This Sunday, we proclaim the final and joyful turning point in the mission of God. If you want to quickly tell the story of God’s mission in the world, you can do it in five main chapters: 1) creation; 2) fall; 3) the election of Israel; 4) the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and 5) the new creation. We live in chapter five, when the Spirit of God is bringing about the new creation through this Spirit-filled community called the church. And the story of Pentecost — like any good “introduction” — gives us important clues about what the shape of this new creation will be.
One clue is that the Spirit of God comes suddenly and disturbingly, as the sound of a violent wind and tongues of fire, and prompts the disciples to do an unbelievable thing. It draws a crowd that is both amazed and perplexed, and in some cases dismissive. This is not a soft, cuddly Holy Spirit; this is an uncontrollable and unpredictable Spirit. For more, see David Lose’s commentary this week in Dear Partner.
Another clue is that Spirit of God inspires the disciples to speak in languages that the crowd outside the house can understand. The line “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power,” is a word of remarkable grace. The gospel is spoken in a language we can understand. It is the same grace we see in the incarnation of Christ; God accommodates to us in order to commune and communicate with us. If we follow the leading of the Spirit and pattern of Pentecost, then we will communicate the gospel in languages those outside can understand. And remember that language is larger than words; it also culture and practice!
Many people who have read the Pew Forum survey on America’s religious landscape in the last couple of weeks have asked a question something like, “Is the church still relevant?” From the standpoint of Pentecost, the answer is absolutely — if we’re following the pattern of Pentecost. The Spirit wills to speak the gospel in languages (and cultures, and practices) that the world can understand; that is clear from the beginning. The pressing question, on the feast day of Pentecost, is whether the church will tear down the idol of its own “language” and allow the Spirit to inspire a relevant and understandable proclamation of the gospel for the world today?
Personally, though, my own attention and imagination this Pentecost is grabbed by the interplay in this story between community and individuality. Notice the community and communal words: “they all were together in one place,” “the entire house,” “all of them were filled.” The Spirit descended first on the community (the entire house), then on all the individuals in it. The individual disciples, “each of them,” are gifted with the ability to speak in other languages, and apparently they speak in many other languages. But this gifting of the Spirit is given first and foremost to the community as a whole, and then to the individuals in it.
It seems to me that we often speak of the Spirit in very individual terms, with lots of “me” phrases. The Holy Spirit… strengthens me, guides me, comforts me, protects me, sanctifies me, lives within me, etc. And all that is true and is very much our experience of God’s presence. But the Spirit is not our private possession — it’s not “mine.” The Spirit is given to the whole community. The Spirit of God is a gift we share together as the people of God, and which the people of God shares with the wider world. Whatever private measure of God’s Spirit I have received is for our flourishing, not just my flourishing.
What happens to Christian community if we start to imagine that the Holy Spirit is not a gift we possess, but one we share with the whole community? If we think that it’s not so much something “within us” as “among us”? That the Spirit is not for my benefit, but for our benefit, and the benefit those “outside the house?”
The other powerful moment of community/individuality in this story comes in verse 14, and I had never noticed it until today. “But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them…” In my mind I’d always imagined Peter preaching the first Christian sermon alone, as sermons are preached every Sunday by soloists in the pulpit. But no! Peter stood with the other eleven. He spoke, but they all preached.The Spirit of God descends on the whole community, and the preaching is done by the whole community. Sure, it’s mostly Peter doing the talking — but they all stand together.
In The Mission of Preaching, I argue at length that the congregation is the fundamental preacher, and Sunday morning preachers have a special calling to nourish and kindle the wider proclamation of God’s people. And with Lesslie Newbigin, I argue that the only way the gospel will be credible in today’s world is if the whole community lives it out it in words and deeds.What I had not seen until today is that the pattern is set from the beginning, in the first sermon — as Peter is standing “with the eleven.”
The Spirit of God descends on them all, and sends them all, each individually gifted, to proclaim and participate in the final act of God’s great mission: new creation.