Pentecost: claiming all ages as holy

As we sat down to plan worship for Pentecost this year and we instinctively reached for our multi-lingual prayers of the people (we need one person to read a petition in French, another to read one in Creole, another to read one in we have anyone here who speaks Mandarin?...) and we (both white Anglo men) began to brush up on our Spanish Sanctus, we couldn’t help but feel ... well ... a-pentecostal.

To be honest, this once-a-year foray into a multi-lingual experience feels more like Epcot than epiclesis. It can feel like we are sitting in an ecclesial version of "It’s a Small World," singing the same Eurocentric song in a caricature of different languages.

It’s not that multi-cultural, multi-lingual gatherings aren't of the Spirit. And it’s not that through the grace of the Holy Spirit the church isn’t spanning all places and crossing all borders. And it’s not that our relatively homogenous churches don’t need reminding of the universal scope of the Gospel. All that is very holy and profoundly pneumatological work.

It’s just that glossolalia is not the primary work of Pentecost. It may be a profound gift of the Spirit, it may be a powerful experience lodged in both the memory and witness of the church, and it may be a reality that we celebrate even on this side of the Parousia.

But it is not the primary Pentecostal work of ecclesia.

The first work of Pentecost is all being gathered in one place.

Lest we make a poor distinction between the working of the Spirit and the movements of the church, we would do well to note that gathering is always the work of God the Spirit. Just as she hovered over the waters at creation and began to gather light and dark, dry land and sky, just as she gathered in the waters of Mary’s womb and the Word began to take flesh, and just as she gathers the church each week into one place, anytime there is a gathering together in the Spirit of God, we are witnessing Pentecost.

This is the first sign of God’s new creation taking shape. All of one place.

Which makes Joel’s prophecy burn in a new direction for us this year. As much as we wanted to jump to the good part where Peter and the Apostles run outside like their heads are on fire and convert the masses, we got stuck on Joel’s promise:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.

Joel’s prophecy proclaims that God’s mighty acts of salvation are for all of us, young and old alike. The full span of human life is being bathed in the Spirit. Just as in the incarnation Jesus weds the divine and the human in every stage of his life (as fully in the manger as on Calvary), so the body of Christ together celebrates God the Spirit sanctifying all of life. Children with visions, elders with dreams, God’s Spirit poured out on young and old together; every age becomes a means of grace and a perfecting presence for the others.

And yet we look around our own churches and realize how unrealized Joel’s vision continues to be. The clear truth is, we are not all in the same place, young and old alike. More often than not, we come to worship and quickly scatter into age-specialized ministries. Child care over here, children’s worship over there, the adults in the sanctuary down that way, as if to say the font is for the adults and the kiddie pool is down the hall.

This cuts the other way just as often, where an infatuation with youth suggests that having an aged congregation is somehow a sign of unfaithfulness.

No wonder many of our churches have a diminished understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit. We have made an art of resisting her first work, which is gathering us together in one place.

Not to overstate the issue, but it may be a matter of life and death to the modern church in the west. In our day of specialized and separated ministries for every age group, and our insatiable desire to turn church into a spiritual spa, we would do well to remember that salvation for us is being together with Jesus.

Jesus, the infant who trusted Mary and Joseph with his very life.

Jesus, the youth, who sought out time with the elders in the Temple.

Jesus, the adult, who said, “let the children come to me.”

In the body of Christ, God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh together, and from that shared experience of unified sanctification, the church can then move into the world with good news for all.

We say all of this knowing that it isn’t easy. Prophecies rarely are.

Some of our congregations are overwhelmed with too many children, making leading worship feel like herding cats, while others of us are in aging congregations who are dying to hear the cry of a child during the liturgy.

And we also say this knowing that this isn’t novel. Many have written and spoken about the virtues of intergenerational ecclesial life.

The point is not to hang more burdens around our necks (“Oh, great,” we hear ourselves collectively saying, “Now we need to be multi-cultural and multi-generational.”)

The point is to bring this conversation into the fires of Pentecost. The point is to allow Joel’s vision to shape ours, to begin to see all ages as means of grace, as agents of sanctification for the other.

Which will take nothing less than an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

With Spirit’s grace and illumination, perhaps we can see how our children have a sense of wonder that challenges our disenchantment. Our youth teach us to question when we have forgotten how. Our elders bear witness with a hope and patience that sustains the church through generation after generation. Being gathered together in one place might just be Spirit’s way of making all these people holy in and through one another.

Joel’s prophecy imagines a people who are learning that the only way to be with God is to learn how to be with the ideals of youth and the dreams of the elderly. Wiggly kids and stage whispers, spilled wine and bored adolescents, angsty mothers and sleepy grandfathers. For many of our churches, it may be that learning to all be in one place and sharing in God’s grace across generations is more important this Pentecost than saying a prayer in a different language. 

Maybe this Pentecost, we can start like we did on that first Pentecost: gathering together with saints of every age in one place and praying together, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

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