My first interaction with Pentecost came when I was a little girl in the Presbyterian Church. I didn’t know what it meant, but I did know that once a year we were supposed to wear red. Never one to do things halfway, I would come to church dressed in red from head to toe, never managing to grasp the reason for the sea of color. It’s there, behind everything we do, say and think, even on Easter Sunday: the anticipation of something more. Now, this feeling only continues to rise in me as we celebrate the full Easter season and come closer to Pentecost. How much more vivid would it have been after the first Easter, as the disciples sat and waited all together for something that had never happened before, something that was unprecedented in all human history: the continuous indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
Certainly, He had shown up before. Israel’s spiritual leaders such as Moses, his elders and the prophets had the Spirit of God resting upon them. In addition to this, many people were filled with the Holy Spirit for a time, as when Saul was chosen to be king, or when a Judge (like Sampson, Othniel or Gideon) was in power. Often, the Israelites were in peril, they had turned their back on God and needed to be rescued from their own folly. The Spirit gave these individuals the ability to prophesy or speak to the need of the moment. But, when the need was over, in most cases, the Spirit left that individual. The last person in the Old Testament who is said to have had the Holy Spirit come upon him, is King David, after David died, the interactions of the Spirit were more abstract.
With this in the rearview mirror of history, what were the disciples to think? They could not have had any idea of the magnitude of what Jesus had promised: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17 NASB) I think that many Christians still do not grasp the hugeness of this (I certainly don’t): “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11 NASB). The fact that Jesus was raised from the dead was an unprecedented act; what else might the Spirit do?
For a start, on Pentecost, He came into the midst of the house in which the disciples were staying with a noise “like a violent rushing wind” (Acts 2:2), brought flames which rested upon each head and gave the ability to preach the gospel in a variety of languages, perfect to reach the people who were, at that time, in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. It would have been impossible to predict that the Spirit would do this. Perhaps you too would have thought that these men speaking in all different languages were simply drunk from the night before.
This wouldn’t be the last time that the intoxication from alcohol was compared to the effect of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) and there are similarities. When the Holy Spirit takes over in our lives, it often feels that we are out of our own control, which, of course, has always been true.
I can’t help but think, as I ponder these men speaking languages they didn’t understand to people who did, that this incident is the exact opposite of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Instead of trying to make it to Heaven without God, God reaches down to allow His people to communicate to each other the way that He has made for them to come to Heaven with His help. Language is no barrier when God is doing the talking.
I used to view Pentecost as just a day to dress up in red, but now, as I walk into church to find an altar draped with the colors of fire, I think about the blood that was spilled for me, about the way that fire cleanses, even as it burns, and about how as much as we think that we have a blaze under control, we never quite do, even as the Holy Spirit is never under our thumb or subject to our desires. I think about the fact that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead dwells inside me and I realize that the promise in the name Immanuel, which we celebrated back in Advent, has come to pass: God is with us.
(This post was originally published on Pentecost 2011. It was an article that I wrote for our church newsletter. I visited that church for Pentecost again today, and they had printed up a bunch of these. Such an honor. I thought some of you, who haven't been with me that long, might enjoy it too.)