What has happened to Pentecost?

PENTECOST SUNDAY is the day which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples of Jesus.

It recalls the founding of the Christian Church .

To most of us, however, this day is a matter of in difference. We do .not look forward to it . with the anticipation which characterizes our expectations of Christmas and Easter, and we do not look back to it the way we reflect on the meaning and joy of Christmas and Easter.

In the name of faithfulness to Jesus and the early Christians the contemporary Mennonite Brethren Church observes primarily two Christian festivals. We observe Christmas with great devotion and fanfare, and we observe Easter, but with less conviction and display than characterizes our observance of Christmas.

Our practices stand in sharp contrast to the early Christian vision which we profess to recapture in our faith and life-style . The great Christian festivals in the early church were Easter and Pentecost well into the third century.

Christmas was not observed until the fourth century A.D. For the early Christians it was Easter and Pentecost; for us it is Christmas and Easter. What has happened to Pentecost?

Pentecost has become insignificant in the life of the modern Mennonite Brethren Church.

Just how insignificant it has become in the life of the church was illustrated for me in two ways during the past year. The first was the complete silence of both conference papers, the Christian Leader and the Mennonite Brethren Herald, on Pentecost. We make much of Christmas and Easter but nothing of Pentecost.

The second illustration occurred in a conversation with a Mennonite Brethren minister and conference leader with whom I discussed a prospective speaking engagement on Pentecost Sunday. When I suggested that I planned to speak on Pentecost since it was Pentecost Sunday, he responded, “That would be alright, but you k now that we as MB’s do not observe the Christian calendar.”

I consider his response fundamentally dishonest. His church happens to make a great deal of Christmas and Easter, but suddenly when it comes to Pentecost, we forget the Christian calendar. I am sure that if he took his own advice seriously for the observance of Christmas and Easter he would be in deep trouble with his own congregation.

What has happened to Pentecost?

Why has one of the two great festivals of the early Christians become so insignificant in the life of the contemporary church that we either ignore it or even dishonestly suggest that we neglect it because we do not observe the Christian calendar?

I wish to deal with this question in two ways. First of all, I want to ask what Pentecost meant to the early Christians?

Secondly, I want to sharpen the question already posed: what has happened to Pentecost in our Christian faith?

Pentecost for the early Christians

Pentecost meant three things for the early disciples of Jesus:

(1) The fulfillment of the Messianic expectation.

From the time of the prophets of Israel, the coming Messianic Age was·characterized, in part, as an age of the Spirit. The active presence of the Spirit constituted one of the marks of the expected Messianic Age. This hope is evident already in the prophet Joel, whom Peter quoted in his Pentecost sermon. The same theme is present in the inter-testamental literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the coming of the Messianic Spirit is described as a purifying and clean sing power .

This hope received new vitality in the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist.

John came announcing an imminent baptism of the Spirit and fire. He thus proclaimed a baptism of promise and judgment. The element of promise consisted in the imminence of the Messianic baptism and the possibility of entering the Messianic Age. The theme of judgment is seen in the language of fire and Spirit, which from the Old Testament on was associated with the destruction of the wicked and the purification of the righteous. John thus was announcing the End as a time of suffering for all; destruction for the wicked and cleansing for the faithful. Those desirous of entering the Messianic Age were called to an immediate repentance and baptism of repentance to begin the process of purification.

In the coming of the Spirit on Jesus at the time of his baptism the hope of the prophets was fulfilled, in one per son at least. The Messianic Spirit had now come upon Jesus. That meant the end of the old age and the inauguration of a new age. The time of the prophets had come. Therefore, Jesus could proclaim as his central message, “the Kingdom of God has come.”

Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit marked the shift in the ages of salvation history. Now the eschatological Spirit had come. Jesus’ anointing with the Spirit brings in the End, the Kingdom of God.

What the Jordon experience was to Jesus, Pentecost was to the disciples. Now the Spirit was not confined to one man, but it possessed and empowered all who were faithful to Jesus. Now the Messianic promise had been fulfilled among God’s people. As Peter points out in Acts 2, now the prophecy of Joel was accomplished. The gift of the Spirit on God’s people, which was expected to mark the beginning of the Messianic Age, had come at Pentecost. The Messianic Age had begun because the Spirit had come.

(2) Pentecost meant the beginning of a new age.

The coming of the Spirit on Jesus, we have observed, marks the beginning of a new era in salvation history.

Pentecost is the beginning of that new age, not for Jesus, but for the disciples. Again, what the Jordan experience was to Jesus, Pentecost was to the disciples. Jesus entered the new age via his baptism in the Spirit at the Jordan River. The disciples followed him in the event of Pentecost. Now the experience of the new age was extended to include Jesus’ disciples. Thus the new age did not begin for the disciples until Pentecost.

