Jean Restout II, Pentecost (1732), 183” x 306 1/4”, oil on canvas, The Louvre, Paris
Pentecost Sunday makes me uncomfortable. I don’t speak in tongues, prophesy, or dance in the aisles. The closest I’ve ever come to being “slain in the Spirit” was once when I had the flu and nearly passed out in the pulpit. In fact, I’m so non-Pentecostal that I don’t even raise my hand to vote in church business meetings. I’m sure this “pneuma-phobia” comes from my childhood. I was raised in a church where anything more than a muffled cough in worship was considered out of order. No clapping. No lifting of hands. No laughing. I remember sitting in our family’s usual pew on Sunday mornings, feeling choked by my necktie, wishing something, anything would happen to break the monotony of the service. Now I like monotony. The familiar rhythms of traditional Christian worship are comfortable, like my favorite leather chair.
Pentecost Sunday makes me nervous, because it reminds us that God sometimes shows up in unexpected ways and makes his people look foolish. The Bible says the disciples were “all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). They made such a scene that those watching thought they were drunk (2:13). What about St. Paul’s admonition to “let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? It shows that exuberant and disoderly worship was not uncommon in the earliest churches.
The 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles marked the early beginnings of modern Pentecostalism. A contemporary newspaper article in the LA Times reveals how ridiculous it all seemed to one outside observer. You can read the original story here: “Weird Babel of Tongues” (April 18, 1906). The reporter who wrote the piece was offended because of the interracial make-up of the congregation (“colored people and a sprinkling of whites”), the disorder (“a state of mad excitement”), and the incomprehensible, ecstatic speech of the worshipers (“the most outrageous jumble of syllables”). There are several parallels with the Cane Ridge Revival of the Second Great Awakening a hundred years earlier. There are obvious parallels with Acts 2:1-21 as well.
In my theological education I was taught to notice the differences between modern Pentecostal experiences and the details of the biblical account, yet I’ve come to see there are more similarities than differences. If we’re honest with ourselves, all non-Pentecostal Christians have to ask why we haven’t seen or experienced anything like what we read in the Book of Acts. In the first century, Christianity was a sect of Judaism, a radical fringe movement. Over the centuries Christians domesticated it and made it respectable. I fear we’ve lost some of its original vitality in the process.
I think about the revivalism in my Baptist heritage, which was at times as disorderly as Asuza Street. But there was something good about it. There was a time when the Spirit was expected to descend and move people to respond publicly. A passionate sermon might compel scores of repentant sinners with tears streaming down their faces to walk the aisles, kneel at the altar, and confess their sins to God. It still happens in some churches. I have seen beautiful expressions of community as “brothers” and “sisters” kneel next to the ones at the altar, putting their arms around them, praying with and for them. What would happen in one of our “respectable” Baptist churches if people began to weep and wail over their sins? Would we rejoice or merely shift uncomfortably in our pews ?
In the Old Testament Pentecost was an agricultural festival at the end of harvest called the “Feast of Weeks” (Ex. 23:16, Lev. 23: 15-21, Deu. 16:9-12). In later rabbinic tradition this feast (also called “Shavuot”) became associated with the giving of the Mosaic Law at Sinai. In the early church Pentecost was a time of rejoicing. Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 220) wrote, “We spend our time in exultation.” According to Dix, “The church retained [Pentecost] to celebrate not only the events recorded in the second chapter of Acts but her own character as the ‘People’ of the New Covenant, and the fact that ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made’ her members ‘free from the law of sin and death’” (The Shape of Liturgy, 341). Unlike modern American evangelicalism with its focus on individual experience, Pentecost was historically a celebration of community.
The pouring out of God’s Spirit on the first Pentecost gave the disciples boldness to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:14-3:26) and perseverance to endure persecution (Acts 4). If we want revival in our own day and in our own church, we have to be open to whatever God has for us. It might get messy as when new wine bursts old wineskins. But don’t worry if that happens; the altar cloth is red this Sunday and the stains won’t show.