Pentecost: Behind the Fireworks
The Pentecost festival is the major event following the celebration of Easter. One of the traditional readings is the account in Acts where the Spirit descends in dramatic fashion on the disciples who are gathered in a house in Jerusalem. We are told that there was the sound like a violent wind that filled the house, tongues of fire settling on their heads, and just as suddenly a cacophony of noise emerged from each of them in the form of different languages they didn’t understand. What a picture! What fireworks! What a remarkable beginning to the birth of the Christian church!
It would be easy for us to shy away from this sort of emotional, dramatic expression of the Spirit’s presence as it seems to us a tad scary and so not us in mainline Christianity today. We usually reserve such emotive expressions in worship, such as speaking in tongues and outbursts of praise and worship, to those associated with the Pentecostal movement. In many ways this movement that began in the early part of the 20th century was the natural response to the head religion of the 18th and 19th centuries. Presbyterians, Anglicans, and to a lesser extent Methodists, had placed a great deal of emphasis on the intellectual content of the faith. Christianity was head knowlege.
Stanley Hauerwas, an ethicist from Duke University, found that Christians place far too much emphasis on correct belief. He says: Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian…but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable. In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, comments on the prevailing conversations that are going on all over North America on the demise of the Christian churches. We usually identify our present problems with bad music, mean spirited congregations, or a preoccupation with a maintenance model of ministry. What she rarely hears, she says, is the problem of the intellectualization of the faith. She thinks this is an even greater danger than all the others. Too much dry dusty theology makes for hungry and thirsty folk seeking soul food elsewhere.Pentecost, if it teaches us anything, surely is about spiritual vitality and fire in the belly of believers. So I want to ask us to focus on John’s less dramatic Pentecost. What does this quiet Pentecost of John’s Gospel teach us? While there are no fireworks and rushing wind, there is much to ponder here.
The disciples have locked themselves away in a house in Jerusalem. They are afraid. Their master who was dead has been resurrected and appeared to them. They simply don’t know what to do next. Suddenly Jesus appears in the room and gives a blessing of peace. He says to them: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21ff)The Message translates this as: “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
This coming of the Spirit has been anticipated throughout John’s gospel. John’s gospel introduced us to Jesus as the one who would baptize us with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). Jesus himself promised the woman at the well that faith in him would result in new life. He said: those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (John 4:14ff) This is surely a metaphor for the gift of the Spirit. In the long goodbye in John 14 through 17 Jesus speaks again and again of the coming Spirit. He promises: the Advocate who will come and be with them forever. She will be the spirit of truth (14:16ff). The Spirit of truth will come and teach them everything they need for their ministry (14: 26; 16:13). This Spirit of truth will come and testify of Jesus and will equip God’s people for their work (15:26).
We ought to notice that this gift of the Spirit, or if you like John’s Pentecost, is set in the context of sending. Just as God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to free it, so too God sends his followers into the world to do likewise. For this task God gifts the
Spirit to be our advocate, comforter, teacher, energizer, truth discerner and enabler. Or as our other reading from Corinthians reminds us, the Spirit has a wide influence on us. She provides: wise counsel, clear understanding, trust, healing, miracles, truth telling, and tongues, among others. And the body of Christ, the church, receives this wide variety of gifts in order to carry on what Jesus began in his earthly ministry.
It’s the last part of the promised Spirit that stumps most of us. Jesus says that if we forgive sins they will be forgiven. But those retained will not be released. What on earth does this mean? We have no problem with Jesus bestowing peace on us-Great! Or filling us with the Spirit-Great! Forgive or retain sins of others-Huh?
Perhaps it would be helpful if we set this promise in the setting of John’s entire Gospel. What is sin for John? Throughout John speaks of sin as unbelief. Sin is essentially unbelief. His followers, Jesus is teaching us, have been given their marching orders to reach out with the truth that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit enables us to bear witness to this truth in our lives with those we connect with in our daily lives. If they believe it they are set free. It might be better to say that if we share this truth with others and they believe it they are set free.
Jesus is not appointing the church as moral watchdogs of society. He also is not sending us out to decide who is in or out on the heavenly score sheet. Unbelief is the primary human dilemma in John. For sins to be retained is for John a tragedy, namely that people choose to remain estranged from God. Sin for John is not about moral failings, but a refusal to accept Jesus as God’s true Messiah and Lord. Sharing the truth about Jesus opens the possibility for people to be set free or released from this sin. Failure to share this story and truth will be to have our friends and neighbours retain their rebellion and unbelief. So the church that fails to share Christ means we fail our basic responsibility.
And of course this seems even more complicated a task in our multi-faith, multi-cultural society of today. What do we say to Muslims, to Buddhists, to Jews, to Hindus, to atheists, to agnostics? Jesus calls us to share the story of his life, death and resurrection. We are asked to share what is true for us; what has faith in God done in our lives? What effect has our faith in the claims of this Jesus done for us personally?
As we said at the beginning, Christianity is not merely about ticking off the boxes of what we believe. It’s not merely or perhaps not at all about getting our heads around the basic tenants of the faith. Christian faith certainly includes the mind and it’s wrestling with the teachings of the church. But if it is reduced to a merely intellectual assent to the teaching then we may have missed the Spirit’s influence. The Spirit within brings life and passion and an emotional response to the truth of Jesus. The Spirit transformed these folks on Pentecost. It is the experience of the Spirit that these believers had that day that became the foundation of the church. Jesus’ presence is not longer merely a memory in their minds. He is a living, breathing presence by virtue of the Spirit within each of them. He is alive in them and they can’t avoid living out that inner experience.
This is the foundation of the promise that if we forgive the sins (unbelief) of others they will be forgiven. But should we neglect or ignore our calling to share the truth about Jesus then folks around us will be trapped in their sins (unbelief). My sense is that without setting ourselves up as triumphant and superior to other faiths, we can share this story as the True story God wants the entire human family to know and experience. It is what Jesus came into the world to achieve, to save the world. God’s mission is global. It’s a message for all the family on earth, regardless of what their cultural, religious or traditional backgrounds may be.