Today we celebrate — I trust with great hope and expectation — the wonderful feast of Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples. It’s an event which can be thought of in many different ways; even in the four years of this blog, I’ve discussed it in terms of the renewal of the people of God, the liberation of the faithful from the ways of this world, the elemental transformation of the world, and the blessing of diversity. What all of these ways of framing Pentecost have in common is the idea that what was once the purview of a select few (mostly kings and prophets) is now available to everyone. And it’s this sense of the Holy Spirit as a democratizing principle in Christianity that I’d like to reflect upon today.
This idea stems from an oracle in the book of Joel. After a vivid description of an apocalyptic intervention we call ‘The Day of the LORD’, the prophet writes:
And then after these things,
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2.28f (MT & LXX 3.1f); cf. Acts 2.17f)
Here we see the promise of the Holy Spirit being unleashed in a new way on the earth, no longer just for kings and prophets or others set apart for particular leadership roles in the community of the faithful, but for all of the faithful. And this promise was on Peter’s heart and mind as he was trying to understand the events of Pentecost.
As a reminder, the disciples had been gathered together for the feast of Weeks (so-named because it occurs seven weeks after Passover) when they hear a loud noise, like a roaring wind, and the Holy Spirit descends upon them like tongues of fire. Filled with the Spirit, they are impelled out onto the streets of Jerusalem, where they begin to preach in all sorts of languages from around the Mediterranean world so that all of the gathered pilgrims can understand them in their own languages. The gathering crowd can’t agree on whether this is an act of God or a product of drunken excess. But, Peter insists that it is nothing less than the fulfillment of the ancient promise spoken through Joel. This is the Holy Spirit, now given to this group of misfits — fishermen, tax-collectors, women, and ‘sinners’ — to renew the people of God, not from the top-down but from the bottom-up.
So great is the importance of this gift for Peter that, when he is later challenged to expand his understanding of the community of faith and open its doors to Gentiles, it is the descent of the Holy Spirit on these new believers that convinces him:
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10.44-47)
Again, we see how the coming of the Holy Spirit in power upon all of the faithful is revolutionary, redefining not only who is ‘anointed’ and ‘empowered’ in the community of faith, but also who is welcome within it.
This idea is taken up by the apostle Paul, for whom it is the guiding principle for how the Church functions. As he writes to the Church in Corinth:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12.7-11)
And here we come to the point of all of this. This promise was not just for the apostles or those first Gentile believers two thousand years ago. It is for us too. We are empowered by the same Holy Spirit that empowered them. To each of us is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. We are all being called up to use our God-given gifts for the good of the community — not for self-aggrandizement or selfish gain, but in order for the community to work properly. We’ve been given gifts that are to be used. As Paul goes on:
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members yet one body. (vv. 14-20)
Over the next month or so, I’ll be exploring this more deeply in through the lens of vocation. It’s a topic I’ve written much about here, but never in a concerted, intentional way. But, I am convinced it’s a topic of great importance, especially in this challenging moment in history.
But for today, let us rejoice and celebrate this wonderful feast that proclaims — and insists — that God is for, with, and within all of us, empowering and calling each of us to make our unique contribution in the Church and for the life of the world.