In 2012, two important Christian holy days occur in May – important Christian holy days that Presbyterian Christians have tended to be uncomfortable with. I’ll explain that statement, shall I? The two holy days are Ascension and Pentecost. First the easy part, I say these holy days take place in May this year, because these two holy days are “moveable feasts.” Some Christian holy days are tied to a specific date on the Gregorian (solar) calendar. Christmas and Epiphany are examples of that sort of holy day. Christmas always takes place on December 25th. Epiphany always takes place on January 6th. They are non-moveable feasts in the Christian calendar.
Other Christian holy days are tied in one way or another to a lunar (Jewish) calendar. Easter is a prime example of that. Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Because the phases of the moon drift when compared to the solar calendar, the date of Easter drifts for as early as the third week of March to as late as the last week of April.
The date of Ascension and Pentecost are tied to the date of Easter, and, therefore, the dates for those two holy days drift from year to year. Ascension takes place forty days after Easter – always on a Thursday (you can do that arithmetic yourself). Pentecost, as the name implies, takes place fifty days after Easter – always on a Sunday. In 2012 Ascension is May 17th; Pentecost is May 27th. Both can, as for example in 2011, take place in June.
Okay, that probably seems really complicated, which may cause you to wonder how I could possibly call that the easy part. But figuring out these dates is nothing more than opening up a calendar and counting the days. That part is all pretty simple brain work. The stuff that makes Ascension and especially Pentecost hard for traditional Presbyterian Christians isn’t brain work. It’s spiritual work and heart work. Presbyterian Christians have always been big on brain work and scared to death of spirit work and heart work. I say that as a life-long and still committed Presbyterian/Reformed Christian.
Pentecost is our big problem. Our problems with Ascension are all related to its connection to Pentecost. I believe that our problem
with Pentecost is, at heart, rooted in the fact that in this holy day we are dealing with the realization that God wants to crowd right up, close, against us. And that gives us a shuddering case of the willies.
I find – and here I’m speaking as much for myself and for anyone else – I find that we Presbyterian-type Christians are entirely comfortable talking and thinking about God. Ideas and concepts about God are no problem for us, as long as God himself gives us plenty of space and doesn’t crowd us. Presbyterian Christians have a large personal/spiritual space. We have a problem with God when he tries to get close to us and encroach into our personal/spiritual space. God, the Idea, God, the Concept, this notion of God is comfortable to us. God, the Person, God the tangible Presence, who walks right into the room, sits down on the couch beside us, and leans up against us – that God scares us a lot.
And just that God who crowds up into our personal space is the very God we meet at Pentecost. Luke tells us in Acts 2 that the followers of Jesus were gathered together in one place. What were they doing together? Luke doesn’t tell us. They were certainly doing something quiet and dignified. They were trying to keep a low profile. My guess is that they were thinking thoughts and ideas about God. They were doing the sort of thing that we Presbyterian Christians find very comfortable and familiar. We’d probably have been very comfortable – before the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Then God does something that would – be honest now – something that would have sent most of us fleeing for the exits. God comes rushing into the room (that’s exactly the verb Luke uses). God throws his big burly arm right around their shoulders and pulls them up against his side. At Pentecost, God, the Holy Spirit, literally and actually drapes himself all over those folks. He doesn’t just crowd their personal space. He obliterates it. At Pentecost there simply is no personal space between God, the Holy Spirit, and his people. Yikes!
Well, the predictable result of this appalling encroachment of our personal space by God is that we tend to give the holy day of Pentecost a pretty wide berth. Or – and this alternative has become quite popular in recent decades – we turn Pentecost into something we Presbyterian Christians just love. We turn Pentecost into a church business meeting. That’s really what we mean when we claim that the main point of Pentecost is the birth of the church. We make Pentecost into the organizing meeting of a new human institution. When we do that, we take a very minor theme in Acts 2 and try to make it the main point of Pentecost.
Why would we do that? We do it in order to re-imagine an event that scares us into one that is comfortable and familiar. Instead of being a hair-raising collision with the actual presence of God, we try to pretend that Pentecost is an organizational business meeting of the institution of the church.
Imagine it! There’s Peter, the presiding officer, at the podium, gavel in hand calling the proceedings to order. Over to the side is the clerk/secretary – Matthew, maybe, the former civil servant – pen and paper before him, ready to take the minutes. Seated before the podium in orderly rows of chairs is the assembled body, quiet and maintaining proper decorum. After a brief prayer is read by the chaplain, the by-laws committee presents its report, which is discussed by the members and amended on a few fine points before being approved by a show of hands. With the by-laws in place, the apostles and elders adopt an organizational chart of committees and sub-committees. Next, the treasurer presents a proposed budget, which the body debates in fine detail before adopting it on a close majority vote. Finally, a committee is appointed to write a catchy mission statement. Another committee is appointed to research improvements to the meeting space – new carpet, chairs, and perhaps paint.
And so, with the immediate business concluded, the meeting is adjourned with the reading of another brief prayer, and the assembled body ambles back to the refreshment table for some tea and cookies and a little casual and friendly conversation about the weather and how hard the chairs in the meeting room are. Ah, Pentecost according to Robert’s Rules of Order.
The problem, of course, is Acts 2. What we find there is nothing like the organizing business meeting of a new institution. There we find an unexpected in rushing of the tangible presence of God. There we find not an idea, not a concept, but rather an experience – a powerful spiritual experience of the unmediated presence of God. That’s scary, unsettling, messy. So, we Presbyterian Christians have a tendency to run from that experiential Pentecost and try to substitute the “Pentecost according to Robert’s Rules” version. It feels so much more comfortable, so much more familiar, so much more predictable. The problem, unfortunately, is that the “Robert’s Rules Pentecost” is a fantasy, a fiction, and it is powerless and empty of spiritual reality. The Pentecost of Acts 2, the Pentecost of in-rushing power, of the unmediated presence of God, the Holy Spirit, is the only way to encounter and enter into relationship with the power and presence of God in our lives.
Jesus made very clear that the wild, empowering Pentecost of Acts 2 is his idea and his plan. During his earthly ministry, he told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I go to the Father.” (John 14:12 NRSV) He’s talking about you and me, that we’ll do greater things than Jesus himself did. His going to the Father will bring that about. How? “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away [the Ascension], for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you.” (John 16:7 NRSV) And so, on the day of Ascension itself, Jesus said this to his disciples, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. . . . You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (Acts 1:5 & 8 NRSV) The rest of the New Testament makes undeniably clear that these promises were not meant merely for a small handful of Christian who lived 2,000 years ago. These promises are to all the followers of Jesus throughout all time. That means you and me!
So, you can live timidly and cling to a Robert’s Rules of Order Pentecost – empty, powerless, and sterile though it will be. Or you can embrace the scary but powerful and abundantly fruitful Pentecost of the in-rushing Spirit of God. It really is up to you. As for me, I’m done with dry, dusty life of Robert’s Rules Pentecost. I want more. I want to experience and live in the powerful, immediate presence of God, the Holy Spirit. I want to do the works of Jesus and even greater works. I want you to join me. Ask the Holy Spirit to drape himself all over you. Ask for that empowering Pentecost for your own life. Ask him to fulfill the promises Jesus made to you. Enough of thinking about God. Let’s live into the real experience of the power and presence of the living Jesus Christ today.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
The Dunamis Institute is a great resource for going deeper in these matters. Check it out here: http://dunamisinstitute.org/courses/