Pentecost, Then and Now Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. And while it is a day that holds great significance for me, it remains one of the more misunderstood Christian traditions. For instance, some will say that Pentecost is the Church’s birthday. No. It is unlikely that a single miraculous […]
Pentecost, Then and Now
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. And while it is a day that holds great significance for me, it remains one of the more misunderstood Christian traditions.
For instance, some will say that Pentecost is the Church’s birthday.
It is unlikely that a single miraculous moment is what launched the church as a movement. And while Luke writes in the Book of Acts that the church got a jump start in a dramatic and spectacular way, John, in his gospel, imagines a much calmer and more intimate infusion of spirit into the followers of Christ. John imagines the resurrected Christ showing up to a handful of followers and breathing on them, saying, “Receive the holy Spirit.” But Luke imagines a crowded, noisy room where people are so unruly they are thought to be drunk. But neither Luke’s version nor John’s was the first experience of spirit and neither story literally marks the first day of the organized church.
I once heard a priest say that Pentecost was the debut of the holy Spirit.
The whole spirit of God, or infinite Presence of God, or omnipresent Power of God wasn’t experienced for the first time on Pentecost. The psalmist prays to remain in contact with God’s holy spirit, and the stories of Jesus’ baptism shows the spirit descending on Jesus and then leading him into the desert. The younger of our two creation myths has the spirit hovering over the chaotic, primordial waters of creation. The energy of Life is eternal and was certainly experienced before this one day.
Another misunderstanding is that the story is about bizarre events.
The point of Pentecost isn’t indoor wind, floating flames, or miraculous linguistics. These are clearly metaphors and not literal occurrences.
The text clearly uses similes. Luke says there was a sound LIKE a rushing wind; the sound was apparently the noisy din of the crowd. They saw something like, or what seemed to be flames (perhaps like seeing a light bulb go on over someone’s head when they get a profound idea or moment of clarity…there’s not really a light bulb, but we do see someone lighting up with a new thought).
The point of the windy and fiery metaphors is the passion and commitment of early church leaders, not the imaginative way Luke tells the story of their energy (wind), passion (fire), and willingness to speak in ways that will help people embrace hope in their own context (tongues).
Remember, explanation is not experience. We have powerful experiences of Spirit that demand that we use big language in order to communicate the impact of the experience. So, an escape from slavery generates stories of waters parting and swallowing up the imperial forces that follow. Of course, one must doubt that such a thing literally happened; what is more likely is that the Hebrews escaping Egypt were simply afraid that they would be followed, and when they weren’t, in their relief they imagined God actually drowned their oppressors.
Or, some scholars have surmised that the Hebrews had enough of a head start that they were able to cross a shallow sea of reeds (mistranslated as Red Sea) and the Egyptians crossed at a deeper part and got bogged down and stuck, thus ending the pursuit. But either way, gravity defying waters magically allowing passage for one group and viciously drowning another is simply not believable to 21st century minds.
That the story isn’t factual doesn’t mean it isn’t important. The truth is that when we feel trapped, an internal impulse causes us to seek a way out of or through the difficulty, and once we experience healing or freedom, we want to celebrate. Our change of experience may feel like a miracle, and to communicate the feeling we use the language of miracles, and if the story is retold continuously, the story may grow in the retelling.
The metaphors, idioms, and euphemisms we choose to tell people about our profound spiritual insights and breakthroughs might distract from what really occurred if people took them too literally.
Being in a pickle has nothing to do with cucumbers and vinegar,
raining cats and dogs has nothing to do with animals,
being between a rock and hard place has nothing to with geography or geology,
and batty may have nothing to do with actual bats.
Likewise, in the bible when we see snakes and donkeys talking, floating zoos, a prophet taking up residence in a fish, and the spirit showing up “like” a wind or “like” a dove, we reasonably enough look for meaning beyond literalism.
And while I don’t believe Luke’s account in Acts is really about mystical experiences, that doesn’t discount mystical experiences for those who have had them. The Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians speaks clearly about mystical experiences they were having, but he also urged them to not make too much of them. Let them serve you if you have them, but don’t make yourself a servant of them. But, again, as meaningful as mystical experiences may be for some people (like the Corinthians), that is not what’s happening in Luke’s Pentecost narrative.
Also, remember that Pentecost didn’t “just happen”…it was already an established Jewish holiday. Pentecost is a Greek derived word meaning 50th day. We celebrate it 50 days after Easter, but in Judaism, Pentecost is the 50th day after Passover. In Judaism Pentecost is more often called Shavuot and according to tradition, Shavuot was the day the Torah was given to Moses.
AND THAT is what is happening in Acts. Luke is taking a known festival and is recasting it. Luke speaks a language people know (Judaism) in a new way (new tongue), recasting it as a launching pad for a renewed movement finding its second “wind” and internal “fire” after the death of Jesus. It isn’t about magic and miracles and ecclesiastical drama; it is about taking an old tradition and infusing it with new meaning for a new day for new people to accomplish a new mission.
Luke takes the tradition of receiving sacred texts 50 days after Passover and reworks it to be a new movement sharing a new message 50 days after Jesus’ execution, and Luke may actually be writing as late as 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. I love the literary symmetry of the bible.
We progressive Christians follow in Luke’s footsteps today. We take old traditions and infuse them with new meaning so that they can be relevant for a new age and for new people. We take ancient texts and rituals and recast them for the 21st century. We have a different cosmology, a different understanding of science, a difference experience of medicine, a different psychological inheritance, and so rather than pretending we live in a world that was thought to be flat, we reshape and redefine the traditions in light of what we know and of how we experience reality. We speak in new tongues, using the religious language people have inherited, but in a way that speaks to their 21st century lives. That is what Luke was doing, and that is what he imagined the church leadership doing just weeks after Jesus’ death. And by doing that, the young church attracted new people daily.
Finally, remember that first century Christians hoped for an imminent return of Christ, which never happened.
The Apostle Paul and the gospel writer Mark insisted it would happen almost immediately.
The gospel writer Matthew assured his readers that it would happen but no one could know when.
Luke spins the matter differently, suggesting that the Spirit infused the early church with Christ-Life, with a fresh anointing (Christing), making the Church the resurrected and returned Body of Christ. The Church (us) is Christ in the world…returned, and still healing, teaching, giving hope.
That’s why Pentecost is important for us: it’s a reminder that our hands are God’s hands, that what God does for us, God does through us, and that our gifts, presence, and faithfulness is what can change the world. We are the 21st century Pentecost, and our time, like Luke’s, still needs it.
We are Christ raising up same-gender loving people.
We are Christ raising up transgender people.
We are Christ raising up those who grieve.
We are Christ raising up those who have suffered injustice.
We are Christ reminding the world that every person has sacred value, that every person is a child of God, that every person is God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
It’s a new language, but people can hear it in their own context and understand it if we will faithfully proclaim it.
And we can, and we must, and we will. This is our mission and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
Christ in me fills me with hope.
Christ through me blesses the world.
Christ expressing as me is joyous, wise and serene.