It’s common to rehearse the Acts 2 story of Pentecost on Pentecost Sunday. We imagine the disciples gathered in the upper room praying when a wind unexpectedly blows through igniting tongues of fire on their heads and allowing them to speak in the languages of the diaspora Jews gathered for the Jewish festival in Jerusalem. Peter preaches a great sermon, many believe and take their new beliefs to the far flung corners of the Roman Empire.
The book of Acts will then slowly chronicle the church playing catch-up with the Holy Spirit as Peter, Paul and many others make their way into the Roman Empire to establish and organize churches in its cities. This new religion will spread quickly in the Roman Empire to the point where it will become the official religion of the empire by the 4th century.
Our imagination of that day in the first century is probably shaped by the adjective form of the word “pentecostal”.
If you would ask me to list some of the most important events of the 20th century I would argue that the Azusa Street Revival should make a top ten list.
Azusa Street Revival
The Azusa Street Revival began when a one-eyed son of former slaves made his way to Los Angeles to preach a holiness gospel of the availability the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in ecstatic tongues. What followed was described by the Los Angeles Times in this way.
Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. African Americans and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the “gift of tongues” and be able to understand the babel.
…disgraceful intermingling of the races…they cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell. They claim to be filled with the spirit. They have a one eyed, illiterate, Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates. He doesn’t talk very much but at times he can be heard shouting, ‘Repent,’ and he’s supposed to be running the thing… They repeatedly sing the same song, ‘The Comforter Has Come.’
While I might not share the central theological assertion of what would become the Pentecostal movement its impact on the history of Christianity in the world is undeniable. Much like the first day of Pentecost the movement begun in a run down old church building in Los Angeles within 100 years has spread to the remotest corners of the globe with a version of Christianity that has been able to indigenize and multiply among a myriad of different cultural groups.
Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?
The impact of the Pentecostal movement has been so profound I suspect it has in some ways shaped how we imagine the work of the Holy Spirit.
Two very prominent voices in this movement today are Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding and Robbie Dawkins, who high profile Pentecostal healers and teachers who instruct Christians on how to bring Holy Spirit healing in their ministries. Robbie Dawkins recently made news when according to Charisma magazine he raised a man from the dead.
There is no hotter area on the atheist, Christian apologetics front than the question of healing. Healing has always been a central facet of the Christian story. To see the definitive work on this check out Craig Keener’s work Miracles.
Materialists have the difficulty that the existence of only one bonafide supernatural miracle causes their worldview to crumble. On the other side they counter with the challenge of why God doesn’t restore amputees. A regenerated leg would be the kind of miracle that, according to our assumptions of how science and belief work, would silence the critics. Lots of other miracles such as cancer going away seem open to debate, but a regenerated leg would be something truly incredible.
Living With Unanswered Prayer
While this may gather a lot of attention the reality for most Christians is more mundane. Once you start asking God for things in prayer you very quickly have to figure out how to live with unanswered payer. Why didn’t God heal my friend? Why won’t God fix this relationship? Why won’t God take away this temptation from me?
Sometimes desperate people will make a pilgrimage to a high profile healer in hopes that its a sourcing issue only to be disappointed. The person on the state was healed. They were not. What are we supposed to think about this?
The focus of the work of the Holy Spirit and the presumed purpose of his deployment at Pentecost seem then shadowed. “OK, Peter got to be understood by people of other languages but I have to learn Spanish imperfectly? Why is God so fickle? Why not me?”
Resisting Making Me the Center of the Universe
What we have done probably without noticing it is once again reduced the work of God into my little realm. When we reduce everything to my little realm we implicitly demand that God make my tiny world the center of his work and the world’s drama. It is a byproduct of the Moralistic Therapeutic impulse deep within our culture.
While we see the work of the Holy Spirit manifest in individual miracle stories in the Bible, and while we need not be skeptical about God’s ability to do such things today, we should note that the context of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit within the Bible was always within the proclamation of God’s work in the world as a whole.
To see the contrast ask the question as to why Jesus didn’t just offer medical technology rather than healing people individually. Surely a campaign of clean drinking water, latrines, and the capacity to produce penicillin would have sparked a development project that would save far more lives than Jesus could with his one on one healing ministries. Why didn’t Jesus do this?
