or John Grisham or Louis L’Amour or Anne Lamott capture your attention and expand your imagination. There is a reason why early iterations of the healthcare debate changed as soon as medical review boards became known as “death panels.” Language creates new realities.

We need a new language. We need a new imagination. We need to replace fear with trust, shame with freedom, cynicism with hope, distance with unity. We need God’s Spirit. Thankfully, we’re all pentecostals.