Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the church,” which implies that the church did not exist before Pentecost, except in, perhaps, nascent form. The phenomena associated with Pentecost are then said to be characteristic of the church. And often there is even a strong contrast between Jesus, who proclaimed the kingdom, and the post-Easter church, which Jesus did not foresee. This, I submit is an exegetical error.
When we look at scripture, as Gerhard Lohfink pointed out decades ago, it is clear that Jesus was forming the church long before Pentecost. Let us look at some characteristics.
Initiation: Jesus led a movement, calling disciples who followed him around Galilee and to Jerusalem. At least the first of these were associated with the Baptist movement, according to the Fourth Gospel, as was Jesus, for he was baptized by John. We do not know how long he was around John before his baptism. Again, the Fourth Gospel narrates (John 4) that Jesus continued a version of the baptistic movement, although his disciples did the baptizing. The synoptics know nothing of this initiation rite for followers of Jesus, but Matt 28 indicates that a continuation of baptism as an initiation rite was part of the final instructions given to the the band of disciples.
Structure and Leadership: while Jesus called some of his disciples personally, the group seems to have been a bit amorphous in the beginning. That changed when Jesus designed the Twelve as his official emissaries. They are sent out to do what Jesus did: preach, heal, exorcise. They are sent out depending on God alone for their needs, just as Jesus appears to have done. Within this group there was a further structure, the Three who were made witnesses to some of the most important events in the ministry of Jesus. It was one of these Three who, in the presence of the other eleven, was said to have made the core confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. According to Matthew 16, Jesus in return gave him pre-eminence: “You are Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church.” It is, at any rate, clear that Simon Peter, whether due to this pronouncement or due to his character, seems to have been something of a spokesperson for the Twelve or the Twelve and whatever other disciples were around. There is evidence that Jesus promised the Twelve rule when the kingdom was established.
Other Structures; Luke has two other structures within the community. One was that of the Seventy or Seventy-Two who were sent out to widen the missional work of the Twelve – certainly they are symbolic of the nations, but whether or not they actually went into non-Jewish lands is a matter of debate. Certainly some of the sayings of Jesus see the Twelve and other disciples as getting into trouble not only with Jewish but also with Gentile authorities. Luke 8 also refers to a group of women who followed Jesus, caring for the needs of at least the core group, in some cases using their own funds to do so. Of course, it is these women who followed Jesus to the cross and then were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Their stated function would mean that they would also have been present at the Last Supper – indeed, they would have cooked the supper.
That Jesus could say “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God” indicates that he saw his group of disciples as a fictive family, a family that took precedence to the blood family. And, of course, a number of his parables speak of future rewards of those members of the group who remain faithful. But it is a group.
Other Rites: the community not only had a function of proclamation and, of course, of formation (people listened to and learned from Jesus and experienced Jesus), but they learned to pray from Jesus, and to pray as a community, assuming that the Matthew form of the Our Father is pre-resurrection, since it is communal, not individual. They would have celebrated Jewish festivals with Jesus, but it was the last festival, the Last Supper, that Jesus reportedly told them to continue as the central act of community worship. It was associated with the Passover and took at least some meaning from the Passover, but scholars are divided as to whether or not it was a transformed Passover meal or not, partly due to the differences between the Johannine and Synoptic accounts. Then there was the distinctive ethic that Jesus taught, which would have identified the members of the community as much as a Pharisee could have been identified by his way of life or even by that way of life have indicated whether he belonged to the school of Hillel or the school of Shammai. I use “he” because it was the men who functioned in public, but presumably while the actors of Jewish women were mostly inside the dwelling, the women who followed Jesus were marked out by that very lifestyle as part of the community.
My point is that Jesus had a functioning community before the crucifixion. While the crucifixion event temporarily shattered the community, we find the core leaders gathered together in that upper room before Easter. The crucifixion had not ended the church, we might say, but it had raised a lot of questions about the meaning of Jesus. It was the place for what we would now call theological reflection on Jesus, even if most reports indicated that it was the resurrected Jesus who gave the final keys to interpretation.
What, then, was the function of Pentecost? The Fourth Gospel at least indicated that the Spirit had come upon at least the leaders of the Church while Jesus was still present. They had been given the authority to bind and loose, to make rules and to make judgments, i.e. leadership roles, even before that (in Matthew). Gathered in the upper room they had presumably worshipped using the Psalms (one suspects that they were not yet going to the prayer services in the Temple) and quite likely celebrated the Eucharist, since we later hear that they originally had the custom of doing this daily. Of course, it would not have been in its more developed forms, but is it not likely that the broke bread and drank wine, repeating the words of Jesus. What happened at Pentecost? What happened at Pentecost was that they burst out of the upper room on mission.
The end of Luke indicates that they are to remain in Jerusalem until . . . Until “power from on high” comes. That means that when the power came they would be leaving the central place of worship (for a Jew, and they were all Jews) and the locus of David kingship to “go into all the world.” They use the time to restore the full number of leaders, with Peter taking decisive leadership. Then comes the day when people from around the world – Jews and prosylytes – gather in Jerusalem. The Spirit comes upon them in power, signified in the flames, and they go out to the people from “all the world” equipped linguistically to address each in their own language. And the rest of Luke has the Spirit thrusting the church from Jerusalem to the core of the empire, to Rome. Pentecost is the birth of mission, not the birth of the Church. Pentecost is the starter’s gun propelling the runners forward from the starting blocks or out of the starting gate. And every time the linguistic gifts are mentioned in Acts the Church is crossing some missional boundary, the Spirit giving the indication that this boundary crossing is him.
Paul mentions the Spirit in a number of places, but particularly 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 has been associated with Pentecost. Again notice that the “gifts” are gifts for ministry. They are outward focused not inward focused. They enable the Church to fulfill their missional task. Most healings, even the healings of Jesus, are missional – they reach outside the body of the disciples, outside the church, or they have that effect (see Luke’s comments on Aeneas and Dorcas, who both seem to be part of the church – the whole village or town turns to Jesus as a result). The linguistic gifts obviously helped cross cultural boundaries and proclaim the good news. And one can see the same in most of the other gifts. They are not status symbols; they are not marks that one is a Christian (love may be such a mark, but not the gifts), they are not, for the most part, permanent characteristics of a person, but rather the Spirit of God giving the tool necessary for the next act of mission or to meet the situations brought up by mission.
Now a book could be – and books have been – written about these topics. I already mentioned Lohfink, to note one rather old book. I write this simply to be clear about one point: Pentecost is not the birth of the Church; the Church was born and doing fine in the upper room before Pentecost. Pentecost is the propelling of the Church out of the upper room into mission. And it is in mission directed by Jesus and dependent on the Spirit that one both finds the need for the gifts of the Spirit that we associate with Pentecost and that those gifts find their proper context.