Pentecost from a new Angle.

Posted: May 19, 2021 in Uncategorized

Acts 2:1-4

Like a movie director, Luke, the one we traditionally claim as the author of Acts,
creates a scene with wind and fire. Flamboyant speech. Great drama. A Pentecost script full of symbolism which cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event does or does not lay behind this story.

But is Pentecost just about a ‘language’ game as charismatics argue or is it something more? Rex Hunt talks of a couple of articles which take the Pentecost story beyond this, into some social issues. One article was on the ecological crisis as a ‘spiritual problem.
The other was about the power and dignity, or the ‘spirit’ of a capital city. Two rather unlikely subjects to be associated with Pentecost perhaps.

The first was by a Lynn White, in what is now considered by same to be a famous article. White suggests that Christianity’s attack on so-called pagan religion effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. In fact, it replaced the belief that the sacred is in rivers and trees, with the doctrine that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.

White wrote that “By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (White 1967)

This suggests that the impact of Christianity’s teachings has tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God’s presence in natural things. And that God, in terms of traditional theism, is to be pictured as a sky-God. And in turn, human beings, as bearers of God’s image, are regarded essentially as ‘souls’ taking up temporary residence in their earthly bodies. Or to put it in the common idiom: God is against nature.

So, White says, in this sense the ecological crisis – global warming, irreversible ozone depletion, massive deforestation – is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. It is this he suggests because… certain Christian teachings have blunted our ability to experience co-belonging with other life forms. And this has rendered us unwilling to alter our self-destructive course and plot a new path toward sustainable living.

The second article was one about St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the 4th and early 5th centuries, who described the Festival of Pentecost as the ‘capital city of holy days’ and ‘the metropolis of the Christian year.’ While other cities may be larger, or more populated, or more fun… warmer even, Chrysostom argued they do not have the power or might or dignity of the capital city.

When we think of this in terms of our own capital city it takes on a more immediate context in a tv report talking about the Basil Spence architect of the Beehive in Wellington reminded me of the number of foreign embassies, and the attendance at Anzac services by dignitaries from many nations. It is a reminder that in many houses and mansions and offices there are people of quite a part of the inhabited world represented.

Where at each a different flag is unfurled and a different language spoken. In this capital city, there are many people of different ethnicities and tongues, many cultures celebrated, much art and music and food and clothing to please the tastes of all the families of the planet.

But returning to Chrysostom’s image, in the city of Pentecost no embassy is under siege, none has been shuttered or its families sent away by a secret order from NZ Govt. There are of course protesters at some seeking recognition for a cause or help but no front door has been vandalized or spray painted with insults or taunts, no refugee or boat person has been declared persona non grata without good reason.

In general, the Capital City is the place all places are meant to be. But we also know that city of Pentecost is not yet fully come. So, how is Pentecost moved beyond the ‘language’ game? Pentecost as living with, rather than against, nature. Pentecost as living in all the dignity and diversity of a capital city aware of the bigger picture.

Luke as storyteller, suggests something similar when he talks about “The spirit’ as the source of unity amid diversity. The Spirit does not eliminate diversity, but rather makes it possible to rejoice in it instead of fighting over it. Neither Greek nor Roman, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female… Neither Irish nor Mediterranean, neither European nor Maori,
neither straight nor gay… This too is a vision not yet achieved in practice.  Much as we would like it to be it is still a goal towards which we strive with greater or lesser success and indeed with greater or lesser effort.

Rex Hunt throws in another comment here that says; “Pentecost might be… understood as the nudging of God in our lives which can bring about an expanding experience of what life is really designed to be about.” (Goff.P&F Web site 2003)

I think that comment is perhaps the most important one in that it speaks of Pentecost not as an historical event when the church began, nor as a static event we can tie down to a time in our lives but rather suggests that Pentecost is a state of being, a Way of living. It is a bit of each day, or the initiation of a process of empowerment which can bring satisfaction to the divine in creation and in the city, and ultimately between us all.

I have been reading a new book by Ian Harris of Wellington titled Hand in Hand and Ian talks about the need to see the secular and the sacred as the same thing. He reminds us that it was Christianity that created the secular not as an opposition but rather as an evolutionary enhancement of a living faith. A Pentecost faith or a Pentecost Way which is a way of being aware of the sacred in every moment of life. Lloyd Geering talks of Religion as having to do with the meaning and purpose of one’s life and therefor is part of the human condition. This for me highlights one of the errors that is part of our time today and that is that Religion is being rejected as organised religion is being rejected. While religion has been blamed for many ills in the world today the rejection of it, I don’t think is helpful because of its part in the human condition. Maybe the renaming of it as spirituality will replace it in our language. The challenge will be how we justify the gathering as people as the Church which is basically a place of gathering for mutual support. Covid 19 has reminded us just how valuable that is.

If Lloyd is right and I think he is the human condition will enable what we have called the church to continue but it might look different than it does now. And that brings ne to another point which is that the future of the church, the future of that which we have named religion and the future of that which we have known as Christianity will survive into the future if we look of the Pentecost opportunity that arrives every day. The challenge we have is to put down the superstitions that have become part of out faith such as the need for a man to become God, a God to have sacrificed a son, and for the son’s death to have saved humankind. Those superstitions being beliefs and practices that have outlived the context in which they were appropriate. Not they were not wrong concepts but rather concepts that have not kept up with the context of evolutionary time and culture.

 In the 1700s said the rethinking of our creeds and doctrines in the light of the current context. We no longer think of the world in the same way. Our world is not a three-tier universe, it is no longer one where nature rules alone, we have seen our world from outer space, we are aware of the life and death of civilizations. Our world is a world of serendipitous creativity that we part participants in the creation of rather than animals that live on it. Fear has moved from a survival instinct to become a debilitating psychological burden. Faith has become something to defend and fight for rather than an enhancing way of living and loving wastefully. Hope has become something to be wished for as opposed to something that enriches and enhances the opportunity to participate in life.

Harris also reminds us of what Alexander Tytler said in the 1700s when he said that the average lifespan of the worlds greatest civilizations was about 200 years, during which nations had always progressed through the same sequence. From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage from courage to liberty from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from, selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence and from dependency back into bondage. What is significant in this picture is the role of a positive spirituality and also the role of a despondent spirituality. It could be said that we are somewhere around the apathy vs dependency stage as we weather the decline of religious adherence and the rise of regulations about behaviour, morality and practice.

What then would a positive religious view look like today? What would a Pentecost driven world look like today? Well maybe your guess is as good as mine but for me it might be a world where we might explore together the biblical stories again, this time looking for the key stories and themes that tell us why our world is like it is today including much of its art, literature and music. It might be by thinking through current ethical issues such as sexuality, medical choices, racism, the environment and the just war. It might be exploring ideas of religion and values such as does god exist and if not what then and if so, then how? And how do we understand evil and suffering? It might be introducing people to the phenomenology of religion including theism, atheism and ana-theism in relation to its living of one’s life. And it might be equipping people with ways of finding stillness, and ways of claiming individual space in a complex and busy world that is not just condemning it or escaping from it but rather valuing it and managing it. At the core of this might be world where positive engagement, calming tolerance and rich compassion might motivate a new inclusive and rich spiritual age of worth.

That possibility has to be worth celebrating does it not? Especially on a day when we see ‘red’!


Harris Ian Hand in Hand Cuba Press 2021

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