- Written by Garry
- Created: 01 June 2017
A few reflections on the ongoing significance of Pentecost for the 21st century Church in Australia.
The account in Acts 2 depicts the events effectively gave birth to the Church: The coming of the Holy Spirit. But it’s important to realise that Pentecost was already celebrated as a festival before the events of the New Testament. In Hebrew the festival was known as Shavuot, which literally means “week.” The Feast of Weeks commemorated the giving of the Law to the Israelites from Mount Sinai. The festival of weeks was held 50 days after the festival of Passover, hence the Greek word Pentekoste, meaning fiftieth day. Today marks the seventh Sunday since we celebrated Easter together, believe it or not. It is no coincidence that the same festival which commemorates the formalising of the Jewish religion with the enacting of the Covenant on Mount Sinai also marks the empowering of the movement that would come to be known as “The Christian Church” with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
But what do we mean when we speak of the Holy Spirit, and moreover what does it mean for us to speak of the Spirit as something which arrived at a certain moment in history? The Psalm for today serves as just one example that the concept of the Spirit of God also predates the early Church by several centuries. Great judges, kings and prophets of the Old Testament are often described as having the Spirit of the Lord upon them. Indeed, depending on how one chooses to translate and interpret Genesis chapter 1, one could argue that the Spirit is described as having been there right from the beginning, hovering over the waters in the primal act of creation.
So if the presence of the Spirit of God on the earth is nothing new, then what exactly are we saying happened to those men and women gathered in Jerusalem that day?
Well the first thing I’d want to point out about this is that to whatever extent the Holy Spirit was already present and active in the world prior to Pentecost, it still represents a new and unique action of God for the community that would become the Church. In the Old Testament accounts, the Spirit of God would come upon an individual and that individual would be empowered to perform extraordinary feats: rescue the Israelites, slay Goliath, deliver the Word of the Lord or whatever. At the events in Acts, we see the Spirit of God coming upon a community of people, who all begin to preach in languages they otherwise wouldn’t understand, let alone be able to use to speak about religion and politics. This isn’t an account of the Spirit coming upon one great heroic individual. Nor, importantly, is it an account of the Spirit coming upon a room full of great heroic individuals. This is the Spirit of God alighting on and empowering an entire community.
This might seem like a simple semantic or morpho-syntactic distinction, but if we come to understand the Holy Spirit being a feature not of individual Christians, but as a feature of the Church as a Community, as Bonhoeffer was so fond of expressing it, then the unique role of the Spirit and by extension of the Church itself begins to become clearer to us.
As a church today we’re so familiar with the concept of Christians being filled with the Holy Spirit, that we often miss a key point about the presence of the Holy Spirit with the Church. This is partly an accident of language and partly a property of our extremely individualistic society. The point that gets missed is this: Whenever Paul writes to churches in the New Testament and uses phrases like “the Spirit of God that is in you,” “You have the Spirit in you,” etc, he is, without exception, using the plural form of ‘you.’ In English, we use the same form to address one person (you are my friend) or a group of people (you are my friends). We can only make this difference explicit by using non-standard terms like “youse” or “you-mob.” This isn’t true in biblical Greek. Paul definitively refers to the Spirit as being in you-mob. A better translation might be the Spirit is among you-mob. It’s the Spirit that takes a bunch of otherwise unrelated individuals and forges us into the body of Christ – into the Church. And that is what we celebrate at the festival of Pentecost.
Here’s an example to provide contrast: On Thursday nights I go down to Woolloongabba and I play chess with the Brisbane Chess Club. That’s a group that meets once a week for a common purpose; we’re all there because we enjoy chess. We meet, we play our games, and we leave and that’s it.
On Sundays I come to Toowong and I attend church. That’s a group that meets once a week for a common purpose; we’re all there because we love Jesus. We meet, we sing our songs and pray our prayers and we leave and IT’S SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT. Or it should be. It must be.
What’s the difference? The presence of the Holy Spirit among us is the difference. It’s the Spirit that takes our community and transforms it from being a weekly meeting of the Jesus Christ memorial society into being the living and active Body of Christ in the world.
