We’re fifty days out from Easter. “Pentecost” (meaning fiftieth) was one of three pilgrimage festivals in ancient Judaism. Known today as Shavuot, this holiday commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For Christians, Pentecost names the giving of the Holy Spirit to an unlikely band of followers huddled in an upper room in Jerusalem fifty days after Passover and the death of their rabbi.
Some say that the Church was born on Pentecost. What does it mean to be a Pentecost Church? Many things, I’m sure. Here are three:
1. It all begins with worship. The Spirit descended at Pentecost as the people were gathered together in prayer, praise, and proclamation. What we do Sunday after Sunday, season after season, shapes us to be the people of God in the world.
In worship we learn that we serve a God of abundance. Jesus welcomes us to his table to be fed with holy food, to commune with the triune God and with each other, to feast in fellowship with all of creation through the good earth’s gifts of grain and grape which become, in this holy mystery, the body and blood of our Lord. It’s simple food—a bit of bread, a sip of wine—but this is no skimpy meal. This is a feast. There’s no scarcity here—there is more than enough for everyone. Sharing—not hoarding, hiding, or protecting—is our way of life.
The Jesus we meet in word and sacrament is the Jesus we meet in the stranger who comes to us as gift. This is how mission flows from worship. What we do Sunday after Sunday, season after season transforms us into a people who expect to encounter Christ in unexpected places, in unexpected ways. When we sometimes resist or resent this, the news is still good because in our worship we confess our sins of resistance or resentment or whatever they might be, and we can know the forgiveness of God. Confession and pardon shape us as a people who recognize that, while we still live in the grip of sin, sin never has the last word.
2. The God we worship is a God of surprises. The Bible is full of stories of the surprising ways the Spirit works in the lives of ordinary people willing to be used for the extraordinary work of bearing witness to the Kingdom:
Abraham and Sarah were surprised by the call to be in covenant with Yahweh, and to be the father and mother of many nations through the impossible gift of a son in their old age.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom we often imagine to be modest and reserved, surprises us with her bold, stunning speech in Luke’s gospel in which she says that “the proud will be scattered,” “the powerful will be brought down,” “the lowly will be lifted up,” “the rich will be sent empty away.” Mary announces a surprising Kingdom that her yet unborn Son will inaugurate.
On Palm Sunday Jesus surprised the crowds by riding the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a white stallion. By refusing to meet violence with violence he surprised those followers who expected a militant messiah. He surprised us all by rising from death on the third day.
Jesus said to Nicodemus that “the wind blows where it will.” On Pentecost, the wind surprised a band of followers in the upper room in Jerusalem fifty days after the surprise of Easter; the Spirit-wind surprised the out-of-town visitors who heard their own languages being spoken; it surprised those ordinary Galileans through whom the Spirit spoke.
We worship a God of surprises. There is adventure waiting for us if we can embrace the gift of surprise.
3. A Pentecost Church lives out of control. This makes us nervous; it sounds like irresponsibility, recklessness. We pride ourselves on being in control. But when we learn to live out of control we give up the illusion that we are in charge—of our lives, of the church. We become, in short, free. Free to be a people who live by God’s abundant grace and who practice abundance as a way of life.
On Pentecost, those gathered in the upper room were “out of control.” Some thought that they were literally out of control—drunk on wine and out of their minds. But their intoxicant was the Holy Spirit who came upon them, filling them with power and wisdom, sending them out to do the will of God in the world. Their surrender to the surprise of the Spirit made it possible for them to surrender control to the God who would be with them in the new adventure born that day called “Church”—where things would get messy and difficult, but where an abundance of grace would determine their lives–and ours.