The question might seem odd – Who hosts Pentecost, after all? – but it helps us explore the meaning and import of the day when the Church drapes itself in red. The Day of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter which arrives this coming Sunday, is one of the three major festivals of the Church’s Year of Grace, yet it remains a puzzle to many, especially in this country and culture where it seems to go by as a momentary blip on the radar. To tell the truth, would we have remembered that there is a particular significance to this coming Sunday had the Pastor and the news not reminded us to dress in red? We do hang on to some bits about red: the fire of the Spirit’s descent on the Church, the blood of martyrs, the color of Lutheran (and others’) church doors, and the color we bring out for ordinations and other Spirit-laden days and activities. Still, beyond seeing red now and then, what is there to hang on to in order to celebrate?
Christmas and Advent have a long tradition of preparation, gift giving, carol sings, parties, wonderful foods to bake including famous or infamous fruitcakes, and cards to send and receive. That season of remembrance of the Christ Child’s birth is also the season of Saint Nick, Rudolf, and the prayer, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!,” at least in the chilly Northern Hemisphere. Lent into the Easter Season brings with it Lenten disciplines, our gathering as a congregation, reflective and stirring music, the fanfares of brass and the organ’s roar, lilies, corsages, new hats, and family dinners. The solemn period of introspection and contrition settles like a brooding fog quelling all riotous behavior, but the joy of the Resurrection explodes with new life in Christ. Both Christmas and Easter seasons have their secular, commercial, and family counterparts, thanks somewhat to Victoria’s Prince Albert who introduced Christmas trees and families gathering (with chestnuts roasting on an open fire?) to the British Empire. Nevertheless, we search in vain for Pentecost dinner recipes and decorations in Southern Living or Pentecost cards to send to friends and relatives.
Christmas and Easter are in part remembrances of long ago events, even when those past events continue to exert a present and grace-filled power. Pentecost’s good news is that the Spirit still spills forth as sacred mysteries and realities happening right now, giving Pentecost an immediacy not quite as evident during Christmas and Easter. Jesus is neither born nor is raised year after year; we cannot be eyewitnesses to those events. What we discover about Pentecost suggests a personal and intimate connection for each one of us who has been claimed by God as child, lamb, disciple, follower, and member of Christ’s own body, the Church.
The First Reading this coming Sunday is from Acts 2, the familiar account of the Spirit’s outpouring like a roaring wind, gifting the disciples gathered the gifts and insights to address the crowds in Jerusalem in their own languages on the Jewish festival of Pentecost. They are gifted to tell of the power of God to overturn the suffering, sin, death, and the grave. Folks are riveted by their message because they hear it in words they can understand and connect with. [Do you remember when a friend, a loved one, or even an articulate stranger first addressed you in such a way that your whole being jolted with sudden, deep understanding?] That’s what happened on Pentecost when Jesus’ disciples found flames dancing on their heads. The Gospel reading from John 20 provides the alternative announcement of the Spirit’s outpouring. Jesus appears to his fearful band the evening after his resurrection, presenting them with wounded hands and side, then breathing the Spirit of life into them with the promise of lasting peace. So, which one are we to believe? Is one wrong and the other more accurate?
Happily, both are faithful witnesses to the Spirit’s work even though the Church has adopted the chronology in Acts 2 which spans the days between the Resurrection, the Ascension 40 days following, and on the fiftieth day Pentecost, the Spirit’s outpouring. The important thing is not to insist on chronologies and lock-step actions but to discover that the Holy Spirit’s presence simply cannot be controlled or confined to our spiritual accounting sheets. Now, back to the original question…
When did YOU host a Day of Pentecost? The Acts passage and John’s Gospel help us understand that the Spirit’s outpouring was not confined to some rather brief period after Jesus’ resurrection but happens whenever and wherever the Spirit of Life so chooses. Jesus’ earlier conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of John is eager to hear of the wondrous ways of the God of love. Jesus replies: the wind[same word for Spirit and is an echo of Genesis 1:2] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit [John 3:8]. What the Spirit’s nudging and the Apostles’ preaching accomplishes is the transforming of hearts and minds, moving people to contrition, repentance, and ultimately wondering, “What should we do” [Acts 2:37b]? Peter’s answer was straightforward, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit [Acts 2:38]. We become the Spirit’s hosts, at least momentarily in baptism itself. Holy Baptism is, in fact, a Pentecostal event.
The root meaning of being a host is graciously to welcome strangers to draw near. Hosts are not the focus of their invitation; rather, their hospitality makes it possible for a community to gather and to share. Their hospitality means that they open their homes, but more particularly, they open themselves to relationships with others. Ultimately, they open themselves to God’s presence, for God draws near through the Spirit’s on-going work. Like the Road to Emmaus account in Luke 24:13-35, God in Christ is first encountered as stranger, but he himself becomes the host at table for those who first thought they were the hosts that evening. Likewise, the Spirit’s presence in Pentecostal power is startling, unexpected, and transforming. As we at one time or another have found ourselves drawing near or brought by family and sponsors who loved us, we invite God to draw near to us in grace at the font. Nevertheless, God the unfathomable is revealed as the gracious host already present to those who have invited God the Spirit into their lives. God’s baptismal welcome into the faith community grants a place, integrity, countless and quite specific gifts of grace for each individual. We may make an invitation to the Holy One, but discover that our lives are utterly transformed by God who bids us welcome to eternal life, the gracious host who has perpetually invited us wayward and lost people to return throughout the ages.