Thinking About Pentecost

We have tendencies to compartmentalize, tendencies to keep things in places where they are easy to control or keep track of. We do this with the things of heaven and the things of earth. We are practiced at keeping heavenly things out of the details of earth.

Acts chapter two disagrees with this theory as heaven spills out over the earth. It comes down like fire.  Fire is dangerous, still we are willing to use it. We are quite ok with fire as long as we can use it to our advantage. It’s not much different talking about God. God is dangerous, still we are willing to use God. We are quite ok with God as long as we can use Him to our advantage. 

If we are able to keep fire where it belongs, like in a fireplace, we can safely deal with it. If we can keep God inside some religious theory, we can convince ourselves He is safe to deal with. But on Pentecost Sunday, the fire got loose and did not stay where it could be controlled. It’s as if the fire left the fireplace and starts to light up the rest of the house. 

We keep trying to turn God into something safe to work with. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk much about Pentecost. We keep trying to put the fire back into the fireplace. We keep trying to put God someplace we can control Him. We keep trying to act as if heaven didn’t spill out on the earth. 

We sometimes try to tell ourselves that Pentecost is a wake-up call, a mini-revival where sluggish believers become full of the Spirit. The thing is, that doesn’t really fit the story the New Testament seems to be telling. In that story, Pentecost is more like the evidence that the kingdom of God is in play and it is in play “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The First Day

Along the west shore of the Susquehanna River, tucked between the Juniata and Sherman’s Creek, almost hidden in the shadow of Cove Mountain, lays the borough of Duncannon. This is where you will find me on the first day of the week. There I gather with others of a similar mind about what has taken place on this day.

Genesis starts off from the beginning telling us how eventful the first day was. We go from “darkness was over the surface of the waters” to “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Needless to say, this move from darkness to light is a significant one.

Perhaps no day has ever been more eventful than one described by the Gospel. John takes us from “they saw that He was already dead” to “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” to “on that day, the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood in their midst.” At the risk of understatement, it is quite a move from death to life.

We are reminded again of the unpredictability of the first day when Acts reports that people “from every nation” began to “hear in our own language.” Again, just to highlight the obvious. It is quite a move from isolation and division to community.

So we gather on this day and in this place with expectation. We realize that surprise is always a possibility. We believe the miraculous can occur on any day, we are simply acknowledging a serious precedent for unpredictability on this day, the first day of the week. A day the Trinity has already been extremely active. When I think of what has already taken place on this day all I can say is “wow.”

Praying for a Reckless Spirit

I have often heard well-meaning persons say something like this, “Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. This is a safe place for you.” I think I know what the speaker intends when using such language. I think that the one saying these words actually desires the presence of the Spirit. Still, these words sound strange to me.

Anyone who has read the New Testament, the source where we learn most about the Spirit, may wonder where anyone gets the idea that the Spirit is waiting for us to extend an invitation. However, we do find that Jesus tells his followers to wait on the Spirit. And there is no suggestion that the Spirit requests a safe place, though we might find that the Spirit can be somewhat dangerous. (Check with Ananias and Saphira about this). As Jesus told Nicodemus, you “do not know where it comes from and where it is going.” Predictability is not something we find with the Holy Spirit.

While we cannot define the Spirit in ways that sound like we have figured out all the Spirit is up to and where the Spirit will show up next, we can read the book of Acts and observe the Spirit showing up unexpectedly and recklessly and on its own terms. We will not be able to make the Spirit into something it is not, but when praying for the Spirit we can agree with the wise words of Todd Hunter who said “Whatever God meant by sending the Spirit – give us that.”

A Persistent God

“I can’t help but notice a distinct pattern in this relationship between Creator and creation. The Creator keeps showing up, again and again, unwilling to let creation go. So we celebrate His arrival as a Middle Eastern baby. We celebrate His return from the dead. We celebrate His arrival as Spirit. This Creator seems willing to show up anywhere at any time. This is a persistent God. It is clear He is unwilling to give up on us.”

From Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 99

Holy Surprise

It is safe to say that no one expected what happened on Pentecost Sunday. This reminds me of something I recently read. God’s name is often Reliability. Yet, according to Walter Brueggemann, “God’s other name is Surprise.” Perhaps on Pentecost Sunday we could say that God’s name is Holy Surprise.

The name Pentecost suggests “fifty” and makes certain that we are aware this day is connected to other parts of the story. This is not a stand-alone day in history, it occurs precisely fifty days after the previous holy day. Pentecost pulls us into an unpredictable, yet ongoing adventure that is guaranteed to be full of surprise.

It is of interest that the first thing that happens is a sermon. Peter preaches from a text that claims children will prophesy, the old will dream, and the young will see visions. The Spirit, according to the text, will be poured on anyone and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. It is safe to say that no one expected this interpretation of the words of the prophet in this place and on this day. The one thing that does not surprise us is that so many times we explore things that matter and we find that a prophet has already been there.

The very nature of Pentecost reminds us that we cannot forecast God’s next move. We know we are waiting for something; perhaps instruction, courage or closure. And then we get violent winds, tongues of fire, and a language miracle. We cannot think we now have God figured out, we do not know what He may do next. I am somewhat surprised we do not fortify our worship structures or wear hard hats or safety goggles or have the fire department on standby. After all, it is Pentecost Sunday and we may be in for Surprise.

Acts: a Lively Adventure

The conclusion to Acts includes a lively voyage to Rome.  It is interesting that this prompts discussion on whether Luke was influenced by Homer’s Odyssey.  I find this discussion fascinating and am not surprised that Luke may have enjoyed stories of the adventure genre.  If Luke loved reading adventures like these, how excited would he have been to participate in such a story?  This seems to be the case as here we find him writing about this voyage as the “first person peripheral narrator.”

In the Gospel and early in Acts, Luke the historian tells us that he relied on investigation and eyewitnesses.  But later in Acts, most fully in chapters 27-28, he implies that he is a participant in the spread of the good news.  Many episodes in Acts may be summaries of information received from others, but here with Luke on deck we get details that he may have witnessed with his own eyes.

Perhaps his own experience told him that an audience would enjoy such a story.  I think Ben Witherington is right when he suggests that we should not ignore Luke’s desire that the reader gain information but also experience enjoyment while hearing this story.  Perhaps this section of Acts is intended “to keep his listener on the edge of his seat.”  Again, with Witherington, I admire Luke’s ability to integrate an interesting voyage into his story while staying on course with his purpose of “chronicling the spread of the unstoppable good news.”

It is important to remember that the same Spirit that saturated us early in Acts may be less visible on this voyage, but is no less present.  The Spirit evident by wind and fire is present during shipwreck and snakebite.  The same Spirit who added three thousand to their number in chapter two is there in chapter twenty-eight when some were persuaded but others would not believe.  The same story that overcame a language barrier during a Galilean sermon is still being told openly and unhindered by a prisoner of the empire while under house arrest.

A Persistent God

It is interesting that we do not respond to the Spirit’s arrival the same as we do to the arrival of the Son.  Or, to His return from the dead.  In comparison, it appears that we downplay it, as if it were not as miraculous or as important.  Luke on the other hand, gives a chapter to how the birth went down, another to how the resurrection went down, and yet another to the arrival of the Spirit and how it went down.  Yet, our response to Christmas and Easter is vastly different from our response to Pentecost.

This is interesting because as Christmas (God arrived on earth as a baby) and Easter (crucified Jesus raised from the dead), Pentecost has an interesting plot.  Perhaps we can summarize the interaction like this; Jesus says He must go to the Father.  Followers express that they do not wish to be left alone.  Jesus promises that they will not be alone.  Followers ask what they should do, where should they go?  Jesus says to stay in Jerusalem and wait.  Followers wonder what they are waiting on and why.  Jesus replies “you’ll know.”

Luke the historian leaves no doubt.  “Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind… and there appeared to them tongues of fire… and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues… and when this sound occurred, the crowd came together and were bewildered.”

I can’t help but notice a distinct pattern in the relationship between Creator and creation.  The Creator keeps showing up, again and again, unwilling to let creation go.  So we celebrate His arrival as a Middle Eastern baby.  We celebrate His return from the dead. We celebrate His arrival as Spirit.  This Creator seems willing to show up anywhere at any time.  This is a persistent God.  It is clear that He is unwilling to give up on us.

A Series of Fortunate Events

Luke has a specific interest in geography.  This becomes most evident when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem.  There is seemingly no chance to forget as we are continually reminded where Jesus is headed (9.51,53; 13.22,33; 17.11; 18.31; 19.11).  In chapter nineteen, we finally arrive and Ben Witherington points out that “we feel as though we have been on pilgrimage for a very long time.”

This isn’t the first that Luke mentions Jerusalem.  As early as chapter two, Jesus is taken to Jerusalem twice.  First as an infant and then as a twelve-year-old boy.  In the temptation narrative (unlike Matthew) Jerusalem is given the climatic place among the temptations.  And of course, Luke concludes the Gospel in Jerusalem with the crucifixion and the resurrection.  He then, tells us in Acts that the disciples waited in Jerusalem until the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit.

It appears obvious that Luke wants to place some emphasis on Jerusalem or at least what takes place there.  Yet immediately after announcing that Jesus has turned toward Jerusalem, he gives reasons why people choose not to follow him there.  Some do not like where Jesus is going.  Others seem to have different priorities.

We get the feeling that Luke must take us to Jerusalem because of what happens there.  Witherington suggests that these events “changed the world, formed a community, impelled a mission, fulfilled numerous prophecies, and challenged ancient religions ranging from Judaism to pagan religions of various sorts.”