1 Corinthians 12 is my favourite passage in the Bible. As a kid it was my go-to passage when I was feeling like I didn’t belong. “If the ear should say ‘because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body, it does not for that reason cease to be part of the body.” Similarly, if Garry should say “because I play chess instead of football, I don’t fit in with the youth group” he does not for that reason cease to be part of the Body.
He may overcompensate and learn to play volleyball with his feet and go compete for Australia in some obscure South East Asian sports tournament, but he still doesn’t become any more or less part of the Body.
What does make us part of the Body? 1 Corinthians 12 states it quite plainly: Just as the body is one and has many members, and all are members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
It’s the Spirit that binds the Body together and gives life to it.
It’s interesting that in both the t Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament the word for spirit is the same as the word for breath or wind. Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek. In Genesis 1 it is the Ruach of God that hovers or moves back and forth over the waters. The Greek word for spirit pneuma is the same word from which we derive pneumatic, meaning something powered by pressurised air, or wind.
I don’t know if God was deliberately executing a cosmic level play on words when the Holy Spirit came upon the first believers with a sound like a rushing wind, but it’s almost as though it’s the sound of the newly constituted Body of Christ taking its first deep breath in. We can see the same sort of imagery in John 20 when Jesus appears in the locked room, breathes on his disciples and says “My Spirit I give to you.”
The Holy Spirit is more than just breath, or the force which holds us together, of course. 1 Corinthians 12 gives a whole list of examples of the kinds of gifts with which the Spirit endows different members of the body. And they’re great. But underpinning 1 Corinthians 12 and indeed all of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s admonishment of the Church in Corinth for being so obsessed with spiritual gifts that they neglected and even acted against the greatest of all the gifts endowed by the Spirit; unity.
Ephraim Radner has written extensively on the importance of unity among the Church and on the consequences of disunity and division. In his book “A Brutal Unity,” he stresses that the communal nature of the church is, or should be, one of its defining characteristics. He says: “The act of living together itself creates a multiplicity of conscience from the first and in the navigation, rather than the simple denial or elimination, of such a multiplicity lies the fundamental moral act of social life.”
The failure to embrace our unification one to another is among the greatest challenges facing our Church today, certainly in the Western world. We’re so bound up in the secular culture which places individual liberty, happiness and fulfilment of desire as the most important aspect of our lives. Even as technology has revolutionised the way we communicate with one another, we seem to be less connected with each other than ever before. The fact that I can use to social media to kid myself that I’m connected with 700 people while never leaving my house might have something to do with it.
And our congregations are just as individuated. Did you know that in our little catchment of Toowong, Taringa, Indooroopilly and St. Lucia there are at least 14 separate Christian Congregations. That’s just the ones that showed up on Google Maps. Two of them are other Uniting Churches and I have no idea what they’re doing this weekend, to say nothing of St. Andrew’s Anglican, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Taringa Baptist or St. Lucia Bible Church.
Let’s be conservative and say each of those congregations has 50 people. Some might have fewer, some might have more. At 50 people each, that’s a community of 700 Christians within about five kilometres of where I’m sitting typing this right now. If those congregations all have a morning service, there are probably in excess of 700 Christians meeting for worship every week just in our little bend of the river. Imagine for a moment what could be achieved if we could only communicate and cooperate better. If we could effectively share our resources, pool our labour, our skills, our gifts, our facilities and our ideas.
It’s deceptively simple, of course. There are diverse logistics, bureaucracies, doctrines and traditions to negotiate, and all those things are important. Sort of. But what Paul is urging us to consider in 1 Corinthians is that even if we’ve got different approaches to just about everything, by the Spirit we are still part of one Body.
I don’t have an answer yet regarding forging the different denominations into one functional Body with Christ as its head. I’m not even sure how to address the fact that I didn’t even know there was a Uniting Church in St. Lucia. But I know where to start. Right here. If the Spirit of God is calling us to greater unity, where better to start than by getting involved in the lives of our brothers and sisters right next to us?
Let’s commit to being a part of each other’s lives. Let’s commit to praying for one another. To meeting with one another. To eating with one another and to developing relationships that go deeper than a mutual appreciation for a nice cup of tea after the service. Let’s allow the Spirit of Pentecost to transform us from the Jesus Christ Memorial Society in to the living and active Body of Christ we were called to be.
Make of that what you will.
Garry with 2 Rs