Pentecost, What, is it?

Posted: May 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Pentecost, What, is it?

What ‘Pentecost’ is, is a script full of symbolism which just cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event may or may not lay behind this story. Wind and flames and a cacophony of languages! Flamboyant speech! Great drama! Some claim it as the birthday of the church!

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  As an opening sentence for us in the time of Covid-19, is a bit ironic. In a literal sense, many of us are still isolating to a degree. Or at least taking proximity caution which makes it not prudent for us to be “together in one place.”  Even as we begin to gather again it still feels difficult to contemplate togetherness — much less celebrate a great feast day like Pentecost — in this context. 

But in another sense, we are in one place.  We are in a place of vulnerability and grief remembering the loss of lives that have taken place and the lives still being lost around the world. We are in a sense together in our uncertainty.  Together in our loss.  Together in our hopes and fears.  Across all sorts of distances — geographical, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic — we are bound together as one people, one humanity, one planet, still facing a common threat that knows no borders.  Like the disciples in our Gospel reading for this week, we are huddled together behind locked doors, waiting for Jesus to come among us and say, “Peace be with you.”  Waiting for him to breathe on us.  Waiting for him to speak the words we need so desperately: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” was a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai.  In the New Testament Pentecost story Luke tells, the Holy Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus’s resurrection.  The Spirit empowered them to testify to God’s saving work, emboldened the apostle Peter to preach to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts from around the known world in one day.  For many Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church.

In Numbers 11 we read that Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

The ideas behind the New Testament Pentecost have some traditional roots within Judaism. What is common is that the very different biblical stories of the first Pentecost experience, are told in the most expansive and descriptive ways imaginable. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call Luke, the accepted author of The Acts of the Apostles, is dramatic. A heavenly sound like that of a rushing wind. Descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame. Patterns of transformed speech allowing everyone to hear what was being said in all kinds of languages. A moment of conversion resulting in thousands of people being added to a tiny community of faith. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call John, is personal.

The Spirit of God brooding in the hearts and minds of people as it brooded over the face of waters in the story of creation. What storyteller Luke describes as happening over 50 days, storyteller John suggests it all happened on the same day! And we should not try to combine or debase them into some simple chronological event. Ever since the so-called first Pentecost, this day has been regarded as a significant moment in the life of the church, even though we know little about the movement becoming that which we know as church.

The story Luke describes is a fantastical one, full of details that challenge the imagination.  Tongues of fire.  Rushing wind.  Bold preaching.  Mass baptism.  But at its heart, the Pentecost story is not about spectacle and drama.  It’s about the socially driven desire for common community awareness transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into a way of being.  It’s about the disruption and disorienting of humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us.  It’s about human agency awakening to another way of being and doing, carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbour. Pentecost day is the potential we meet in any and every day.

Let’s for a moment, think back to our own Sunday School days. Some of us if not many of us will have had what we know as a Pentecost experience and along with that will have gone what we were taught about the Spirit of God. Some of us were taught that the emblem of the Spirit of God is the Dove. Indeed, the dove of peace. My own personal challenge to the use of this emblem was when I found the family crest to have a white dove with an olive branch in its beak on a green mound and that the family motto was La Paix (The Peace). Another was when the Uniting Church in Australia chose the descending whit dove as its emblem, believing that this new church was a Pentecost church. They also included the flames on the UCA emblem.

I did wonder if they were Canterbury fans as the colours are Red White and Black.

The significance of the Dove is quite strong in that many church bulletins covers also seem to think the dove is the right emblem or symbol for Pentecost…The “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit is popular and after all, there is much to be said for the dove. Rumour has it, it was a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great flood.

The Spirit of God also descends “like a dove” upon Jesus at his baptism, according to Luke’s gospel story. Traditionally a nice white dove suggests innocence, purity and peace.

And in medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. It is also said that they discontinued that practice when the doves rained down on the congregation more than light and grace!

We see the dove as gentle, graceful, and seductive, but that, according to storyteller William Bausch, is its limitation. It’s too sweet and sentimental and, finally, wrong’ (Bausch 1998:474).

Recent legend has it the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost emblems. It has been claimed (and disputed I might add) that in old Celtic traditions the Holy Spirit was not represented as a white dove – tame and pure – but by a wild goose. Geese are not controllable.  They make a lot of noise. And have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. Geese, fly faster in a flock than on their own. And they make excellent ‘guard dogs. Ian Bradley, former lecturer in practical theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, might be historically accurate when he says he can’t find any evidence to substantiate such a tradition in Celtic folklore beyond the creative imagination of George Macleod of Iona fame…

However, if experience has anything to say it could be that the Spirit of God is like a ‘wild goose’ after all. It comes not in quiet conformity but demanding to be heard. Its song is not sweet to many. It drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. It shouts a truth many with power would rather not hear. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.

As Patricia de Jong has suggested: “St Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day.  But St Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love – not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ”.  (de Jong/FCC Berkeley Web site, 2005)

Pentecost is the wild goose of the whistle blower, the meals-on-wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the protester, and those seeking welfare and education reform, and employment opportunities for all. Today in the throws of Covid-19 it is likely that Pentecost as wild goose is demanding a new way of being, a way of compassion, understanding and goodness.

It is not surprising, then, that as we gather to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, our biblical readings have nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace, associated with the Spirit as dove. But on the contrary, “this Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticizes the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe]”.  (O’Murchu 2005:96)

So, in this time of evolving Covid-19 let us make a bold claim. Let us claim that the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place where we are. Let us then continue to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically, so that we might reflect the challenging and unique diversity of Serendipitous Creativity God in the world. Let us also celebrate the Spirit of play and wonder in this place as we celebrate together, care for one another, push old theological boundaries, and go about the life of this community.

And finally, let us continue to embrace the dreams and visions of the future which we believe makes this place both unique and important. We could rest in nostalgia and our past, especially our past. We could also approach the realities of planning for a new beginning, believing that Pentecost is something more than a so-called past event.

It is the story of God’s continuing present-ness experienced again and again. The amazing story of people coming to awareness through reflection on the life of Jesus that the same Spirit that moved in him moved in them.”  (Morwood 2003:84)

Remember also the place of ‘the plural’ in the stories. It is not ‘incarnate’ in just one person, but becoming incarnate in us as community. Pentecost is as people dream dreams and see a vision of justice and compassion in the world. Serendipitous Creativity God with us, Our God is present now, for us, Our God is in our humanity and our God is in us. We are Co-creators with Serendipitous Creativity God living, involving and engaging us in being on the Way toward being fully human.

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