The new age which Pentecost inaugurated was a climax of all that had gone before. From the start of Jesus’ ministry we are pointed forward in the synoptic Gospels, not to his death, but to the baptism which he will give (Lk. 3:15-17). At the end of his life on earth, the ascension, we are still looking forward to that baptism (Acts 1:5). The same theme is evident in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 (vs. 29-33): the climax of Jesus’ ministry is not the cross and the resurrection, but Pentecost. It is only at Pentecost that the blessings of the new age, inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, wert’ extended to the disciples.

But Pentecost is not merely a continuation of what went before; it is also the beginning of a new age. Not only does it fulfill the prophetic expectation of Joel and the other prophets of Israel, but it marks the beginning of a new covenant for the disciples. According to Acts 2 :39, Pentecost fulfills the covenant promise to Abraham. The gift of the Spirit is the means whereby all men may enter the blessing of Abraham.

Pentecost also fulfills the covenant of Sinai. It is the Jewish feast commemorating the covenant of God with Israel formed at Sinai. The coming of the Messianic Spirit on that day marks the end of the old age, the age of the law, and the beginning of the new age, the age of the Spirit.

(3) Pentecost meant the beginning of a new community of God’s people.

The intent of God’s covenants with Abraham and Israel at Sinai was the formation of a human community which would be faithful to God and his will.

When Israel was repeatedly unfaithful, the prophets re-directed their hope toward a remnant of people that would be faithful to God. From the outset of his ministry Jesus worked with such a remnant to form a new community of God’s people. The twelve disciples constituted the core of this newly emerging community.

Pentecost constituted this disciple group, now numbering 120, as the new covenant people of the Messianic Age.

They are God’s new humanity. They alone belong to the Messianic Age because they alone possess the Messianic Spirit. The new Messianic community, later called the church, is empowered and commissioned by God to extend the blessings of the Messianic Age throughout the world. The characteristics of this new community tell us much of God’s intent for the form of the Messianic community in the new age.

The community may be described as:

  • A community of repentance and forgiveness.

We have already seen that the Spirit was associated with purification in the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls and John the Baptist. The people of the .Messianic community are a repentant people; a people who have voluntarily turned from their sin, received God’s forgiveness, and live a new kind of life. They are a free and purposeful people because they have been liberated from their past and given a new direction under the Lordship of Jesus.

  • A community of economic sharing.

The Messianic people were so united in the. Spirit that a new mode of economic relationships was required. Individual concern was replaced by corporate concern. Individual acquisition and consumption was replaced by community sharing. The Messianic people, in fact, were so enthusiastic in their mutual aid that the practice led to poverty, and the need for assistance from the missionary churches of the Apostle Paul.

  • A community of honest fellowship.

The experience of the Spirit led to koinonia, the sharing of one’s whole existence in Christ in testimony, prayer and table fellowship. Dishonesty, as seen in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, was such a breach of fellowship in the Spirit that it was judged by death.

Excess in economic sharing is tolerable in the Messianic community of the Spirit, but dishonesty among the believers is not.

  • A community of study.

Economic sharing and fellowship become empty and meaningless apart from their rootage in the study of biblical teachings.

The life and mission of the Messianic community was deeply rooted in the study of the apostles’ teaching, the apostolic transmission of the Jesus history and the interpretation of the meaning of that history for the life of the church.

  • A community of witness.

Everywhere the disciples went, we read, they proclaimed Jesus in the power of the Spirit. And, we also read, that God continually added new people to the Messianic community in response to this proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.

But it must also be noted that this witness did not only take the form of verbal proclamaticl1. The presence and radical life-style of the Messianic community itself constituted a powerful witness. People were startled by the freedom and boldness of the early Christians.

Economic sharing is tied to witness in Acts 4:32f. The judgment of dishonesty was a powerful witness in Acts 5.

Pentecost then means the new age has begun because the Spirit has come.

It means that the faith and experience which the New Testament calls Christian is possible for men because they can trust in Jesus and receive the Spirit of the Messianic Age.

Pentecost marks the beginning of the Christian faith and the Christian church. It means that to be a Christian is to be a person of the Spirit. From Pentecost on “Christian” by definition designates a person who has the Spirit.

In one sense Pentecost is only historical; it is not repeatable. The new age is here and cannot be ushered in again. But in another sense it can be repeated in the lives of those who become disciples of Jesus. In fact, it must be repeated if one is to be a disciple.

As Peter offered the gift of the Spirit to people on Pentecost, so the Spirit is still offered today to those who wish to enter God’s Messianic community. According to Acts 11:17, Pentecost came when “the people trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Pentecost thus represents the one day in salvation history that inaugurates the Church as God’s new Messianic people, and defines the unique quality of the Christian faith as life in the Spirit. It is the most important day in Christian history. Without it the death and resurrection of Jesus would be inconsequential for history and salvation.

