All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” Acts 2:12.
The Pentecostal flames and astounding power of the Holy Spirit were absolutely stunning to those who weren’t expecting it. What does this mean? they shrieked, relying of their beleaguered sphincters to maintain their dignity.
Today we still may ask what this means, but it’s more out of boredom than spiritual orgasm. We conclude the true meaning of the Pentecostal experience is impossible for our sluggish brains to discern and we shrug it off. Or, perhaps, we’ve heard the story of Pentecostal flames and multilingual declarations so often that we can no longer feel excited about it.
For many, bible stories are hackneyed and boring. Real life is colorless and pallid compared with today’s computer generated effects. We have come a long way from the special effects of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 extravaganza The Ten Commandments. We chuckle now at the scenes that thrilled us then. The burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire – all seem retrospectively cartoonish and lame. Even so, I’m sure my Reverend Spouse is not the only pastor whose parishioners challenged the accuracy of Exodus because it left out scenes in DeMille’s epic.
Today, movie house doors are portals to astonishing new experiences. This summer millions of millennials who never go to church will experience deep spiritual excitement at wide-screen, 3D presentations of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Wonder Woman, The Mummy, and Transformers: The Last Knight.
This is not entirely bad because these are all morality tales of a sort.
But wait, there’s more. Electronic accoutrements are now capable of placing us at the axis of a 360-degree virtual bubble in which we can experience sights and sounds above us, behind us, and below us. The holodecks of the futuristic Star Ship Enterprise are not far ahead of us. Virtual reality is becoming an elixir to cure the boredom of real life.
Perhaps these cinematic images will make many think of God’s power. But you don’t need an over-exposure to special effects to lose the shock and awe of biblical miracles. All you need is a lifetime of listening to the monotonous repetition of the stories in Sunday school or church. Familiarity doesn’t only breed contempt: it breeds mortal tedium. When we’ve heard the Pentecost story so often we can recite it by heart, when we’ve analyzed it and exegeted it ad infinitum, it loses its power. We no longer find ourselves asking the tantalizing question, “What does this mean?” Our brains have gone numb. We’ve stopped wondering.
Probably no one has captured this ecclesiastical ennui better than Rowan Atkinson, whose deadpan intonations as an Anglican priest remind us of the extent to which we have lost the excitement of our most basic messages.
Standing stiffly and fully vested at the pulpit, Atkinson suffocates the power of a miracle with his dull and droning cadence:
As Atkinson demonstrates, we have, in fact, imparted our miracle stories with such wearisome frequency that they begin to lose their power without a little supplementary imagination.
Pentecost Sunday – the birthday of the church – is a good time to take a refreshing look at those miracles. The supremacy — and awesomeness — of God’s spirit is very much on display at Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:1-4.
As the phenomenon of the spirit flowed into the streets, it began to attract attention.
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” Acts 2:12.
Had we been there on the first Pentecost, we may well have watched with incredulity as the winds blew and tongues of flames descended on the foreheads of Jesus’ disciples and the scores who followed him throughout his earthly ministry. We would have listened, stunned and slack-jawed, as people who could barely speak their own language suddenly unleashed eloquent sermonettes about Jesus in strange languages from the far corners of the world.
That cacophony of tongues must have been amazing to behold. I suspect the psychic impact would exceed anything computers could accomplish. Innocent bystanders in that Jerusalem crowd could not have missed the fact that the multi-linguistic phenomenon – that unintelligible buzz – was not gibberish but an important message with a common theme.
You get a sense of that disconnected commonality at assemblies of the World Council of Churches when thousands of persons from hundreds of nations and languages groups gather for worship. When the Lord’s prayer is said, people are invited to say it in the first language they learned. The result is an indecipherable rumble of thousands of languages and dialects, all addressing the same thoughts to the same God: Our Father ... Padre Nuestro … Notre Père … Ons Vader … Aming Ama … Vater Unser … Vår Fader … The highlight of any assembly, I think, was the saying of the Lord’s prayer. It’s as close as we can get to experiencing the first Pentecost. James Cameron and his special effects colleagues can’t duplicate that. That kind of communications break-through is the special purview of the Spirit of God.
But still, we might ask as we consider the drama of the spirit’s visitation, what does this mean?
Happily for us, Jesus explained it to his disciples before he was crucified. After he went away, Jesus, said, he would be replaced by the Advocate – the Holy Spirit. The good news is in the word “advocate.” When the Holy Spirit comes, the Spirit will be on our side.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:7-14.This is wonderfully reassuring news and it all came to pass on Pentecost. Perhaps our main spiritual exercise on Pentecost is to rid ourselves of the languor that comes from having heard this story too many times.
Jesus ascended to God in heaven, but the Holy Spirit has never gone away.
Where is the Spirit? You've seen the meme of a glass half-filled with water, inviting the question: is it half full or half empty? The meme creator points out that while the bottom half of the glass is filled with water, the upper half is filled with air. “Technically speaking,” the caption said, “the glass is always full.”
Okay, fine. But a similar rule applies to every part of our lives we see as half-filled or empty: the rooms that are no longer occupied by loved ones, the vacant, lonely times of our day, the emptiness of our hearts when we are lost in anonymous crowds. When Jesus said the Advocate would come to us, he was saying the glasses of our lives will always be full as well.
What is the Advocate like? When we seek the Advocate presence in our lives, what may we expect?
Henri Nouwen offers some clues. The Holy Spirit is like Jesus.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness” (Matthew 5:3-10), Nouwen has written. These words offer us a self-portrait of Jesus. Jesus is the Blessed One. And the face of the Blessed One shows poverty, gentleness, grief, hunger, and thirst for uprightness, mercy, purity of heart, a desire to make peace, and the signs of persecution. The whole message of the Gospel is this: Become like Jesus. We have his self-portrait. When we keep that in front of our eyes, we will soon learn what it means to follow Jesus and become like him.Because we have Jesus’ self-portrait, we know what to expect when we encounter God and God’s spirit.
Jesus is called Emmanuel which means “God-with-us” (see Matthew 1: 22-23). Nouwen says. The great paradox of Jesus’ life is that he, whose words and actions are in no way influenced by human blame or praise but are completely dependent on God's will, is more “with” us than any other human being.
And the way Jesus is “with” us is through the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose entry into the life of the church and into our lives is celebrated at Pentecost.
Say what, now?
When the Spirit enters our lives, the familiar biblical miracles that remind of us computer generated special effects – the dry bones taking on sinews and flesh, the tongues of fire – take on a deeper meaning. Led by the Spirit, we understand beyond doubt that God’s power and miracles are not displayed for our passing amazement or cinematic entertainment.
“When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus told us, “he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:7-14.”Computer generated special effects have their place, but they don’t always guide us to all the truth, and they will only last as long as the next technological development.
On Pentecost, the tongues of flame remind us: God’s spirit is among us, and will never desert us.
It doesn’t get more awesome than that. Even at the multiplex.