I know its a couple of days away, but I am getting excited about Pentecost. I really love Pentecost as a church Festival, for several reasons really, Firstly, the shops haven’t worked out how to make money out of it yet, this is the least commercialised Christian festival, its still all ours. I never feel the need to spend weeks moaning about the loss of the real meaning of Pentecost like I do with Christmas and Easter.
I also find Pentecost particularly meaningful because it seems to me its the most personal of our celebrations. Yes, just like Christmas and Easter and the Ascension, Pentecost is primarily about what God has done for us, He poured out His Spirit, its another decisive act in God’s saving work. On other hand Pentecost is when God’s work powerfully and personally intersects with our lives and churches. I wasn’t born in a manager, thankfully I haven’t been crucified (well metaphorically a few times perhaps) but there is a sense in which God wants me to experience aspects of what happened on that first Day of Pentecost.
Now I know that immediately I say that, that God wants me to experience (and you of course) what happened to the first-generation believers that just about everyone jumps to speaking in tongues. I know this because I was brought up Pentecostal, sermons on the Day of Pentecost which ended with invitations to come forward to be prayed with to speak in tongues or invitations to go to “tarry meetings” to wait to receive the gift of tongues were as common as candles in catholic churches. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we shouldn’t expect to receive the gift of tongues, though interestingly I am not convinced that what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians is what happens in Acts 2. What does disappoint me is that all the attention and controversy around tongues has tended to make our understanding of Luke’s account of Pentecost a bit deficient. As a result, we have made Pentecost into being almost exclusively about an individualistic experience. Most sermons on Pentecost are about whether individuals are to experience some personal spiritual blessing or not. To me this over emphasis on the personal implications of Pentecost deflects attention from the real significance of what the Holy Spirit is doing in Acts. He is creating a community. When the Spirit is poured out, He creates a community out of a very odd group of individuals and its called church.
Leading up to Pentecost I am reading Acts again and already a couple of significant things are becoming apparent to me about this community. The community of the Spirit is both missional and communal. Here is what I mean.
The community the Spirit creates on the day of Pentecost is a centrifugal community, its constantly moving outwards beyond its boundaries, boundaries of class, geography, race and religion. This new Spirit filled community doesn’t have a great worship service to celebrate the coming of the Spirit, it bursts out of the doors and spreads the word about Jesus and it keeps on moving outwards. As you read Acts you get the distinct sense that no one back then thought the main purpose of church was to run a roughly hour long service in a comfortable building, Those first Pentecostal believers lived for a purpose greater than themselves, the Kingdom of God. Time and time again, you see that this new community is joining God in what He is doing, not just asking God to bless what they are doing. The Spirit leads, empowers, guides, stops and speaks not to give these disciples spiritual experiences to enjoy but to enable them to join in God’s Kingdom focused mission of transformation. They carry on the ministry of Jesus, through them the Kingdom breaks into the present, people experience healing, races are reconciled, justice prevails, the power of evil is challenged and broken, the poor are helped and those in darkness are enlightened by the Good News of Jesus. Church in Acts is about so much more than running a service, its about living a life aligned to the mission of God. It also looks like the by product of that is a life far more meaningful than the average church goer here and now experiences.
By saying that the Spirit of God creates a community which is communal might seem to be saying something at the level of the blinking obvious, like rain is wet. Be that as it may, I think it needs to be said, for not all churches are communal. When church is reduced to an event in a place as it all too often was in Christendom, that then becomes the prevailing understanding of what it means to be church. It also becomes the primary experience people have of church. The fact is that very little genuine community happens when your main understanding and experience of church is sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head before exchanging largely meaningless (and often less than truthful) pleasantries on the way out the door. Church is a Spirit created, Spirit filled, Spirit empowered, Spirit guided, Spirit inspired community not a series of individuals who happen to meet in the same building to worship God at the same time.
Here are the characteristics of this Spirit created and filled community I have taken note of in Acts
They shared life together despite vast differences in background and personality
This shared life was shaped by the teaching and example of Jesus through his Apostles
They shared life by eating together, much more important in their culture where it indicated acceptance and inclusion
Their shared life was characterised by prayer
Their shared life meant sharing with those in need
Their shared life was open to outsiders, they welcomed strangers and people that weren’t welcome elsewhere
Their shared life was filled with awe at what God was doing expressing itself in worship
Their shared life was always expanding to new people and places
Their shared life was supernatural, there were things about their community which were only explicable by the presence of God
Their shared life was an alternative way of living
Their shared life wasn’t perfect, they got things wrong, they had tensions and fall outs, people blew it spiritually but they dealt with the difficulties
I don’t know about you, but I want to be part of a Church that is like the Church that was created by the spiritual eruption of Pentecost that was outwardly focused with God in mission and inwardly experiencing authentic in community with God and each other. I believe at Westlake we are moving in that direction.