What to make of Pentecost Sunday
Why our celebrations should not be limited to Christmas and Easter
Posted on May 22, 2015
For many Christians, the high point of our celebrations each year comes on the day we mark the resurrection of Jesus. Then we wait for months until thanksgiving and Christmas. There is however another amazing event that occurred only 50 days after Jesus resurrection that ought not to go unnoticed. It occurred on the Jewish Day of Pentecost, the moment God chose to send the Holy Spirit to occupy, equip, and empower his people. The Spirit did not slip into the church quietly through the back door, but created quite a stir with some major visual and audible effects accompanying his arrival. (See Acts 2) So it is ironic, in a way, that Pentecost Sunday goes by unnoticed by many Christians today.
Consider this: after giving his disciples a huge assignment, to go and make disciples of all the peoples of the world, Jesus basically told them to hang around and do very little in that regard until this promise came to pass: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) What they would be able to accomplish after that event would so far surpass what they could do prior, that they were better off in the meantime doing nothing. Other statements in the New Testament make clear that the same is true of every area of our Christian life. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit within the church and within each believer that turns the promises of God into reality. The Holy Spirit enables our understanding of the truth (I Corinthians 2:12), produces Christlikeness in us (II Corinthians 3:17-18; Galatians 5:22-23), and equips and empowers us for service (I Corinthians 12:1-13).
So many wonderful things became possible for us because of Holy Spirit’s arrival on that Day of Pentecost. Surely it is fitting to give it an annual celebration. So why does that rarely happen in churches today? Here are two possible reasons:
- Throughout church history, when great attention is given to the Holy Spirit, that is often associated with unusual behavior among Christians. Others who find such behavior objectionable seek to preclude that by given limited attention to the Spirit. The concern may be legitimate, but we lose too much when we lower attentiveness to the Spirit.
- There are supernatural elements in the stories of Christmas and Easter. There are things that happen that are beyond our understanding. But because it’s all about God becoming a person who is like us in every way, there are all these dimensions to the story with which we can identify. A baby being born, a family escaping political turmoil, a good man dying for unjust reasons, etc. It all lends itself to pageants and songs being written and rich traditions being developed. God coming to us as Holy Spirit is a mystery to us at a deeper level. The Spirit is a person but our impressions are of one less personable than Jesus the Son of God or God as Father. Holding a celebration for an event that involved tongues of fire appearing may raise some safety concerns, but there are many ways to celebrate such an event.
It is unlikely however that the Holy Spirit is in any way bothered by the modest celebrations of his coming into the world. After all, the Spirit is completely “other focused” in all that he does in this world. And the other on whom he is focused, is Jesus the Son of God. According to John 16:12-15, what matters most to the Spirit, and where all of his energy is directed, is in making Jesus known. Although the Spirit is fully present among us, his primary desire is to increase awareness of Jesus rather than himself. Though we plan a celebration in honor of the Spirit’s coming, before the day is over he will prompt us to turn our attention to Jesus. As is said in John 16:7 the Spirit would never have been sent to us if Jesus had not first completed his work: “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”.
God is revealed to us as a singular supreme being who at the same time exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But there is some feeling of ambiguity in how we interact with such a God, especially with regards to God the Holy Spirit. For example, in our prayer conversations, we feel comfortable in addressing Jesus the Son of God or God the father, but we feel awkward in addressing the Spirit directly. We also discover considerable overlap in statements made about Father, Son and Spirit. How should we understand this blurring of the distinctiveness of the Spirit and the Son? Are there nuances in the way we relate to one God in three persons that we ought to understand?
During my study of Galatians for a recent sermon series, I landed on a verse that makes these matters a little less puzzling for us. In Galatians 4:6 Paul wrote: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, Abba Father”. We notice how Father, Son, and Spirit are all referred to in establishing the truth of our identity and our relationship with God. When we speak of God in three persons, we must not think of persons so distinct that they each have a mind and a will of their own. There is such unity among Father, Son and Spirit - they are so completely on the same page about everything - that we cannot really experience one without the other. We never really encounter God just as the Son or just as the Spirit or just as the Father.
But what also stands out in that verse is once again this reality of the Holy Spirit being completely “other-focused”. The Spirit is all about drawing attention to Jesus, giving people a better understanding about Jesus, and working to fulfill the mission of Jesus. When I preached a sermon from Galatians 5 on the significance of the Holy Spirit for Christian living, I was struck by the fact that everything I planned to say about “living in the Spirit”, I could also have said about “abiding in Christ”. That is why Paul can refer to him in Galatians 4:6 as the “Spirit of the Son”. Technically, it is God’s Spirit who dwells within us, but as he does so, we automatically become more aware of the presence of Christ within us.
Galatians 4:6 refers to another distinctive work of the Holy Spirit – that of solidifying our experience of being children of God. So here again, while the Spirit is the actual presence within us, wherever that is true, we become more conscious of something other than that. We end up with a deeper awareness of the fatherhood of God and our identity as his children. The cry of “Abba, Father” naturally goes up from us when the Spirit is at work in us.
When it comes to God as trinity, it is better to appreciate than to extrapolate. But I offer these thoughts with the hope and prayer that whether we make little or much of an annual Pentecost Sunday, we will for sure find plenty of reason to rejoice in God’s gift of his Spirit to his people and in all that becomes possible when we walk about in his enveloping presence.
May 24, 2015