Without it there would be no church, no new Messianic community in the world.

And yet we ignore it or say it is not important. We observe Christmas, which the early Christians did not, and which is meaningless without Pentecost. We observe Easter, which the early Christians also did, but which is also meaningless without Pentecost. A crucified and risen Messiah who is not present in history because his Spirit has not come is not good news.

What has happened to Pentecost?

Pentecost has become insignificant in the life of the church over the centuries.

Only in recent times there has been a renewal of the Pentecost experience. That renewal is provoking great anxiety in the church, including within the Mennonite Brethren Church.

Pentecost frightens us. We would like to keep it insignificant. Why?

Why the de-emphasis on Pentecost?

Why do we fear it?

We have de-emphasized Pentecost because

(1) we have lost the eschatological consciousness of Jesus and the early Christians.

We no longer live by hope in the coming Kingdom of God. We have bedded down in history and like it. Our hopes are tied to this world.

Pentecost calls us to a new eschatological consciousness; a new awareness that we belong to a new world and a new community, not to the old world and the old community of this world. It calls us to hang loose in the world.

Most of us, however, are already too tied up with the world to like the prospect of hanging loose. So we fear Pentecost.

(2) we have lost a sin consciousness and a repentant life-style.

We live in a culture that re-defines sin in terms of personality disorder and/or environmental determinism instead of volitional disobedience to God. We also live in a society that exalts man, and thus seeks to make him immune from the need for repentance. Unfortunately, these cultural norms have numbed our sin consciousness and led to a neglect of a repentant life-style in the church.

Pentecost calls us to a repentance of our sin, and to a re-direction of our life in faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching and life-style.

(3) we have exalted reason and fear the Spirit.

We live in a culture that puts a premium on being rational and objective. One of the basic assumptions of the technological society, which is one of the characteristic titles being given to our age, is the rationality of all existence, and thus the possibility of rationally structuring and controlling all human experience and institutions. It is the youth culture, not the church led by the Spirit it believes in, which has been courageous enough to critique this demonic assumption of western society.

Mennonite Brethren are especially suspicious of the non-rational. We are frightened by the Spirit because our early history was characterized by the emotional excesses of a Pentecost movement.

We are still known in Mennonite circles as a highly emotional people. We tremble at the thought of giving ourselves to the Spirit. That would mean becoming irrational in a rationally oriented culture and emotionally vital in an emotionally sterile American Mennonite middle class culture.

Pentecost calls us to free our lives for the Spirit. It calls us to open our lives to the gifts of the Spirit. To be sure, Pentecost may mean some initial excesses for us which will call for the careful discernment of the brethren.

But, let us rem ember, the early church tolerated excess, except when it ca me to dishonesty.

(4) we have replaced the centrality of biblical teaching by a preoccupation with experience.

Our pietistic heritage has led to a great emphasis on experience, even to giving priority to that experience over the teachings of the New Testament. The early Anabaptists and the early Mennonite Brethren were known because of their repeated affirmation, “the Bible says.” We have exchanged that way of doing theology for an experiential theology which says “this is my experience.” We face an authority crisis in the church because we have become experience-oriented and weak in our biblical teaching and obedience to that teaching.

Experience, not Jesus and the New Testament, has become normative. Pentecost calls us to a r e-centralization of the apostles’ teaching. Our theology and experience must be rooted in and regulated by the teachings of Jesus and the early Christians.

(5) we have exchanged the simple life of the early Christians, and our own Anabaptist-Mennonite forefathers, for the affluent life of American materialism.

We are a materialistic people. Since moving back into the Mennonite community from graduate studies I have been told repeatedly about the wealth of the Mennonite people. We are proud to be able to compare ourselves with other affluent ethnic groups.

Pentecost calls us to a new economic life-style, a style characterized by sharing instead of acquiring, giving instead of a accumulating. Pentecost calls us to replace conspicuous consumption with conspicuous sharing.

What has happened to Pentecost? We have de-emphasized it because Pentecost demands too much of us. We can accept Christmas and Easter because we have accommodated these Christian festivals to our ways of thinking and living. But it is more difficult to do that with Pentecost. So we either ignore it or say it is insignificant.

But without Pentecost there is no Christian faith or Christian church , first century or twentieth century. The agenda for the church in the next Christian year, the year beginning with Pentecost, must be to become Pentecostal (I use this word in its biblical meaning, not its modern denominational sense). The church must centralize Pentecost in its theology and life-style with all that means for the church.

A summary statement of what is at stake in that agenda is given in Acts 2:38-47.

—John E. Toews

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