When it comes to what we often think of as being classic Pentecostalism—charismatic experiences, signs and wonders, and so forth—I have to admit that by inclination I am something of an agnostic. To be sure, I’m using that word in its original sense, based in the Greek word agnōstos or “unknowable,” and so what I’m really saying is that when people speak of having been caught up in very immediate and very powerful experiences of the presence of the Holy Spirit I find myself listening with very particular kind of openness. While my own faith and life as a Christian has not been marked by such experiences, I’m not prepared to be dismissive of others for whom this has been not only very real but also personally transformative. But why this person and not that? I don’t know. And why at this particular time and not that? Why, for instance, do so many people I know have some experience of the immediacy of God’s Spirit dating from the late 1980s and early 1990s? I don’t know.
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I think I learned my agnosticism from my friend Kilian McDonnell, the monk theologian and poet from St John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Fr. Kilian spent decades as both the Roman Catholic church’s representative in dialogue with the Pentecostal church tradition and as the theological mentor to the Catholic charismatic movement. A deeply prayerful man and a theologian of real depth, Kilian is insistent that the Holy Spirit is very much on the move in the church, and that what he calls “classical Pentecostalism” simply cannot be dismissed. He spoke to me about some of the extraordinary things he had witnessed, but added that much as he had desired it—much as he had been open to it—he had not been given that kind of dramatic, personal experience. Why not? He couldn’t say… he didn’t really know. He could speculate that God had God’s own reasons, and he is insistent that the Holy Spirit had met and nurtured him in other ways—in the day in and day out prayer life of a monk, for instance. But you know, as he and I talked about all of this, there was just a bit of wistfulness in his voice.
I’ve thought often about those conversations with Kilian, and I’ve wondered if perhaps God wanted to keep him just an arm’s length from the immediacy of charismatic experience. I’ve wondered if from that vantage point he could be a better resource for the whole church, providing a theological language and framework through which charismatic and non-charismatic Christians could actually hear each other, and respect each other. But again, I don’t really know.
What we do know is that even at the moment when the Holy Spirit was made manifest in the freshest and most visible way imaginable, some of the witnesses were skeptical, even hostile. You heard the narrative as told by Luke in the 2nd chapter of Acts. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” “They were all together,” meaning the disciples and the others in the Jesus movement, on “the day of Pentecost,” which is the Jewish feast day celebrating the gift of the torah at Mount Sinai, marked fifty days after Passover.
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.
Jesus had told them that a gift would be given them—in the words of the gospel according to John, “the Advocate,” “the Spirit of truth (who) will guide you into all the truth”—and now this. A sound like a rushing violent wind, “divided tongues, as of fire,” and the ability to speak in languages unknown to them. Though in its own way probably quite terrifying, who among us wouldn’t want to have that kind of experience? Who wouldn’t want to know the immediate presence of God, forever setting aside any doubts, second thoughts, misgivings? And if God would do such things on a regular basis, wouldn’t that silence all the skeptics, critics, and atheists, from Richard Dawkins on down?
Well, we’re told that while, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” others stood back and “sneered,” saying, “They are filled with new wine.” They’re drunk, babbling, it is foolishness. In other words, on its own even the experience of something so extraordinary as hearing a bunch of backcountry peasants speaking in a dozen different languages wasn’t enough. And as N.T. Wright suggests, “The sneering reaction on the day of Pentecost wasn’t too silly: in a sense the disciples were filled with new wine, and the old wineskins were showing signs of splitting.” “The Spirit makes God’s people sing out of tune with the rebellious and decaying world,” he continues, which is why even those who didn’t sneer are described as being both “amazed and perplexed,” asking each other “What does this mean?” This simply doesn’t fit.
Which is why Peter steps up and preaches the church’s very first sermon. Peter’s sermon—which continues for another fifteen verses beyond what we read tonight—basically is the interpretive word needed to make sense of the raw experience of wind, fire, and the power to speak of all of these languages. Without that interpretive word, Pentecost is simply perplexing. To again quote N.T. Wright, “(If) we might think that the Spirit was taking us out of the world altogether, making us a cult of flaky fanatics, (the New Testament writers) make it clear that the Spirit is the agent of creation’s renewal and redemption.” Peter’s sermon begins with his riffing on a passage drawn from the prophet Joel, essentially proclaiming that creation’s renewal and redemption will draw together young and old, slave and free, male and female, heaven and earth, into a new and radically refashioned reality. They tasted that new reality there that day—metaphorically speaking, they had a good long swallow of that new wine—and whenever the church is actually being the Body of Christ we’ve been sipping from the same bottle since. We get these occasional tastes of what it is to be like when the old distinctions and divisions—including that between heaven and earth—will be finally collapsed, and we maybe even find the courage and the imagination to live now as if it has happened ultimately. And when that happens in the life of a community, it tastes ever so good. That’s the difference between the church as an organization, and the church as the Body of Christ.
But then we remember that we still live in the meantime, with fair bit of unknowing on our hands and in our lives, seeing only partially and “as through a glass, darkly” as Paul put it. And we remember, too, that for all of the power and promise of Pentecost and for all of the truth of Peter’s sermon, he and the other disciples ended up dead on account of their faithfulness to this new way.
We are about to do something that is both a bit audacious and totally fitting to this feast day of Pentecost. We are going to baptize Hannah Margaret, the infant daughter of John and Susan. Parents have been bringing children for baptism into the household of faith since as early as the second century. To be sure, some of the theologians of the ancient church were a bit unsure about this practice, though others—notably the second century theologian Irenaeus—wouldn’t have had it any other way. Susan and John are going to make some very strong promises on Hannah’s behalf, committing her life into the promise of “creation’s renewal and redemption” in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. At some point down the line, Hannah will need to make some of her own decisions as to how she’s going to live into this promise, but in the meantime her parents—and we with them—are marking her as “Christ’s own forever.” With boldness, we entrust her to the way of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, and will make a place for her here, in our midst.
Emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is to this act that we now turn.