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Why we celebrate Pentecost
This is a guest post from one of our leaders, Bryant Burkhart.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books to read/peruse—aside from my parent’s 1974 set of World Book Encyclopedias—was the Reader’s Digest Guide New Fix It Yourself Manual. Chock full of diagrams and instructions on how to dismantle everything from your air condition to your toaster, I read that thing from cover to cover more times than I can count. I was so ready to just… fix anything. All the time. I felt equipped, empowered, enlightened. And that’s the simple beauty of technical writing. Free from moral quandary, ethical dilemmas, character development… humanity; technical writing allows us to communicate ideas and skills across time and space in an easy-to-use fashion.
This is, of course, something humans have been doing since the beginning of history. Probably longer! Egyptians depicted the process for growing seasons and embalming the dead on the walls of their tombs, the Greeks and Romans recorded farming techniques and mathematical theories they developed. Medieval craftsman would create intricate models and sketches of things like cathedrals to communicate ideas across the generations without folks needing the ability to read. But, usually, the traffic and trade of knowledge and skills was kind of a lengthy, fluid process; trickling down through the generations from father to son and mother to daughter. Farming, cooking, masonry, ruling, blacksmithing… knowledge and skills tended to be absorbed, not downloaded like they often are now.
And then, in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and Western culture lurched forward. The ability to quickly and easily and accurately disseminate information revolutionized everything. Knowledge and skills became democratized, meaning the power of information kind of evaporated and permeated culture. With more books available, people had more reason to learn to read, and more ideas were unleashed to rattle about, interacting with one another and creating even more ideas. In the sixty years after the printing press was invented, over twenty million volumes were produced. The printing press is almost directly responsible for the rise of the Age of Reason, the Protestant Reformation, Western capitalism… and basically most of the foundations of western culture.
And with that, technical writing—things like instruction manuals and how-to guides—was revolutionized. One of the first “how to” guides was printed in the early 1500s and detailed useful techniques for farming and grafting different species of trees together. Scholarly writings documenting experiments allowed for peer repetition and review. Eventually, the how-to genre became particularly important as the Industrial Revolution exploded onto the globe and the reproduction of machines—and the skills needed to operate and repair them—allowed for worldwide production.
But we also saw something else develop. The how-to genre expanded and took over other areas of living. The development of texts on proper behavior—like women’s magazines that detailed true womenhood and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People—turned behavior and charisma and manners into codified bits of information, just waiting to be picked up and ingested. Self-help books offer us the promise of self-improvement and the satisfaction of self-obsession in the ease of an auto-repair manual. From codependency to self-confidence to power to money to spiritual satisfaction, there’s a self-help book with your problem in mind.
But why how-to manuals? Why self-help books? Why all this history and western civilization on Pentecost!? Why do we care about Joel Osteen on the birthday of our church (or ever, for that manner)? Because I think we need to understand exactly how not to interact with the Bible and the story of Pentecost before we even jump in. The Bible as we now read it is older than almost any other book in popular circulation, it’s been around since long before the printing press. It was written in a completely different age and a different time that didn’t know self-help books and how-to guides. It was written at a time when history and people and story were spoken down from generation to generation, and occasionally written down. When it was written, story and narrative and dialogue were the primary medium for interacting with history and ideas. History was alive and present because you carried it with you constantly in your head and in your blood.
We’ll come back to that point a bit further down the road, but for now, I want to start with Luke’s recounting of the Pentecost event and see where it takes us.
To really understand what’s going on here, we’ve gotta go back. Waaaaay back. Before Jesus was born, before Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, before King David started creeping on his palace roof. We need to go the whole way back to Exodus. We need context, we need backstory, and we need to understand that when the believers were all gathered together in one place, they weren’t just chilling out, appointing new apostles and waiting for Jesus to return. They were a bunch of Jews gathered together to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. This Jewish feast was often called Pentecost because it happens 50 days (Pentekostos which is Greek for 50 days) after Passover. Fifty days after the sacrifical lamb is slain to ward off death, the Jews were ordered by God to gather and celebrate the first fruits of spring. There’s singing, dancing, and feasting alongside your sisters and brothers in your community to celebrate life and plenty and to thank God for providing it.
Additionally, this holiday also commemorates the giving of life in a different way: The Feast of Weeks is also when the Jewish people commemorate and remember the giving of the law by God on Mt. Sinai.
I don’t want to get too hung up on the 10 commandments and Charleton Heston’s beard, but I do want to point out a couple radical things about this story that have been clouded by Hollywood and pop culture versions.
