I was a children’s minister once. While I’m proud of things like organizing our curriculum around the church calendar, I can name a few things that do not fall in the “proud” category. Like the time we attempted to celebrate Pentecost by having the kids wrap up an empty box with a big bow to symbolize the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Except it was also Mother’s Day.
Children burst forth from their class cradling a wrapped box as they ran into the arms of the woman who cares for them. Understandably, most mothers assumed their child lovingly crafted something for them in class, and to their disappointment, they found the pretty box empty. Hollow.
Who’s afraid of the Holy Ghost?
I think the Holy Ghost scares us. Like my Pentecost craft, we like to put and keep things in boxes with neat little bows on top. So when we read all about the Spirit in Acts, we get a little nervous. We don’t have categories for fire and tongues and a manifestation of God in all believers. We can’t find a place for a Spirit who strikes down Ananias and Sapphira, physically transports Philip, and works through visions to shift ancient theology and save souls.
Maybe we should feel a little hesitant and mince our words. After all, the Spirit is God, and to speak of God places you on holy ground. To walk on that ground in confident reverence instead of looking for a detour, we need a fresh look at Pentecost. I suggest we begin at the most obvious beginning: the coming of the Spirit.
Before Pentecost Was Pentecost
They say timing is everything. God knows that better than anyone. He specifically planned the work of the cross and resurrection to happen the week of Passover. The death and resurrection of Jesus culminate the patterns God built into the Passover. He made it so the context of his ultimate full and final rescue gave shape to the shadow of the Hebrews’ rescue from the Egyptians. The timing of Easter adds to our understanding. In the same way, God specifically planned the timing of the coming of the Holy Spirit for Pentecost.
“Wait,” you might be thinking, “I thought Pentecost was just what we call the day the Spirit came.”
In Luke’s account in Acts 1, Jesus’ last instructions to the disciples concern the Holy Spirit: wait a few days here, he tells them. The Holy Spirit will come for you, and when he does, he will come with power, and you will tell people about me here, there, and to the ends of the earth.
Why the wait? Apparently, Pentecost.
Before Pentecost was Pentecost, it was Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks. Fifty days following the somberness of Passover, God’s people came together as a community to celebrate Shavuot with raucous rejoicing. Rooted in remembrance of the exodus, Israel held the twofold celebration of Shavuot: they rejoiced in the firstfruits of the harvest—God’s physical provision of bread, and they celebrated the giving of the Torah at Sinai—God’s spiritual provision of his word. Bread and word. The revelation of God.
On this particular day, after a particularly somber Passover, the Holy Spirit comes. Rooted in the new and final exodus of the resurrection, God institutes a new and final Sinai moment. And it parallels the twofold celebration. Like Sinai and Shavuot, there is the word and a harvest. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, now, finally, the word of God can be written on our very hearts. Immediately Peter preaches and three thousand souls from different tribes, tongues, and nations are made alive: the firstfruits of a much larger harvest to come. Bread and word. The revelation of God.
The parallels continue. Like Sinai, the revelation of the third person of the Trinity comes with power and fire and noise. Like Shavuot, God’s provision inspires great rejoicing. Like Sinai, the word of God is made clear. Like Shavuot, the whole believing community celebrates together.
The coming of the Spirit fulfills the Israelites’ lingering hopes that one day the Law would not be so hard and forgetting it would not be so easy. And the disciples taste the firstfruits of fulfillment of the hope of Psalm 128; their tears over what went into the ground has reaped hands and hearts full of joy at the resultant harvest.
The Kingdom That Will Come through Us
Luke opens his first book, his gospel account, with God made flesh on a mission to restore the kingdom of God. The coming of the Holy Spirit seems to make for a fitting finale to that story—the perfect final flourish. Instead, the author portrays Pentecost as the opening scene for his second book, Acts. As the narrative unfolds, the Spirit takes center stage as the mission of God in flesh materializes.
From Pentecost Luke traces his main character—the Spirit—through the apostles, the deacons, Paul, the churches, and so on. The pages of Acts depict the power and proclamation of the Spirit as something not controlled by the establishment or contained by anyone except the Spirit himself as he rapidly moves out from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria and, seemingly, toward the ends of the known earth. And then it ends abruptly. We leave acts with Paul awaiting trial in Rome. No denouement, no finale, no neat little bow to wrap it all up.
The author of Luke and Acts doesn’t write the coming of the Spirit as an ending; he depicts it as a beginning.
Let’s go back to Jesus’ instructions in Acts 1:7–8. The disciples had just asked him, essentially, “Wait, so will you bring the kingdom of God now, or will you do that later? Is that what we’re waiting for in Jerusalem?” And Jesus replies as he so often does: “You’re asking the wrong question. Not when but who. The right question is who will restore the kingdom of God?”
The answer: Not me, but you. Me-in-you.
At Pentecost, God-with-us becomes God-in-us. The word of God no longer enshrined in the temple but enfleshed in us, the church. Jesus Christ, by the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit, began the mission to restore the kingdom in his own flesh. And Jesus Christ, by the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit, will finish the mission to restore the kingdom—through our flesh.
This is why the story does not end. Luke turns the story inside out, inviting us to see ourselves as characters.
My greatest regret about my ill-conceived Pentecost craft is not disappointing instead of celebrating mothers that day. I regret that I gave them an empty box that cannot begin to convey the power or the presence of the Spirit. It cannot communicate the comfort of comprehending that the very God of the universe dwells in and works through me, and you, and the whole community of the church.
I had it all wrong. Once we were empty, but now we are filled with a gift greater than we can comprehend: God himself. Pentecost is anything but a hollow hope. And for that, we all have reason to rejoice.
Cover image by Sunyu.