Tomorrow, many churches – including mine – will be celebrating Pentecost, a day that I think is much too underrated/under celebrated within the Western church. To get a picture of why Pentecost is important, it helps to step back and look at the overall flow of the Christian calendar. It looks something like this:
Advent -> Christmas -> Lent -> Good Friday -> Easter -> Ascension Sunday -> Pentecost
Each of these observances point to an important marker in the development of the Christian faith. Advent begins with a longing for the presence of God among us. This leads to Christmas, in which the incarnation of God is observed, and then progressively “down” into Lent and Good Friday, where God suffers and dies among us.
At the point of Good Friday, we can say that God has fully entered into our humanity, having been born, having lived among us, and having died as a human being. He has, we can say, followed a path of descent – the way of suffering, death and decay – one which all of us know all too well.
But now the Christian story turns upwards, into an ascending pattern. That is to say, the story arc of Jesus ceases to be a story of descent and instead takes the shape of a redemptive arc. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus rises from the dead. He then ascends into heaven. But – even then – “ascension” doesn’t really complete the story.
The early Christian writings emphasize that, in ascending or “returning” to God, Jesus also became an integral part of the cosmos. Paul, for example, uses language that describes Jesus as in all things and through all things.
In other words, Jesus not only ascends, he transcends.
And it is only on Pentecost that the transcendence of Jesus is completed.
This aspect of the Christian faith is important because it marks the point in which the “story” of Advent/Christmas/Good Friday/Easter is passed on to us. Having paid us a short visit, Jesus does not, as he says in the Gospel of John, abandon us as orphans. Instead, he returns to us in the transcendent form of spirit.
This spirit, in turn, makes it possible for Jesus to be accessible to all people at all times.
On Pentecost Sunday, we remember this sermon that was preached by Peter. And in his sermon, Peter quotes from this passage that was written by a prophet named Joel. Here is what Peter says:
[T]his is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Notice the universal nature of the language in this poetry that Peter recites. God will pour out Holy spirit on all people. High and low. Male and female. Races and nations of all types.
Pentecost is important, because without it, we might end up concluding that – although the story of Jesus is very inspiring, and perhaps hopeful – there is nothing in the here and now for us, or for the rest of humanity.
I am always hesitant to talk about the problem of God in terms of accessibility. Some people like to use the theological language of “gulfs” and “gaps” and “separation.” But I don’t like that language.
God’s spirit is here and now among you, and me, and all people. That spirit simply needs to be recognized and embraced. As Paul would put it in his sermon to the philosophers in Athens, “He is not far from each of us.” Then, quoting a Greek poet, he says: “In Him we live and move and have our being.”
So I hope you will join me in the celebration of Pentecost tomorrow – recognizing the transcendent Christ and the nearness of the Spirit of God to all people.