First, God doesn’t just hide on the mountain and use Moses as his mouthpiece. God tries to talk directly to his people. The first time the Ten Commandments are recorded, they are straight from the mouth of God and the people are too distracted and afraid by the theatrics to really understand what’s going on. God comes down, personal and mighty, to pass on his plan to his people. Second, the giving of the law also is so much more than just, “10 Easy Steps to Serve Me and Live Happily Forever.” No, God spends the next three chapters outlying some basic guidelines for a comparatively just and progressive society, culminating when God has Moses gather up all the leaders of the Israelites and God spends time with them. God appears in thunder and lightning, in wind and in fire, but also in personal form when she shares a meal with the elders of his tribe
I think now we miss a lot of the intimacy and humanity that God exhibits to the Israelites. Modern American Protestants often have this divided view of the Bible in which the God of the Old Testament liked to stomp around in clouds and smite people and call for acts of genocide, but then he had a change of heart and send Swedish Hippy Jesus to help us be nice to each other. And so we read the New Testament and casually avoid the Old because it’s just too darn hard to deal with. I don’t mean to point fingers, by any means, because I do this myself, but I believe we’re doing ourselves a deep disservice when we do this because we’re literally missing out on half the story. So much of the New Testament story—for instance, the entire Gospel of Matthew—is wrapped up in Jewish history and is attempting to illustrate the radical reenactment of the divine’s quest to free us and win us back. At the beginning of history, humanity wanted to go their own way, and God has been trying to win us back ever since. First, God selected the Israelites to live as this restored nation in the world, a beacon to a the restored humanity. But unfortunately, the pull of power and conquest and dominion was too strong and that beacon crumbled. So, as the story goes, God became human to be that beacon himself. Christ came and demonstrated how to live wholly and completely in God; how to be freed from sin and death. Christ came to demonstrate and establish the new community that would carry that life forward and spread it throughout the globe.
Which brings us back to the gathering of the believers in Jerusalem, 50 days after the resurrection, 10 days after Christ ascends into heaven, on the birthday of the church. Left alone in the world, the believers turn to prayer and wonder what’s next until God appears cloaked in wind and fire and reminds them what has been happening all along: restoration.
This is why we really celebrate Pentecost: not because it’s the first time the Holy Spirit shows up (because there are references to the Spirit all throughout the Bible), but because it is God calling us to realize the true size and scope of this restoration project that She’s been working on all along. In Christ and in the Church, we are finally realizing that God intends to save all of creation, not just a select nation or people. At the moment of Christ’s death, the curtain in the temple that separated the holiest part of the temple was torn apart, and I really think that’s what the Pentecost event is really all about; the outflowing of God’s love into the whole world.
But where does that leave us? If God is here and present and acting in the world, what is our place? Why does the church exist if God is here and for everyone? Because learning and loving and living still happens by example, and new life is impossible in isolation. Throughout the story of God’s acting upon the world, there has never been a story of God trying to save just one person. God always works through communities of people. On a smaller level, Peter might tell God’s story and welcome 3000 people into the church, but God is also using the Church to show the globe her vision for the world. And that’s exactly what the early church did.
This radical way of living didn’t just arise out of thin air, the early church was simply living in the way God had called their people to thousands of years before. Living with grace and forgiveness towards one another, feasting and sharing meals together, living and treating all property and possessions as God’s; these are all foundations of how God has always called us to live, and how we are still called to live.
Now I’m not saying that we should all sell all of our stuff and move into the Manna Bible Institute and share all of our meals and all of our possession and devote ourselves to interpersonal conflict and resolution. Becoming a cult is not a particularly sustainable way to live, nor is it a great way to bring people into the call of Jesus. This is a pretty common trap that a lot of Christian groups fall into: treating early Acts church as step-by-step manual for following God through the ages. In fact, I don’t think the Bible ever explicitly states in fourteen easy steps how we are to live. Because that’s not what the Bible exists for. It’s not a handbook, it’s not a how-to, it’s not an instruction manual, it is a narrative that we are invited to participate in telling. It is the story that demonstrates and illustrates who God is. Instead of a crisp photograph of good Christian living, the Bible paints with broader brushstrokes the trajectory of God’s love, and we are called to determine how that trajectory continues.
We are not alone, however. God still lives and moves and acts among us today. The Holy Spirit is real ad moving and alive among us. One of my favorite sayings is that we as believers are called sail against the current of the world by catching the wind of the Spirit. Mysterious and uncontrollable and at times overwhelming, we are called to continue feeling out what it means to be working with God today. And between the stories the Bible tells us, and the Spirit continually breathing new life into us, we are equipped to be the church; moving and acting and demonstrating God’s love in the world today. Is this simple? By no means! Does it require constant prayer and self-criticism and community and forgiveness and calling each other out and sometimes crying and sometimes laughing and humanity and grace and lots and lots of delicious food? Absolutely. And so much more. But that’s why we’re here. Not to replicate an early expression of church and community from a set of biblical “instructions,” but to be inspired by the holy spirit to work out our faith and life together, together.