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A meditation for Pentecost

May 13th, 2010 by isaac · 2 Comments

(The piece below is a revised version of my article that appeared in The Mennonite; I sent the editor my revisions a few days too late)

I believe in the Holy Spirit

“Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (Acts 2:2). Pentecost happened with a bang. Heaven came down to earth and blew through the room. This heavenly wind “filled the entire house where they were sitting” (v. 2).

While all of this is very exciting, the story dances on the edge of danger: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (v. 3). God’s fire isn’t something to be messed with. Remember what happened to Sodom! The people were inhospitable to strangers, to three foreigners, and God consumed the city with fire from heaven (Gen. 19).

That same fire came again at Pentecost: God’s fire, spectacular flames from heaven. Exhilaration filled the room and poured out into the streets. This wasn’t the first time divine fire excited the disciples. In Luke 9, Jesus and the disciples tried to pass through a Samaritan village. But the villagers refused. In response to their lack of hospitality, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to consume the people (Lk. 9:54)—just like Sodom and Gomorrah. The disciples wanted to use God’s heavenly fire to punish the Samaritans, but Jesus rebuked them. God’s fire is dangerous; Jesus won’t let the disciples use it.

On Pentecost these same flames came down from heaven, but this time God’s fire didn’t destroy anything. The fire didn’t punish inhospitable people. Instead, the divine flames created the church—a group of people set ablaze with God’s spirit of hospitality. With the fire came the Holy Spirit who enabled the disciples to speak in different languages. Visitors from all over the world heard the invitation of the gospel in their own languages. The author of Acts lists all the peoples and languages in order to display the expansiveness of the Spirit’s invitation: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome… everyone, Jews and Gentiles (Acts 2:9-11). Everyone is invited to join this movement of God. And that’s basically Peter’s interpretation of the Pentecostal event when he quotes the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”—notice how Joel says all flesh (v. 17). And we find the same emphasis at the end of Peter’s quotation of Joel: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”—again, notice how Joel says everyone (v. 21).

The Spirit of God led the followers of Jesus into a mode of communication that opened them up to everyone, to different people and different languages. Pentecost was a communication miracle. And the point of the miracle was an invitation. The Holy Spirit did not descend with power in order to provide a thrilling experience that came and went. Rather, the Spirit came with fire and enabled the followers to speak in different tongues so that everyone could hear the invitation of the gospel and join the fellowship of Christ. Pentecost was the miracle of communication that led to the miracle of communion: people came together, foreigners became family, strangers became friends.

Peter’s impromptu sermon for Pentecost bore profound fruit: “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…. All who believed were together and had all things in common…. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:41-46).

Speaking in tongues was only the beginning. Complete strangers started to hang out together. They devoted themselves to fellowship, to being with one another. People opened their homes for grassroots worship services—breaking bread, talking about Jesus, and praying. And they shared their property with anyone who was in need. The miracle of communication that happened on Pentecost birthed a miracle of communion. Yes, the rhythm of communion was a miracle because coming together always stretches us beyond our limits. Tensions quickly arise if we stay with the same group of people long enough. It’s usually easier to leave one table and find another where those frictions don’t exist—yet we quickly find news quarrels to take the place of the old! But we hear in Acts that the first church regularly ate and worshiped together, probably daily (v. 46)—they were committed to table fellowship. The Spirit of Pentecost formed communities of faithful fellowship, a way of life characterized by rhythms of eating and praying together, despite the tensions. Fidelity to the movement of the Spirit meant fidelity to gathering around the same tables, day after day, week after week, year after year.

Theologians like to come up with what they call “marks of the church.” They narrow down all of the things that go on at church and come up with a few essentials. Different churches have different lists. If I were to pretend to be a theologian and come up with the two most important marks of the church according to Acts 2, they would have to be prayer and food preparation. The church needs people who are always learning how to pray and always coming up with new recipes for good food to share. Church life is very much an earthy spirituality: make food and eat it with people, and pray about what’s going on in your life.

To remember Pentecost is to remember that heaven has come to earth, that Jesus is here, that the Spirit is on the move. To believe in the Holy Spirit is to rest into God’s heavenly presence at our tables of fellowship, and to let God transform the world through our earthy spirituality. We invite others to join us in prayer, which is how we learn the intimate language of God. And we make meals and commune together, which is how we let the Spirit weave our bodies together into the body of Christ. Praying and eating—these rhythms are the ongoing movement of the Holy Spirit, re-forming us into what we shall be: the beloved community of God, resting in God’s presence for eternity, eating at the heavenly banquet table. We eat and pray today with the same people we will eat and pray with for eternity. It’s the same banquet with the same host—Jesus Christ.

I grew up with a version of Christianity that talked about faith as if it was something that happened primarily in my head, a decision I made in my mind. It was very theoretical and rational—a faith for the intellect. But the story of Pentecost displays a kind of Christian belief and spirituality that happens to the whole body. For the disciples gathered in the upper room, their minds followed their feet. The mission of the Spirit played out in their bodies as they ran out the door and into the streets to share good news in languages that their minds did not comprehend. Pentecost happened to their bodies, not just a part of their heads or their hearts.

Faith in the Spirit of God involves everything we are and all that we have. Faith happens to us as we make food and eat together, as we break bread and share a cup, as we talk about Jesus and pray for one another, and as we come back to the table even after being offended. Faith happens to us when we let strangers who’ve heard the good news invade our houses of worship, disrupt any order we’ve established, and then invite them to come back the next time we meet! That is the shape of our faith: to let the rhythm of the Spirit take control, to reassemble as the body of Christ gathered around the table, because our house of worship is where God nourishes our souls, because this mess is what salvation feels like and what the heavenly banquet looks like. Pentecost is a vision of eternal life.

We are not a bunch of rationalists who believe that what’s in our heads will save us. Instead, we believe in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, God’s love made flesh in our midst. And to believe in this saving relationship is to let our minds follow our feet; we have to lean into this relationship, to slowly and patiently live into it, to let the rhythm of the Spirit move us into communion.

The story of Pentecost begins and ends with followers of Jesus assembled together, waiting… And the Spirit does come, and continues to arrive, bringing foreigners and strangers to eat and pray at our houses of worship. So we find more chairs, find some more bread, pull out a few more cups, and hand out more hymnals—and fix up a new recipe from More-with-Less. Nothing happens as we planned. It’s a mess. But that’s how it goes for people who hope for the Spirit of Pentecost.

Tags: church life · cooking · published · spirituality · theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mshedden // May 13, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    When I had class with Wilbert Shenk he argued that the missional church would both sing hymn and create them. That seemed like a very mennonite mark of the church. Where the spirit goes the singing goes.

  • 2 isaac // May 18, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Matt, thanks for the comment. I like the idea of creating new songs as a mark of the church, especially if we think of hymns as a way of praying together. An emphasis on singing also reminds me of the way we still still sing some of the hymns that the Anabaptists wrote and sang while in prison—the Ausbund is the oldest Christian songbook in continuous use:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ausbund