Jesus’ miracles were to bear witness to a larger reality that his work pointed towards.
It also help us understand why, although Jesus rescues others, he doesn’t rescue himself.
RA Torrey had a great quote about this.
If we think of the Holy Spirit as a power, we will want to know how to get a hold of it and use it, but if we think of the Holy Spirit as a person, we will want to know how He can get a hold of me and use me.
Broadening Pentecost by Reading the Old Testament
The lectionary is a list of texts that churches use to navigate the church calendar. The Old Testament reading for Pentecost Sunday is one of the gems in the Hebrew Prophets that many Christians don’t know.
Ezekiel 37:1–14 (NET)
1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. 2 He made me walk all around among them. I realized there were a great many bones in the valley and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said to him, “Sovereign Lord, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and tell them: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 This is what the sovereign Lord says to these bones: Look, I am about to infuse breath into you and you will live. 6 I will put tendons on you and muscles over you and will cover you with skin; I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’ ” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. There was a sound when I prophesied—I heard a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 As I watched, I saw tendons on them, then muscles appeared, and skin covered over them from above, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath,—prophesy, son of man—and say to the breath: ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army. 11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. 13 Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. 14 I will place my breath in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord—I have spoken and I will act, declares the Lord.’ ”
The work seen in this vision is restoration and recreation. It echoes the work of God creating the man in the garden by breathing into him.
Seeing Pentecost as Broader Than My Individual Scope
Implicit in our imaginations of how God is supposed to work in our lives is a narrative of our own success and fulfillment. This is why a closer look at actual lives of those closest to the work of God gives us so much anxiety. The shape of God’s effort is increasingly cruciform which is why it is so with those who are closest to his efforts.
The work of the Holy Spirit follows the narrative of Jesus’ life of which the narrative of Israel’s life is a pre-echo. Israel’s cruciformity is revealed in Jesus’ cruciformity. The world will be renewed and the dead will be raised but it will all cost God a terrible price.
You know the loss and insecurity of this world and so some of you may have come to Christ imagining that his path is the same as what all are marketing. You too might have imagined that the Holy Spirit is a force you can tap into to get healthy and wealthy only to discover the shape of the work of Christ.
The vision of the valley of dry bones is one of resurrection. Jesus enters into our flesh to enter into our valley of dry bones. He is among the ones who are slain. He then becomes the first to rise, the leader of the new army, the first fruits of the resurrection.
Where does this leave us?
We see that uses us and invites us into his costly and cruciform mission. We bear the promise of the resurrection and in the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit as first fruits of the resurrection. Yet. we are individual people. It is heroic to see the big picture and the big picture can give us hope, but how are we to know God’s love for us as individuals? His love and care for us at that level is often how we experience suffering and unanswered prayer.
Romans 8:22-27 is another lectionary text for Pentecost.
Romans 8:22–27 (NET)
22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.
It is here that the big picture and our individual lives come together. Just as in the work of Christ the narrative of the cosmos meets his story, so too in our suffering and patient hope we travel the journey with the rest of creation eager awaiting the resolution of the drama.
Just as the Father’s perfection is seen in his generosity towards the just and the unjust (Matthew 6), so also the Son’s generosity is seen in his costly sacrifice for us while we were yet sinners. Now too we see the Spirit’s intercession for us, with groans and prayers beyond what we are able to express all on our behalf as all of us together, the Father, Son, Spirit and the creation await the glorious culmination of the story.
Making Sense of the Strangeness of God’s Agency in our Feeble Lives
The Azusa Street Revival lasted a very short time. The group itself was never large. Many of the leaders spun off other congregations within a couple of years. Beginning in 1905 by 1913 the crowds were gone leaving William Seymour and his wife there with their small church. He would die of a heart attack at age 54, not famous, not wealthy. You might not think this given the impact of the work he started.
This is of course the repeated pattern of God’s work in our lives and in our church. It is costly. It is sacrificial. It is surprising. It is beyond our control. In the end, however, it is joyful as the Spirit completes among us the work begun by God before Christ and through Christ.