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What It Is, What It's Not:
Pentecost 2010

A guest essay by Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD, Yale). Kathryn is an Episcopal priest in New Haven, CT, and author of the book Darkness is My Only Companion; A Christian Response to Mental Illness (2006) and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: Narrative Analysis and Appraisal (2000).

For Sunday May 23, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Acts 2:1–21 or Genesis 11:1–9

Psalm 104:24–34, 35b

Romans 8:14–17 or Acts 2:1–21

John 14:8–17, (25–27)

           Exactly what is the Feast of Pentecost that many believers celebrate this week?

           Pentecost is not about prayer. It is not about the “birthday” of the Church. It is not about speaking in tongues. That first Pentecost among the Jewish believers in Jesus is, however, a linguistic event which accompanies the power of the Holy Spirit. In the wake of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9–10) we see as the fill-in for his presence the power of God’s own linguistic event.

           God brings into being by speaking the Word at creation. In the Word made flesh, God creates a new community of Jews for the life of the world. In the Revelation, the Seer urges the Lord in the final spoken words of the Christian Bible: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). Without the Word made Flesh and words about that word at least, the Christian faith would not be what it is.

Building the Tower of Babel.

           The Christian feast of Pentecost finds its origin in the Jewish feast of Shavuot or Shavuos, the Festival of Weeks (see Ex 34:22; Dt 16:9–12; Num 28:26; Lev 23:15–22). The Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival in late spring when the first fruits were presented to the Lord in thanksgiving for his grace and mercy to his people. The festival of Pentecost was fifty days (Greek: pentecoste) after Passover.

           The Jewish Passover itself celebrates the redemption of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Its Christian counterpart, Easter, marks in the power of Jesus’ Cross and Empty Tomb the redemption of all who respond in faith. This latter redemption reveals the former. From slavery to the Egyptians, to the freedom from slavery to sin and its death-dealing ways: Passover is a type of Easter.

           The Jewish Pentecost commemorates God’s gift of the Law on Sinai to the Hebrew people. On that first Jewish Pentecost after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the power of the Holy Spirit is given to supply the Church’s mission. Just as Jesus ascends into heaven, he tells the crowd: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Descent of the Holy Spirit.

           The gift of the Holy Spirit is neither for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem, nor for our, benefit. Rather, it is for the benefit of the mission to all the world, even those at the ends of the earth. In these last words of Jesus to his disciples, he gives a foretaste of the yet-to-come ingrafting of the Gentiles into the Jewish Church (cf. Rom 11:11–24). The first Gentile convert to the Jewish believers in Jesus will be Cornelius in Acts 10–11:18.

           In the Pentecost story in Acts 2:5, all present are described as devout Jews. That is, they are practicing, pious, Christ-believing Jews. Note: these Jews were all from the diaspora. This was the result of God’s scattering the Jews after the destruction of their Temple and their exile into parts unknown. Because of this Diaspora, each Jew among the “all” of Acts 2 would have spoken a different language from the next.

           The rush of noise at Acts 2 was not “speaking in tongues.” It was an entirely different phenomenon than what Paul describes in 1 Cor 14. Rather, each believer heard the next speaking in his or her native language, but understood anyway (Acts 2:6). The tongues of fire represent both Divine Presence (Ex 19:18; Is 66:15–16) and Divine Judgment (1 Thess 1:8). Presence and Judgement form Jesus's identity and vocation, which now at his parting seems to be transferred to his followers.

Leaf from an antiphonary.

           In the Protestant West, Pentecost is often celebrated as the “Birthday of the Church.” Such Christians apparently believe that the Holy Spirit of that first Pentecost unites Jew and Gentile into one body of faith, hope and love. On Pentecost, such a church is understood to be born.

           In the Orthodox East, however, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost signifies far more than a birthday cake at Coffee Hour could represent. For the Orthodox, the Church itself is eternal. God’s Law given on Sinai is understood by Jews to be eternal, not simply created de novo as Moses received it. And so the Eastern Orthodox, with Western orthodox and Roman Catholics, understand that the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the eternally begotten Son of the Father. The Church in its being as God’s elect is foreshadowed in the very creation of the human pair, and in Israel. As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor 15:22).

           There are still other Christians who understand themselves as inhabiting perpetually the narrative of Acts 2. They believe that Christian worship should continually repeat that one moment when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given. They believe that the phenomenon which they call speaking in tongues is a re-enactment of the birth of the Church, instead of what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14. This initiating event of the church in the gift of the Holy Spirit then becomes fundamentally about praying. This kind of prayer is not understood without an interpreter (1 Cor 12:10, 28–30; 1 Cor 14). According to Paul, this fact is its chief practical problem for the life of the church.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Pentecost.

           But in Acts 2, no one needs an interpreter. Each person understands the others speaking in his or her own language. It is therefore not a phenomenon of praying, but of understanding each other’s national language in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, the people in Acts 2 are not “babbling” an incomprehensible divine speech which needs to be interpreted by a spiritually gifted interpreter.

           The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is the final event of “world history” before we reach the beginnings of the people of Israel with Abram in Genesis 12. Babel is traditionally read as a type of the Acts 2 story. At Babel, God confuses the people’s one language and scatters them abroad in their sin of coveting a name for themselves (Gen 11:4). The Name belongs properly only to God. As the inverse of Babel, Acts 2 presents the uniting of the scattered and the unifying of language. At Babel, language is confused because of sin of the desires and machinations of people. At Pentecost, linguistic understanding is gifted, not through human learning or manipulation, but through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

For further reflection

* What is the relationship between the giving of the Law on Sinai and the giving of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem?
* How does the first Christian feast of Pentecost shape our understanding of Christian relations to the Jewish community?
* Can we say that Israel is a type of the Church?

Image credits: (1–3) Jean and Alexander Heard Divinity Library, Vanderbilt University; and (4) Web Gallery of Art

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