Born with Fire and Mystery
Just when we are coming to terms with the strange accounts of Easter and its aftermath, before we can begin to understand the early Church we must first come face to face with something which some might think even more unexpected or bizarre than a resurrected Christ. Because we are accustomed to encountering descriptions of unusual and wonderful happenings associated with Jesus, simply one more inexplicable event to wonder at might not have meant a great deal, yet Pentecost introduces a new dimension.
This time the principal actors are the disciples themselves. If you had been present, just imagine being suddenly transformed in appearance with flames around your shoulders. And if the author of Acts, Luke is correct and reporting this event as it happened, wouldn’t you too be bewildered if yet another supernatural gift is visited on you and you could suddenly speak in another language.
One non-supernatural part, is that the people present sound suspiciously like real live people today. Because things were getting a bit tricky for those who called themselves followers of Christ, they shut themselves away in a large room. Ring any bells? Then there were those who said, “These people are drunk”. Can you imagine a religious gathering which included judgemental types? So can I. Have you ever encountered anyone like that in the Church today? Then there were those who said “They can’t be drunk – for it is only 9 o’clock in the morning”. See, they had Methodists even then.
At a more prosaic level another change was also happening. Whatever happened in that room, doubters are changed to disciples and there is a sudden boost in number of loyal followers, and what is more, apparently as another consequence of the Pentecost experience, at least some of these followers are now prepared to step out on their own to face potentially hostile crowds and to witness to what they have seen and now believe to be utterly transformative.
To the modern educated mind, Pentecost is always going to be a hard sell. Tongues of fire, babbling in strange tongues with snatches of recognisable foreign language and talk of a mysterious Spirit…. Yet whichever way you look at it Pentecost certainly matters to the Church. A little more than half (58) Sundays of the Church calendar are reckoned by numbering the following Sundays as the Sundays after Pentecost. So if Pentecost is really the birthday of the Christian Church, what makes the difference? To find out why, we need to go back a little.
First the word itself: Pentecost is derived from the Greek for “fifty days” and is, for the Church, fifty days after Easter. But the initial reason for the Pentecost gathering was not strictly exclusively to do with Christ. The disciples and supporters of Jesus were able to assemble conveniently because Jews were gathering in Jerusalem at the time to celebrate another important Seder or feast, this one the Jewish festival of the Shavuot Seder, when the Jews too had a fifty day period to remember. This was, we remind ourselves, fifty days after the Passover, that occasion when Jews recalled the event of escaping from enslavement in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea by mysterious miracle first to the Sinai desert and then setting out to the Promised Land.
Shavuot and Pentecost share something else. Like Pentecost turned out to be for the Christians, Shavuot was a reminder of something that transformed their history but was not easily explained and despite our modern desire to have our explanations reconciled with logic and what we know of the natural world, open questions remain. For example if one or both accounts were written with intentional symbolism to leave impressions helpful for the basis of faith, perhaps the apparent challenge to the laws of nature might seem less important.
As always, we also need to remember that what would have been acceptable to contemporaries in the society of that day is rather different to that now expected. Regardless of our own personal views, even the most liberal commentator has to admit the parting of the Red Sea, like the foreign babbling and the tongues of fire at Pentecost, is still accepted by a good number as factual reporting. Equally we would be dishonest to claim that all commentators are agreed that this was the case. Since we can hardly expect similar miracles in our present circumstances we should as a minimum allow that the rationalists may have a point.
It doesn’t take too much experience with stories that change with repetition to understand traditional history is never entirely straightforward as people in real life shape stories for a host of reasons. This is not to say we ought to ignore anything that doesn’t fit our personal experience. Despite being a scientist and as far as my faith is concerned, one who likes to question everything, I would also have to stress that there is a place for mystery. Certainty closes off growth of thought but wonder leaves open the possibility that there is more than we currently understand which in turn should encourage us to be more humble and even more ready to allow ourselves to listen to one another.
It also occurs to me that the mystery of the Holy Spirit described as flame is a wonderfully appropriate analogy. Flames are mysterious as they flicker and spread, at times almost appearing to flow, as they provide warmth and light with a wide range of colour and intensity. Even if we know that a flame is technically only gas heated to incandescence, before the flame appears it requires fuel and air and sufficient energy for the reaction to start. There must be something there to burn and that fuel must be subject to the source of energy and not denied oxygen. To take that analogy one step further, once we have a flame burning, in turn it can get other flames to start. Even if we, as intending followers of Jesus have the potential stored within us to be followers, we may still need activating, and we still need the oxygen of informed faith.
At this point we may need a reality check. Note that the question we need to have answered is not so much about what actually happened. In any event, that question can never be answered with absolute certainty since we can hardly replay the scene. The rather more awkward and even embarrassing question is whether we can see evidence that the same Holy Spirit is continuing to act – not just in the lives of this generation’s saints, but in our own lives.
When we look analytically at our society, we can indeed spot committed individuals who are able to make room in their lives for helping those in need, for exposing injustice and for inspiring others to a more positive outlook. It seems reasonable to describe these rare individuals as reflecting the influence of some indefinable Spirit. Yet truth also forces us to admit that some others who would also be classified as Christian (if only for census purposes) do not reflect that Spirit, despite what they might otherwise claim. Church membership doesn’t somehow excuse us from the temptation of focussing on self interest or being driven by a wish to stay uninvolved. To stay with the Pentecost image of fire, avoidance of involvement hardly qualifies as offering ourselves to be fuel for the mysterious flame. One Jewish leader, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, suggested that some modern persons are in danger of becoming “click vegetables,” who simply click from one data source to another with little comprehension. These have the attitude “If you’re bored with something, just click,” the rabbi explained. I think the Rabbi is right. If your only involvement with community is reading about it with passing clicks, this is hardly what Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “seeing with the eyes of the heart”.
Even the so-called Pentecostal service with its ecstasy of uninhibited arm waving and the emitting of emotion charged sounds is hardly credible evidence of the Holy Spirit if it not accompanied by a subsequent change of attitude and appropriate action once the worshippers have left the security of the Church service.
So what then can we say about the Spirit at this day, Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and the marking of the birthday of the Church? Can I suggest that we do as we would with the birthday of anyone of us here today. Even the birthday of a nation only gains significance in the way the life is lived.
On July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence. With this action, the American Revolution was launched and a new nation was born. There is irony that on that very day George III, King of England, made this entry in his diary: “Nothing of any importance happened today.”
On the day of Pentecost, in the year A.D. 30, we read of perhaps 120 followers of a man named Jesus gathered together in Jerusalem. Suddenly the Spirit of God filled each one of them and illuminated and energised them with tongues of fire. On that day the Church was born. But here is the kicker. No historian of the time saw anything significant in that event.
The significance as it must do, came to lie in what those followers then decided to do with their experience. If they had done nothing I wonder if we would then have been brave enough to admit nothing was achieved. It is actually a choice that each successive generation must face for themselves. We are born, like the Church was born at Pentecost, into possibility. What we then decide to do with the motivating Spirit in our generation will determine of the significance of what that birthday potentially offers to the Church, the community…and even our world.