We often describe Pentecost as the ‘birthday’ of the Church. We read about the descent of the Spirit and make the claim that what occurred on that day was the ‘birth’ of the community of called out ones. This means that prior to this event, the disciples merely existed as scared and disjointed people; a people whom, while together in one room, remained as individuals. Thus, the sermons of the day preach about how the tongues of fire, the sermon from Peter, and the baptisms that followed, speak to a new act of creation – a formation of a new people. Some communities may even sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and eat cake.
But what if we have missed the point? What if Pentecost is not really about our own creation as people of faith, but about our calling as disciples? What if Pentecost is more about The Spirit’s activity rather than our own? What if it is about empowerment not birth?
Personally, I have never understood the link between Pentecost and the birth of the Church. If the Church was born on Pentecost, how then do we understand the ‘mini Pentecosts’ that we see throughout the book of Acts? Are these re-births? New-births? Alternative births? Did the first one not take?
The Church was not born on Pentecost; The Church was born on Easter morning. It is the Resurrection which is the defining event for all of Christians. Pentecost can only be rightly understood in light of Easter, not the other way around. The disciples became the ekklesia – called out community of faith – as soon as they believed in the resurrected Lord. We see this reality in Scripture. Prior to Pentecost, the disciples were constantly together in the temple worshiping the risen Lord (Luke 24;53). If that’s not a description of the Church, I don’t know what is. The fact that they may not have been an involved in active evangelistic ministry does not discount this reality. In fact, in proves why they needed to be empowered from on high in order to fully fulfill that to which they were called.
This may seem like splitting hairs. After all, why does it matter if the Church was born on Easter or Pentecost? Yet all sorts of problems emerge if we mistakenly associate Pentecost with the birth of the Church.
For one, we can find it too easy to rest upon the ease of our existence. Just think of it, we never view our own birthdays as a call to work, to be uneasy, or serve. No! In fact, we see the exact opposite; we see our own birthday as a day in which we are to be served. It is a day where we are celebrated for our existence. There is no call to be uncomfortable. No call to die to ourselves. No call to reach out to others. Instead, our birthdays call us to one simple task: receive the messages that we are loved and special.
Is that what Pentecost is? On the day where we recognize the Holy Spirit coming in power, is the point of it all just to sit and reflect how great we are? In a day and age where the church is struggling to move from a maintenance model to a more missional model of life and ministry, heralding Pentecost as the celebration of ourselves seems quite dangerous. It turns us inward, so that instead of seeing where the Holy Spirit calls us, beyond the locked rooms of our comfort, we turn inward and merely reflect upon our existence. This, in turn, leads us to the uncomfortable conclusion that we don’t actually need to do anything for our job is to merely exist and wait for people to make their way to us.
Isn’t this something the church has been struggling with? Again, maybe we missed the point.
If we see Pentecost as a celebration of the Church’s birth then we fail to adequately grasp our constant need for the Holy Spirit’s presence for our ministry and spiritual growth. To see Pentecost as our birthday is to see it as a completed event, one that will never be repeated. Sure we can celebrate our birth – but it won’t ever happen again. We thus limit the Holy Spirit’s activity to the pages of the past and assume that such powerful filling of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith would not, and could not, ever happen in our day. Thus we rob the Holy Spirit of all effectiveness and make the third person of the Trinity a mere phantom with no substance or power.
Pentecost is not a birthday to be remembered but an empowerment to be entered into. It is not something merely locked in the past. It calls us into the an unknown future. It calls us to realize that the very same Spirit that descended upon that first community of faith is still being poured out today. And that means we simply can’t sit comfortably, or keep our eyes upon ourselves. It means we are called out – we are given the supernatural power of the Spirit to enter into life-changing ministry in this world. It means we must risk ourselves, and step into the unknown resting not on our own power but on that of the Spirit. It means we are called out of comforts to preach the good news, and to be witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit being continually poured out among us, to empower us for the ministry to which we are continually called. May we all find fresh empowerment in our celebration of Pentecost this Sunday.