A painting of Pentecost Day
by Joseph Ignaz Mildorfer.
Used with permission.
PENTECOST reveals God’s answer to the problem of communication. We may be naturally wired for fellowship with each other, and even with God, yet we often get our wires crossed.
As urbanised people, we now live within the matrix of information technology that promises to improve our communication. And, thanks to this technology, we can make connections around the world at the speed of light.
Yet our technology is far from perfect. Even worse, information technology easily dominates our relationships, such as when personal face-to-face conversations are pre-empted by the urgency to answer the mobile phone. And with all of our technical ability to connect across distances we still fail to stem the tide of broken relationships in our own homes. Something is missing.
This is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, the biblical story of how all the people of the earth spoke one language and had a single goal, to make a name for themselves. They were so confident in their ability to connect with each other that they came up with the most grandiose of schemes, to build a tower to heaven. But the project was interrupted half-way through when everyone started speaking different languages. Taking their own human abilities for granted, they left God out of the picture, and so ended up in confusion.
We also take communication for granted. For centuries philosophers have pondered the question of how the human mind can actually interconnect with, and understand, other minds. We can send crystal-clear messages from the earth to the moon, but can we guarantee that the mind which receives the message will understand it in the same way as the one who sent it? This is ultimately a spiritual matter.
The Holy Spirit
Pentecost is the sign that God wants to solve our communication problem. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples that first Pentecost, as recorded in the Acts of Apostles, the confusion of the Tower of Babel was reversed, not by making everyone speak the same language again. Rather, the Holy Spirit brought people together in spite of different languages and cultures.
The Holy Spirit is the one who reveals the mind of God to us, who interprets the meaning of Scripture, who helps us when we do not know how to pray, who gives us confidence to speak and witness across cultural and linguistic divides. In all of our emphasis on media, we must never forget the Holy Spirit who gives meaning to the message.
Every year, the church celebrates Pentecost to remember and to be renewed according to an event that happened 2,000 years ago. Pentecost (fiftieth in Greek) was the New Testament era term for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which took place 50 days after Passover. As with other great festivals, Jews living in the diaspora were expected to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
After Jesus’ resurrection, His disciples were gathered together on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on them, granting them ability to communicate in ways they could not imagine. They proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus to a crowd of diverse pilgrims, and as a result, the church was born with 3,000 people. The ancient harvest festival was turned into a harvest of the Spirit. And a people discovered how to communicate again, by the grace of God.
A new creation
Luke, the author of Acts, saw this as more than just a localised revival. It was God’s act, creating a new era, foretold by the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” (Joel 2.28; Acts 2.17). That new creation reverses the cultural chaos of the Tower of Babel, where, because of their presumptuousness, God came down and confused human language. At Pentecost the Spirit of God again came down and empowered the apostles to communicate the Gospel. Understanding was again granted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, language and cultural barriers were broken down. It was the creation of a new body of chosen people, determined not by ethnic heritage but by faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2.21).
The message of Pentecost cannot be contained in one day. The church year helps us, not only to remember the texts and traditions surrounding Pentecost, but to pattern our very lives after the Holy Spirit, who still indwells the Church, the Body of Christ, empowering and renewing its members to be like Christ.
As individuals we live our own lives according to the urgencies of day-to-day life. But God has a story also. As we live in the seasons of the Church, our lives are formed by God’s redemptive story, the very real drama of God’s love for creation.
For churches that observe the Christian year there are several variations on the Season of Pentecost. For many Protestants, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecost Sunday is considered the conclusion of the Easter Season. Then the six months until Advent are called Ordinary Time or the Sundays after Pentecost. It is a period of time in which there are no special days to mark sacred time, so they are simply counted or called “ordinal” days (The United Methodist Book of Worship). As the emphasis of this season is on proclaiming the Kingdom of God and the growth of the Church, the liturgical colour is green.
Other traditions, including many congregations of The Methodist Church in Singapore, observe Pentecost Season, beginning with Pentecost Sunday, and continuing until the last Sunday of August, at which time Kingdomtide begins. Those who observe the season of Pentecost may continue to use red as a liturgical colour, representing the flame of the Spirit igniting the Church for mission and ministry in the world, only changing to green for Kingdomtide.
Immediately following Pentecost Sunday, some churches will celebrate Trinity Sunday. The Methodist Church affirms the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as declared in the creeds.
Trinity Sunday should be more than a formal recitation of doctrine. It should be a celebration of God, the Father and creator of the universe; God, the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, who redeemed us from sin and showed us God’s true nature of Love; and God the Holy Spirit, sustainer, comforter, and power for the Church and proclamation of the Kingdom.