The biggest doing was to reveal God’s active presence in ways that hadn’t been seen or experienced before. We can wrestle a bit with the historical value of Luke’s story about the Spirit’s arrival on a principle festival day in the Jewish calendar. But such wrestling merely takes us away from the main message brought by the New Testament: that the Crucified and Living Christ reveals the hidden God, whose presence and activity is ongoing, vital, and life-changing, as made real in the Holy Spirit.
If a person wants to wrestle with historical issues surrounding Christianity, then a good one to consider is how some backwater Galilean spiritual movement, started by an obscure carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and supported by a relatively small group of followers, could nevertheless sweep across the Mediterranean World into Southern Europe within a matter of a few decades. Like a brushfire through dry tinder, the Way drew more and more followers, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile, to borrow a line from our old friend, Paul.
Before there was ever such a thing as an institutional church, people were gathering in house-churches and community centers to worship the God they found revealed in Jesus, singing hymns like this one; hymns that were sung only a few years after his crucifixion:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Luke and Paul both saw the force working to bring these new communities together as the experiential force of the Holy Spirit.
And now, a detour, of sorts.
In November 1994, my little church in Austin, TX held a spiritual retreat called Discovery Weekend. The original plan was to get folks away from their daily lives for a weekend of spiritual reflection, fellowship, and sharing of personal stories, under the umbrella of worship and prayer. I was a relatively new parent–my only child was barely 3-year-old. I was plenty busy at work and at home, and could not for the life of me figure out how–or why–I should engage in this event. Even more worrisome was the way my pastor kept after me to take a leadership role in part of the retreat. What the heck was he thinking?! I resisted, as did others, who felt it impossible to break away for an entire weekend. Finally, a compromise plan was hatched: we’d commute to and from the retreat each day, beginning with Friday evening, with promised childcare for our daughter. Reluctantly, I agreed to do it. Other people also had been roped into new and challenging experiences. One woman about my age was designated our meal and snack coordinator–she said later that this role struck at the very heart of what she felt was her weakest place, and helped her realize she wasn’t so bad at such things after all. The pastor’s wife, a quiet and somewhat reserved person around us church folks, opened the door to her dark place during the retreat, as she talked about her previous husband’s suicide and the impact it had on her and her children. Her candor and her sharing of her perceptions of God being with her in this dark and uncertain time spoke to what I think of as the human condition, a life where we experience both darkness and light, suffering and ecstasy, fear and freedom. It’s a place where we can discover God’s Presence in all of these things, not so much as their source or cause, but more as the Presence mysteriously there waiting, being, accepting, loving and renewing.
Our choir director brought her guitar along and we sang songs that were way more vibrant and meaningful than the centuries-old, stiff and stodgy stuff in our hymnal. These songs were composed by people alive in our time and they were written in our language. Our worship was simple and inelegant, but powerful and heartfelt.
By Saturday afternoon there was a special something that we felt, something that went beyond the camaraderie of fellow retreaters. There was something I can only describe as this Presence, and this Presence was good, in all the multi-faceted meanings of that word. Peace is a word we use a lot but too often fail to experience. There was Peace among us and within us. With that Peace came a serenity that I can only describe as like tapping into some calming electricity.
Sunday morning, I was the first one up to lead the module following our gathering worship. I was scared out of my wits. The pastor and his assistant took me to a little area simply made into a sort of mini-chapel, and there prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide me. In the midst of that prayer, I again felt that Presence and I knew that despite my fear, everything was going to be OK. And it was.
The retreat ended that afternoon with hugs, tears, deeper faith and deeper friendships, and–most importantly– with a new sort of energy among us that would soon begin bringing change and new life to our small congregation.
That Discovery Weekend marked the first time I had ever experienced the Holy Spirit. I’ve always been good at talking about the Spirit, studying up on the Spirit, and wondering about the Spirit; but this was something entirely different–an experience. It’s an experience I’ve felt a few times since then, but it has almost always been felt in community with others, though the shapes of those communities have been quite different. And so Discovery Weekend, 1994, was for me a very personal sort of Pentecost.
In my experience, there is nothing better than to find yourself feeling that Presence while gathered with others in a meaningful Way. Likewise there is nothing worse than to find yourself feeling the lack of that Presence in a gathering of people where the meaning (and the Way) has been lost.
I find this Pentecost Sunday, 2010, to be a moment to consider this ongoing revealing of God in the experience of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus once said to Nicodemus also applies to us: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next.” The same rushing wind that blew into Jerusalem and turned a traditional Jewish festival into the genesis of fresh, Spirit-formed communities is still blowing through the world today. To those of us who consider ourselves followers of the Way, the task is relatively simple, if you discount our natural inclination toward fear of change and our reluctance to move beyond our ordinary, set patterns of life (I don’t, by the way). We are being called to position ourselves like the first followers did when they retreated from the world for a time, and opened themselves through prayer and meditation, being together rather than being in isolation. It was their encounter with the sacred Presence, God’s Holy Spirit, that led them out into the world to begin bringing change into the world, through the changes the Spirit continues to bring into people’s lives.
May the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, fill our hearts and minds in the awareness of our Christ: Jesus.
The Story of the First Christian Pentecost according to Luke, Acts 2:1-28 (Translation: The Message)
When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?
Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs! “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”
Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”
That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:
“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy. I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, Before the Day of the Lord arrives, the Day tremendous and marvelous; And whoever calls out for help to me, God, will be saved.”
“Fellow Israelites, listen carefully to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man thoroughly accredited by God to you—the miracles and wonders and signs that God did through him are common knowledge—this Jesus, following the deliberate and well-thought-out plan of God, was betrayed by men who took the law into their own hands, and was handed over to you. And you pinned him to a cross and killed him. But God untied the death ropes and raised him up. Death was no match for him.”