What Is Pentecost?

If you asked a typical churchgoer to name the three main festivals or celebrations in the church year, most would easily reply with Easter and Christmas. But how many of us know that Pentecost is traditionally considered the third central festival on the church calendar?

At Pentecost, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and other followers of Jesus who were gathered in Jerusalem. After his resurrection, Jesus had advised the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they were “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, NRSV).

It was during the Jewish Festival of Weeks, referred to as Shavuot in Hebrew and Pentecost in Greek, that this gift was bestowed. Shavuot was a pilgrim festival, and according to Jewish law, all Jewish men were expected to travel to Jerusalem for the celebration. During Shavuot, the people celebrated God giving the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Speaking in Our Native Language

Acts 2 details the dramatic arrival of the Spirit upon Jesus’ followers. While we often compare the Holy Spirit to the gentle presence of a dove, at Pentecost the Spirit comes as wind and fire. The Spirit arrives with the “howling of a fierce wind” (verse 2), and the disciples see individual flames alighting on one another’s heads. They were so filled with the Spirit that they were able to speak in languages that they didn’t know.

Because Pentecost was a pilgrim festival, there were Jews gathered in the city from all over, and they spoke many different languages. The loud sound had attracted their attention, and they were mystified by the sight of Galileans speaking the languages from their distant homes.

While some assumed that the disciples must have been drunk, Peter insisted that they weren’t. Instead, he pointed to a prophecy from the Book of Joel in which God promises to “pour out [God’s] Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).

It’s important to note that while Paul writes about speaking in tongues in a few of his letters, what occurred at Pentecost was something different. Speaking in tongues, as described by Paul, was generally unintelligible speech, not an established language. At Pentecost, the apostles were speaking languages that those gathered for the festival spoke in their hometowns.

In a sense, Pentecost is the unwinding of the division that happened in Babel. Genesis 11:1-9 tells us about how prideful humans, who at the time had only one language, decided they would build a tower that reached to the heavens. Their goal was to “make a name” for themselves (verse 4). God decided to throw a wrench into their plans by mixing up their languages so they could no longer communicate with one another.

At Pentecost, the Spirit enabled people to understand one another despite language barriers. It’s also interesting to note what didn’t happen that day. The Spirit didn’t enable all the listeners to speak and understand one language. Instead, the Spirit’s presence empowered the followers of Jesus to speak in the native tongues of others. The particularities of language and culture are preserved in this story, even while they cease to be barriers between peoples.

Communicating Across Barriers

True communication, in which we are listened to and understood and where we listen and understand our partner in turn, can be challenging. Even between people who are close such as spouses or friends, understanding each other can be a difficult task. When we add in differences in culture, language, faith, or political views, real communication can appear impossible to achieve.

With such great differences, it can be hard even to attempt communication. Clifton Stringer, a theologian at Boston College, writes that the fear of persons of other races he felt as a child, and that he sometimes still feels as an adult, is “both a failure to communicate and a fear about communication’s failure. Will I be able to hear and understand? Can I talk and be understood? Or will I misunderstand or misspeak and so offend, or mishear or miscommunicate and so expose my ignorance?”

However, through the events of Pentecost and the Spirit’s outpouring upon us all, we can break down these barriers and discover a level of understanding we never thought possible. As poet William Loader writes, “O wind, wind, / you breathed upon the clay and there was life, / you danced down to the forehead of a Galilean / and there was hope, / you shook the foundations of community / and there was Pentecost.”

While we might assume that the first Christians had more in common than we do today, consider that the early church was made up, as the Reverend Joy Moore describes it, of people who had a “heritage as both conquerors and captives, wandering seekers and warring soldiers.” They came from every language and nation.

Nonviolent Communication

Even when the Spirit’s presence isn’t announced with roaring winds, paying attention to the presence of God in others can allow us a new level of understanding. In an article titled “It Matters How We Disagree,” Sarah Ann Bixler urges her own Mennonite Church, rooted in the pacifist tradition, to embrace nonviolent communication. In recent years, her denomination has faced deep divisions, and she found herself cornered by the amount of “violent communication” that was taking place. Bixler states that when “we speak to one another with the sole purpose of judging who is right and who is wrong,” it’s a sign of violent communication.

The Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process developed by Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, offers a way to talk through disagreements with empathy. There are four steps in the process:

  1. Making observations that affect our well-being, without judging the behavior of others.
  2. Stating our feelings about what we’ve just observed. We don’t blame others for “making us” feel a certain way.
  3. Expressing our core values that create our feelings.
  4. Making requests that will improve our lives, rather than demands.

When discussing deeply held differences about biblical interpretation, Bixler says these four steps might be expressed like this: “When you cite biblical references for your point of view (observation), I feel uneasy (feeling) because I’ve always understood the Bible to say something different. I value a different kind of biblical interpretation (value). Would you be willing to hear my perspective and then share how you came to another understanding (request)?”

Another key aspect of nonviolent communication involves listening to the other person fully without planning what we will say next. This kind of listening enables us to understand the other person’s values and needs. Communicating in this way doesn’t mean that disagreements will always be resolved, but it can allow us to bear witness to God’s love even when we have profound differences.

Empowered by the Spirit

When Peter preached about the death and resurrection of Jesus at Pentecost, the troubled crowd asked, “What should we do?” Peter urged them, “Change your hearts and lives.” He invited them to receive the outpouring of the Spirit through baptism. Peter told the crowd that “this promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites” (Acts 2:37-39).

How is the Spirit calling each of us today to lovingly share the gospel with others who seem so different from us, whether because of language, culture, or beliefs? What can we do to ensure that we truly hear the gospel message that others are sharing with us? How can we communicate the gospel not just with our lips but with all of our lives? What will we do today to cross a barrier and extend a listening ear and a compassionate heart?

Helpful Links

• Read William Loader’s poem “Wind, Wind—A Reflection on the Spirit.”
• Learn more about the Nonviolent Communication process here and here.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus