Pentecost closes the Easter season and a grand celebration. But it is more than a celebration: it is the beginning of cross-cultural mission and the rule of Jesus over the nations.
Pentecost has often been seen as the birth of the church, often in contrast with the message of Jesus. Phrases such as “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and we ended up with the church” express this contrast. That, however, overlooks the evidence. As Gerhard Lohfink pointed out in Jesus and Community, the gospels all present Jesus as gathering a community. He and many of his followers had been followers of John the Baptist, having been baptized into the John the Baptist movement. At least the fourth gospel indicates that Jesus and his core disciples baptized others, initiating them into the movement. Certainly, Jesus invited some people to join the group with his characteristic “follow me,” while others either asked to join or just followed without formal acceptance. There was organization within the movement, for all gospels refer to the Twelve whom Jesus selected as official representatives. Luke, of course, adds another group of 70. And Peter emerged as the spokesperson for the group. Thus, it is no surprise that the movement regrouped around Peter after experiencing the resurrection of Jesus, but as yet they had no mission beyond the renewal of Israel around the figure of Jesus. Pentecost is not the formation of the church, but the thrusting out of the church into mission.
John claims that within his life Jesus had used a water festival in Jerusalem in which the people prayed for rain to anticipate this pouring out into mission. In the middle of the feast Jesus says,
“If any one thirst, let him come to me
and let the one who believes in me drink.”
This unpolished translation picks up the balance of the two lines and leads to Jesus’ (or perhaps John’s) explanation: “”as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” That is, picking up on John 2 in which Jesus presents himself as the New Temple and then on the waters of the temple garden in Eden, which water the earth, and the idealized temple in Ezekiel, from which water flows to “heal” the Dead Sea and the Araba, Jesus paints a picture that will be fully realized in the end of Revelation when the new Jerusalem is the community of God on earth and in the midst of this city-temple is the throne of the God from which flows a river that nourishes trees with leaves that are for the healing of the nations. In fact, all nations will go to this temple-city. So Jesus, as that Temple, is calling people to come to him and drink the water that is or will be flowing from him, that water that brings life, not just to Israel but also to the nations.
This is presented differently in Acts 2. The community is gathered in prayer with Peter functioning as leader. But that is inward or vertical. There is no outward. Luke is, perhaps, about the inward in that it is organized around a movement from Galilee to Jerusalem, while Acts is organized around the outward in that it is organized around movement from Jerusalem to Rome. Then the Spirit, perhaps seen as bringing the presence of Jesus as ruler, comes and three things happen. First, there is wind, the meaning of “spirit” in Greek (and Hebrew), like the creative wind sweeping over the chaos in Genesis 1. The Spirit has come. But then there are tongues of fire, perhaps, as an early homily on this passage indicated, bringing purification, or (and both meanings could easily be intended) perhaps indicating the Spirit setting tongues on fire, i.e. indicating the incendiary action of the outward thrust. The people begin speaking, but in other languages, which is no accident, for this happens just when Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims from the nations around the (to them) known world. The nations have come to the Temple, getting along as best as they can in Greek, and they hear God coming to them speaking their languages. There is a reversal of Babel, it is true, in that rather than language being confused and splintered when a unified people sought a diabolical goal or storming heaven now a disunified people seeking the good goal of the true God are spoken to by a single ethnic group (Galileans) speaking their language and are called into the new community. But there is also God’s using human beings to cross ethnic and cultural divides with the good news by giving them the necessary linguistic tools. Whenever speaking in foreign languages is indicated in Acts it is in a context of crossing such divides and not only facilitates communication, but indicates that God has crossed the divide ahead of them.
Interestingly enough, Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 will indicates that he spoke in (to hm) foreign languages more than all the others, but then he preached the good news from the eastern end of the Mediterranean all the way around to (what is today) northwestern Greece. In fact, the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 are basically outwardly directed, just as most healings in the New Testament are either the healings of those not yet committed to the Jesus movement or have evangelistic effects (as in the case of Dorcas and Aeneas in Acts 8) – perhaps to be read as an evangelistic purpose. This is a far cry from the idea of “tongues” as ecstatic speech turned inward towards the personal spiritual experience of the practitioner, something that is not found in the New Testament (nor in the Patristic Church). Rather than healing meetings made up mostly of believers, we find healings happening as the Spirit directs in evangelism, outside the community.
We could, of course, continue going through Acts and the letters of Paul, but we trust that the meaning of Pentecost is by now clear. Pentecost is the Spirit empower the Church, which was at the time focused inwardly and vertically, to go outward and bring healing to the nations, equipping it to cross cultural and ethnic boundaries. The debates in Acts are the debates occasioned by the crossing of such boundaries: are Samaritans (with their dialectical differences), are a centurion’s friends, are gentiles from various nations people out of which the growing church can be formed without their coming into the original ethnicity, that of Palestinian Judaism? The Pauline corpus agrees with what is depicted narratively in Acts, namely that while all in the church are children of Abraham, those who were not born such as made such by God without ethnic conversion. The focus is on Christ as Lord, but Christ acts through the Spirit in his people to gather the nations into one people.