In a very short period of time then, Jesus’ death, His resurrection, and the Pentecost event take place.  Once these significant events take place, then he is able to take us out to the ends of the earth.  Thus, a series of significant, historical events (Lemony Snicket may claim a series of rather fortunate events) take place in Jerusalem that literally change the world.

Fire and Refreshment

On July 19, A.D. 64, a fire started in Rome.  In New Testament History, Ben Witherington tells us that half of the regions of Rome were affected by this fire and three regions were leveled entirely.  Some accused the Emperor Nero of setting the fire.  Nero accused the Christians, perhaps for his own survival.  In order to punish them in a way to fit the crime, Nero used Christians as living torches to light the nighttime games at the Circus Maximus.

It was during this time that the Pastoral Epistles were written, including the second letter to Timothy where we are introduced to Onesiphorus.  Onesiphorus is a friend of Paul’s, likely from the church at Ephesus.  Paul is in prison, perhaps the Mamertine prison, as part of Nero’s persecution of Christians.  While there, Onesiphorus shows up when no one else dared risk it.  That this is a terrible situation for Christians is likely the reason that no one supported Paul in his first defense (4.16).  That Onesiphorus is not ashamed is an example to Timothy of one not ashamed (see 2.15).

There is danger for Onesiphorus to search for Paul.  Yet, he risked the danger.  We are told that while others (we are talking about you Phygellus and Hermegenes) “turned away” from Paul, Onesiphorus “refreshed” him.  A contrast is suggested between those who deserted him and one who served him.  Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers suggest that the presence of a friend provided “a special tonic.”  Craig Keener says that “Refresh” is the language of hospitality.  Onesiphorus may have housed Paul during stays in Ephesus.

Where are those like Onesiphorus?  Where are those with the courage to refresh others at the risk of our own life?  What does this refreshment looks like?  The presence of a friend?  Reading aloud?  A cool breeze?  Playing an instrument?  Serving a cold drink?  A sandwich?  Conversation?  Talking about memories?  Is there laughing?  Continuing the mission?  Who and what brings refreshment when days are numbered?  Where can we find this?

This is the work of the Spirit.  It has to be.  People like Onesiphorus are not capable of this on their own.  This same Spirit who unleashed tongues of fire and a rushing mighty wind is able to unleash refreshment into the Mamertine.  While friends and allies were serving as torches and the apostle awaited certain death, the Spirit sent Onesiphorus with refreshment.  Whether we are preparing to receive tongues of fire or to be lit on fire, when summer days get hot and when memories of the ancestors remind us that our fate could be death, the Spirit able to refresh Paul in the Mamertine can certainly refresh you and I.

Liturgical Splendor

Blue Mountain is green.  Bower Mountain is green.  The whole forest looks green.  The Laurel Run is surrounded by mountain laurels and hemlocks.  The poplars that were bare while stalking morels in the spring are now green.  The weeds in my garden are green.  I clear them out-of-the-way to find green tomatoes.  Green is the color of the season.

The church calendar labels this time of year as Ordinary Time.  After the festival of Pentecost, the calendar provides an ordinary time for growth.  Ordinary Time is symbolized by the color green.  How fitting, green is the liturgical color of the season.  Indoors and out, we enter liturgical splendor.  Everyone unplug everything and get outside!

We do not wear vestments during worship on Sunday mornings.  But I did preach in a green shirt one time.  I park near the line of evergreens separating the church property from the nearby auto auction.  There a mockingbird sits and sings.  He is singing when I get out of the car and has not stopped when I return.  He sings his song right through worship.  Part of me wonders if I can get him to release this song on iTunes.  A wiser part reminds me that indoors and out, we enter liturgical splendor.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about hearing a sermon and walking out “into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth.  Every leaf, every ant, every shiny rock called out to me – begging to be watched, to be listened to, to be handled and examined.  I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow.”

Eugene Peterson writes that in spite of our tendency to take things for granted.  “Something always shows up to jar us awake:  a child’s question, a fox’s sleek beauty, a sharp pain, a pastor’s sermon, a fresh metaphor, an artist’s vision, a slap in the face, scent from a crushed violet.  We are again awake, alert, in wonder.”

At one point during Screwtape’s correspondence with novice demon Wormwood to secure the demise of a human client, he writes, “Even if we contrive to keep them ignorant of explicit religion, the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry – the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon – are always blowing our whole structure away.”

If that is the case, Screwtape must hate the forest with its strutting turkeys and shimmery brook trout.  He must hate the wineberries that I pick to make smoothies and the tomatoes that I intend to fry green.  And the cold waters of the Laurel Run, the perfect skipping rock that Keightley found while there, the buck in velvet and the turtle laying its eggs.  He must hate the song of the whip-poor-will and the mockingbird who sings the prelude and the benediction at church.  He must hate the color green that manufactures the oxygen I receive when I take in a big breath.

Much like the green of creation allows us to enjoy breath and life, the Spirit of Pentecost provides ordinary time for growth.  But then, this is not just any ordinary time.