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
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” There is some snarky, dad-joke-loving part of me that reads the beginning of the Pentecost story and thinks, “Wow, that’s amazing that they all knew to get together for a Pentecost celebration before they even knew Pentecost was going to be a thing!”*
But of course, it wasn’t just coincidence that the first believers were all gathered in one place where the Holy Spirit could conveniently find them. They were actually gathered to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Weeks, called Shavuot. Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the law to the ancient Israelites on Mount Sinai. It takes place fifty days after the Passover – a week of weeks, plus a day – and “pentecost,” which comes from the Greek for “fiftieth,” takes its name from this fifty days, since Pentecost likewise occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday.
In the days after Jesus’ ascension, his earliest followers, unsure of what they were to do next, fell back on the traditions of their faith that had long sustained them. They continued to pray and to practice their faith in the ways they knew, trusting expectantly that God’s Spirit would speak to them through these things and show them the path forward, as God had done before. And boy, did God not disappoint!! The Spirit pulses through the assembly with the sound of wind and flame, and the first disciples suddenly hear themselves speaking in the languages of many nations. God’s expansive vision of salvation is revealed: good news of love and mercy that is for all people and for all of creation – and God has now empowered these followers with the gifts and tools they need to begin this mission work.
We often think of there being such a sharp distinction in history, when this one branch of Judaism suddenly stopped being Judaism and became Christianity. But in truth it was more of an evolution, with Christ-followers continuing to rely on the ancient riches of their faith to encounter God in new and surprising ways. And I find it inspiring to see the ways they made faithful use of the gifts and symbols and resources they already had – and how, through these things, they opened themselves up to the new thing God was doing and allowed God to move through them in a new way.
I hear echoes of this attitude in the renewed focus my congregation, St. John’s Lutheran, has been placing on the practice of prayer. And I give thanks that this congregation and its leadership recognize that the church doesn’t need some kind of new gimmick or some slick way of convincing new people to walk through our doors. What we already have is so good: a God who draws near to us in the simplicity of sacraments of bread and wine and water; a God who invites us to be constant in prayer, who listens and responds to us with love and tender mercy; a God who takes on flesh to love us up close, whose incarnation declares the goodness and preciousness of every human, and whose willing death declares the defeat of death itself.
As we continue to gather in one place around the ancient rites and symbols and practices of our faith, I pray that we as Christ-followers be like the first to follow Jesus, trusting expectantly that God’s Spirit will move among us, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s creating and saving work in the world; surprising, transforming, and equipping us to be called into something new.
Adapted from a reflection first published in St. John’s June 2022 newsletter
*Details slightly fudged for the sake of a dorky joke; Pentecost was already a thing, just not as common a name for the festival