Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tom Wright on The Significance of Pentecost Sunday

A hundred years ago, a movement began which today claims 300 million adherents. It began as a sudden outburst of new and dramatic spiritual experience, enabling those who received it, mostly socially disadvantaged and marginalised, to claim that God was doing a new thing in and through them, that his Spirit was being poured out in a fresh way, reviving the celebration and power of the first apostles on the day of Pentecost. The movement was of course Pentecostalism, which continues to spread not least in third world countries and behind the former Iron Curtain. And we mainstream Anglicans, who celebrate Pentecost with wonderful stately liturgy, and who would be horrified if someone began to speak in tongues in the middle of it, should not be too quick to look down our cultural noses at those who throw their arms in the air and shout Hallelujah!

Pentecostalism has flourished not least where mainstream churches have been perceived as spiritually dry and arid and socially and culturally oppressive. But Pentecostalism has also come into the mainstream churches, including our own, through the charismatic movement. One reason why it’s made a splash there is because many people have suddenly discovered that God wasn’t dead after all, that secularism is rubbish. If you’ve been in a desert for a long time and are now very hot and thirsty, and then a fountain of water suddenly springs up in front of you, you’re not going to stand calmly by and pour yourself a small glassfull and sip it as though you were at a vicarage tea-party. You’re going to shout for joy and wallow in it and let it splash all over you while you laugh and play and drink until you can drink no more. That’s what’s going on in much of the charismatic movement today, as the parched sands of contemporary culture, including alas some of the churches, suddenly find living water bursting up from below. Those of us who had been quietly drinking from other more hidden springs all along have no right to sneer at the exuberance of people who were thirsty, whom we had not reached with our own water supply, and who have now found one of their own.

Pentecostalism has always looked back to the early church, particularly to the second chapter of Acts, to explain what it’s about and to validate it by appeal to scripture. What I want to do this morning, rather than comment further on the contemporary scene, is to look again at Acts 2 and reflect on what Luke, its author, is telling us. He hasn’t told the story in our terms, in terms of people who were gasping for some experience of God and suddenly got more than they bargained for. Nor does he tell it as the story of socially marginalised people suddenly discovering new power, though there is a hint of that too. He tells it as the story of God’s new covenant and new world coming to birth. The way his story is told highlights two things which neither Pentecostalism nor its detractors have taken on board. Luke saw Pentecost as the day of fulfilment and renewal for the two great Jewish institutions: the Law and the Temple. And that means a renewal, as well, in the presence and power of the God of Israel. Unless we pay attention to that renewal, we are cutting off the water-supply that we ourselves claim to be drinking from.

People have often pointed that Luke tells the story of Pentecost in such a way as to awaken echoes of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Moses went up Mount Sinai and came down with the Torah, the Jewish Law, to be the way of life for the people God had already rescued from slavery in Egypt. The story of the Exodus, in fact, has been underneath the story of Jesus and the early church all through, from the moment when, at Easter, we sang about God loosing Pharaoh’s yoke and setting his people free, only this time the slavemaster being, not Egypt, but sin and death themselves. The Jewish feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, always was the feast of the giving of the Law; fifty days after coming through the Red Sea, they arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses, as I said, goes up and comes down with the tablets of stone. Now Jesus has ascended to heaven, and sends the Holy Spirit to be the way of life for God’s redeemed people. This is the fulfilment of the Torah, the Law.

But there is of course a difference.

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