During a seminary Scripture course in Acts, I was amazed to discover that the feast of Pentecost existed long before Christianity came on the scene. Until then, I presumed Pentecost was a Christian feast, limited to the phenomenon of the Holy Spirit’s arrival. To this day, Jews observe the feast of “Weeks,” celebrated seven weeks (or 50 days) after Passover. Just as Passover commemorates their liberation from Egyptian slavery, Pentecost is the reminder of the covenant they made with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai, the agreement which transformed them into Yahweh’s people. When Luke locates the Spirit’s descent during that particular Jewish feast he’s telling his readers that, paralleling the covenant on Sinai, the Spirit turns Jesus’ followers into the new Israel, the new people of Yahweh.
We might imagine such a phenomenon would bring great peace and security. But Luke uses images which make us question whether we actually want the Spirit to be at the heart of our faith. Notice how he describes the Spirit’s arrival. “Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them” Noise, wind, fire; things which bring consternation and confusion, not peace and security. Have you ever seen a painting or stained glass window which actually depicts the event as Luke describes it; people’s clothes blowing in the wind, hands covering their ears? We usually see a group of people piously sitting or standing with neatly formed streaks of fire hovering over their bowed heads.
Luke deliberately chooses these disturbing images because his community has already experienced the Spirit at work in its midst, especially on such occasions as the controversial opening of their faith to non-Jews - an event prefigured by the non-Jewish languages the Spirit-filled disciples are now able to speak.
Though Luke’s clear about the commotion accompanying the Spirit’s presence in the community, history is also clear about our church’s attempts through the centuries to rid itself of such confusion. One small example: When I was preparing for my 1952 Confirmation, I had to memorize the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit:” wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Not a disturbing gift among them. They fit perfectly into an authority-structured, highly disciplined church.
Just one problem: this list of the Holy Spirit’s gifts isn’t from the Christian Scriptures! Six of the seven are qualities which, in Isaiah Ii, are gifts the spirit of Yahweh infuses in the ideal Jewish king. They have little in common with the Holy Spirit’s gifts in Paul’s I Corinthians list; gifts which, for some incomprehensible reason have been left out of the middle of today’s second reading. Here’s a brief summary of the gifts Paul enumerates in the omitted verses: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Nine gifts which, when found in any community can really create lots of agitation. No wonder our catechisms replaced them with Isaiah’s list. Think of the disturbance it would cause if a child about to be confirmed gave the questioner Paul’s list instead of Isaiah’s.
John hits the nail on the head when his Jesus states, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided to all truth.”
Those who believe their church already possesses all truth will be greatly disturbed to discover that, according to Jesus’ plan, there’s always more truth to be discovered.