Two questions for you about Pentecost. The first question. Is the story a factual account? – and the second: Does it set us up for our journey as followers of Christ? Perhaps only one of these questions matters.
If we were honest, many of us might admit that, assuming the version of Pentecost in Acts is intended to be factually accurate, there are some parts of the story line that don’t quite add up.
As the drama unfolds we meet a series of events totally unlike anything we would ever expect to see in real life. Along with the rushing wind (and here we are talking about wind inside, not outside), we read those present saw divided tongues of fire, accompanied, not by the incoherent babbling of a modern Pentecostal-type service, but by the miraculous sudden ability to talk coherently in foreign languages.
For what it is worth, confusing real fire with metaphorical fire may not be wise.
In the 16th Century, one member of Florence’s famous Medici family, Lorenzo de Medici, fancied himself as a bit of a showman. Since as far as Lorenzo was concerned, real flames were part of the original Whitsun occasion, he felt the Church congregation was entitled to get a feel for what the experience would be like.
The congregation in the historic Florence Church he chose for his re-enactment of the Pentecost gathering were treated to a spectacular roar of flames from the ceiling. And it was memorable. The actors’ clothes caught fire, the furniture caught fire, the walls of the Church – not to mention some nearby buildings were destroyed. History does not record if he was invited to give a repeat performance the following year, but I suspect we already know the answer.
But let’s admit Luke confronts us with talk of flames, and even more remarkable magic, as humble followers of Jesus are transformed in an instant into expert linguists.
Next we have Peter the fisherman giving an eloquent un-fisherman-like explanation which does not even relate to the described scene as experienced by those present. He said in effect that they were witnessing the beginning of the end. His quote from the bit we may wish he hadn’t said included: “I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” !!?
Well sorry, the Sun is still there, and last time I looked the moon looked pretty much the same as the one visited by the astronauts. No, Peter’s interpretation on this occasion was not what the rest of the book of Acts described – and nor, well at least not in the almost two thousand years since, were these to be the literal experiences for the followers of Christ.
Pentecost may be the official birthday of the Christian church, but attempting to portray the original version as a simple factual record to be read in the comfortable setting of a modern church service hardly does it justice. On the one hand, conservative Christians insist that must be how it happened. Yet by modern standards, the story itself is seriously weird so we find modern critics such as the members of the Jesus Seminar suggesting this appears to be more Luke, the author of Acts, trying to explain the main features of the birth of the Christian Church in a way that builds confidence and teaching key understandings rather than by trying to give a simple factual account. Regardless of how you may feel about the accuracy of Luke’s reporting, the real test, as with all scripture, is to see if there may be truths here that help us in our own faith journey.
Pentecost itself is a borrowed festival – and was one of three significant pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish religious year. The word – derived from a word meaning fifty – is supposed to happen fifty days after the festival of Passover. Because to the Jews, Pentecost celebrates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, in other words, God forming a Covenant with the Jews, Pentecost comes to have additional meaning as the birthday of the Christian Church because in the Acts version, a New Covenant is set up as the Spirit comes upon these early Church followers. As Peter explains it, these phenomena are like the last days when: “it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
Although in the story we encounter seriously strange events, these occurrences, namely the wind, the tongues of fire, and the different languages are all better understood if we think of their special religious significance and meaning.
The Bible – and I should add that this works in both the Greek and the Hebrew – uses the same word for the wind and breath it does for the Spirit. The wind then tells us that this is a standard metaphor for Spirit, the presence of God. The other metaphor, fire, is another code for the presence of God. Remember God speaking through the burning bush, remember the pillar of fire guiding through the wilderness, and remember God igniting the wet wood for Elijah.
For me the Acts version part referring to speaking in tongues is also intended to have an underlying meaning.
Those of you who have travelled will know that different languages can be something of a mixed blessing. In foreign lands, on hearing your own language spoken, there is relief – and on hearing an unfamiliar tongue, there can be confusion and a feeling of somehow being excluded. The Bible writers agree. Remember the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel which presents the mixture of languages as a total breakdown in communication, but here with the story of Pentecost, the variety of languages are the setting for total communication.
As anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know, there is a quantum jump from having a school foreign vocabulary lesson to genuine communication in a foreign language. Successful crossing of language barriers means recognising different cultural patterns, understanding different figures of speech and even recognising and using appropriate non-verbal cues. Saying then that the tongues of fire gave the ability to communicate is talking then of the ability, not just of vocabulary recognition, but something closer to forming bonds of empathy.
Again this is a spiritual idea and follows from the tongues of fire representing the essence of the Holy Spirit. Luke seems to be saying that using the Spirit allows us to get close enough to allow true communication to take place.
But what then is the significance of the setting?
Luke’s version of Pentecost talks of the disciples and other followers meeting together in a house, or did he perhaps mean hiding together? Given the circumstances we may well suspect that, regardless of the form of the story, he was identifying with those first disciples who were likely to be timorous and frightened followers of Jesus hiding nervously away from the genuine dangers of an unwelcoming community. In the first few months and years this must have happened on a number of occasions. In all probability they had cause to be extremely worried.
Although we understand that by this stage there would have been stories circulating about Jesus resurrection, assuming people were subject to the same sorts of doubts as they are in this day and age, it is unlikely that the stories would have been universally believed. If the authorities had been prepared to crucify Jesus, his followers must have expected similar treatment for spreading the same gospel. By the time Luke began his record, stoning and beatings for those in the early Church were becoming more frequent.
If this was the case, with the wisdom of hindsight, we know that the concerns of such early followers were totally justified.
The Romans made no secret of the fact that any talk of a single Son of God was unacceptable unless people were talking of the Emperor. By the time the book of Acts was written, the author, now widely understood to be Luke, would have witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and consequently understood that the Romans would not tolerate any movement considered a threat.
The Jewish religious leadership had already decided that Jesus did not qualify as the Messiah. Since the expected Messiah was thought to be recognised among other things for his powerful military leadership, with his first immediate task to get rid of the foreign Roman control of the Holy city of Jerusalem, there was no way this Jesus with his message of non violence and forgiveness seemed to fit their expectations. The Pentecost gathering must have been only too aware that the Jewish hierarchy now at the point of desperation was intolerant of their new movement. We can only presume that they would not have been surprised to learn that the orthodox leadership would shortly be using those like Saul to suppress any move to support any identified as false claimants for the Messiah-ship.
The visiting of the Holy Spirit is recorded then to give the followers the confidence to come out from their place of hiding, to be the gospel in the world, confident that the presence of the Holy Spirit will bring them close enough to communicate.
As already mentioned, the most unexpected part of the story is the part where those present start to use the tongues of fire as a means of speaking in other languages – and notice it says that those who came from different nations and different foreign communities were all hearing voices that spoke to them in their own language.
For those of us comfortable in our own Church community, there is a special message here. The Rev Jim Burklo, a coordinator of the Jesus Seminar, in an interview reported by Rex Hunt, suggested that typically religious beliefs fall into three separate categories.
The first is exclusivism which is the idea that our own religion is the only one that is right and the rest are either wrong or even evil. Confining church activity essentially to what happens inside the Church would be one mark of an exclusive Church.
The second is inclusivism which is another way of saying that although my faith is the only truly correct faith, we can allow that yours is not without interest and accordingly we should tolerate one another’s religion, looking for ways to cooperate and communicate. Can you hear the echo of inter-church dialogue in this one?
Then of course we have the notion of pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and by the same token your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me.
To me, this last category of pluralism is what Pentecost demonstrates in the speaking of tongues. Pluralism is at the heart of true communication in religion, for to truly understand the other’s voice we must not only hear the words in form, but also understand their spirit.
So how should we best remember Pentecost? I suppose we could always try Lorenzo de Medici’s showmanship of trying to recreate flames. However with the amount of paperwork and dealings with awkward insurance companies afterwards this would not be the best option. Perhaps we could try working ourselves into a trance making the sorts of sounds we imagine were heard at that first gathering. Some congregations opt for that choice.
But surely the whole point of Luke recording this event for the Church was so that the Christians might know they would find sufficient power in the Holy Spirit to get out there in the world and start being the Church.
Maybe it calls for our honest inward reflection. Is our Church a shelter of withdrawal from the part of the world that threatens? Or do we accept that there is sufficient power of what we can only call the Holy Spirit, to take the principles taught by Jesus and live them in the community and world? Ultimately our lives will tell others which choice we have made.