Scripture: Acts 2: 1-38 Jan Savory
Pentecost has always seemed strange to me. What is different about the Holy Spirit that “came at Pentecost” and the Spirit of God that was mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels, the spirit hovered over chaos before creation, that spoke to the prophets, that appeared at Jesus Baptism. Nothing!
John, in his Gospel tells us that the Christ, the son of God, whom he calls the logos or the Word, existed from the beginning and has been instrumental in creation since then. So with the Spirit.
Incarnation – God’s revelation in material form
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, says John. We refer to this as the Incarnation, (enfleshment). It refers to a time when spirit (God) (human) became material and so visible and knowable. But not the first time. The first incarnation was the creation. When God created, God showed part of Godself in the physical universe. God is present in every part of creation (although of course, God is much greater than this). When Jesus was born, the second incarnation, God showed another aspect of Godself. Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about humanity, but to change humanity’s mind about God. He came to show us the extent of God’s love for us.
Pentecost, the third incarnation
I see Pentecost as the third incarnation, the incarnation of the third person of the trinity. The Spirit of God becomes born as the Church, seen in the faith and actions of the followers of Jesus. The church is known as the Body of Christ. And God, as the Holy spirit, is incarnated, enfleshed, in us – the body of Christ.
The embryo church
Coming back to today’s scripture. We heard that “they were all together in one place”. Who are the “they” who were gathered together? If we go back to the previous chapter, it appears to be “the believers [who] numbered about one hundred twenty persons”. The embryo church. Something happened to them which could only be portrayed in similes and metaphors. “A sound like the rush of a violent wind.” “Divided tongues, as of fire”. They appeared to be drunk and “began to speak in other languages”. Something indescribable and otherworldly.
And these disciples, probably still confused about the events of previous weeks, who were gathering together in their lodging, praying and wondering, suddenly became emboldened. They started preaching and sharing the good news. What a transformation!
When I look more closely at Peter’s sermon, one thing stands out more than any other. It is the emphasis on the Resurrection, not the crucifixion.
“this man, [Jesus,] … you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death”
You crucified him; we, humanity, crucified him. But God raised him. I’m not saying this to pin a guilt trip on anyone. The “You” is a communal you, a public, collective you, not an individual you. But it was humans not God who killed Jesus because he threatened the status quo and their comfortable lives with his concern for the marginalized and his teachings of bringing God’s kingdom of Justice and love here on earth.
It’s not only in what Peter said, but also in what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that because we are born sinful God required retribution. Peter didn’t say that God needed Christ to die as a substitution for us, to atone for our sins.
Death and Resurrection
In fact, you don’t find the theology of atonement for sin in the sermons of the apostles. Throughout Acts, the emphasis is not that Jesus’ death was God’s way to save us, but that God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice-overturning resurrection.
We also see this in the art of the early church which focusses on the life and resurrection of Jesus not his death. Carvings in the catacombs of Rome or early buildings, when not representing the person buried there, were usually Biblical scenes of figures rescued from mortal danger represented by the Resurrection of Jesus, or through the use of Scenes from the Hebrew Jesus Scriptures or Jesus’ life.
The cross does not appear extensively in Christian Art until about the 4th Century after Christ. Coincidentally or not, this is around the time Augustine formulated the doctrine of original sin and substitutional atonement.
Paul and the Cross
But, you might ask, what about Paul? Doesn’t he preach about the crucifixion? What Paul is saying is that Christ invites us to share in his suffering by embracing our cross so that we can participate in the work of redemption. Through suffering and death comes new life. This is very different from substitutional atonement.
The Body of Christ
So, back to the first Pentecost. What does this mean for us today? God’s spirit is given to each one of us, individually but also as a community, even though, for now, the community gathers virtually. This happened when they were “all together in one place”.
And further, when the disciples preached, everyone heard the good news in their own language. The Gospel is for everyone. So the church, the material symbol of God in the world, must be multilingual, multicultural, multiracial, fully inclusive, something we haven’t been very good at in the past.
On a personal level, we believe that this pouring out of the spirit still happens today, though not so dramatically with tongues of fire! The Spirit in each of us is part of the communal spirit in the church and our actions together make up the actions of the body of Christ. May we at St George’s be vectors for bringing God’s just, inclusive reign here on Earth. Amen