Almost every parent I know can recall what it was like on the day their child was born. Two weeks ago, when I was uneventfully celebrating my own birthday—quarantined at home with my husband—close friends of ours were in the hospital. Aubrey was being treated for preeclampsia and hoping to make it another month before giving birth, when her baby would reach 34 weeks. That afternoon, however, her blood pressure was soaring and soon the situation became life threatening. She would need to have an emergency surgery performed to save her life and that of her unborn son. While her husband, Chris, was being prepped in a full body suit outside the operating room, Aubrey was strapped to the table, head-down and feet-up, while the medical staff made the necessary preparations. On the day that would have marked just the 30th week of her pregnancy, Aubrey gave birth to her son, Corbin, weighing 2 lbs. 4 oz. Before he was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit, she got to briefly hold Corbin’s hand. She would have to wait three full days before she would be able to hold him for the first time.
The waiting must have been excruciating. As I scrolled through Aubrey’s social media timeline from the day Corbin was born, I got to the third day, when she was finally able to hold her newborn son. In the picture I saw a picture of sheer joy unspeakable spilling out from the corners of her eyes, while the rest of her face was covered by a mask. Corbin lay on her chest, her palm cupping him and covering most of his tiny body. This year, my birthday was quite memorable as I got to share in the story of his birthday!
Drawing a loose analogy, I am reminded that as Christians the new birth into which we are born, the living hope of Jesus Christ, is quite connected by the sharing of his story, the third day, and the gift of God’s own personal embrace through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Birthday of the Church
This past Sunday marked the celebration of Pentecost, or what some have called, ‘the birthday of the Church’. Pentecost derives from the Greek, Pentēkostē, meaning fiftieth, and occurs seven weeks after Easter when Christians remember the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the new life of the Church.
On the Jewish calendar, Pentecost was originally a celebration of the completion of the wheat harvest, or the Feast of Weeks and commemorated God’s giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai after Israel emerged from slavery in Egypt.
Rejoice before the LORD your God—you and your sons and daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, orphans, and the windows who are among you—at the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and diligently observe these statutes (Deuteronomy 16.11-12)
The early church likely understood Pentecost in this way. Yet, as we look back with Christian hindsight into Israel’s history, we now can see the denouement of God’s drama of new creation, coming after the climax of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The Pentecost festival had originally celebrated the giving of Torah to Israel, which would prepare them to be the people with whom God would dwell in their midst in the Tabernacle. But now God was now coming in glory to indwell his people, the new temple, by the Holy Spirit.
On that first Pentecost Sunday, the Apostle Peter declared that the promise the prophets envisaged was now coming true: God would pour out his Spirit on all humans, without category distinctions of gender age, class, or race, so that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be rescued from the ravages of idolatry and the pride of human effort that seeks independence from God in order to make a name for ourselves.
Perhaps, then, we might re-imagine as Prof. N.T. Wright suggests, that ‘the birthday of the Church’ really starts with the call of Abraham and not exclusively with the coming of the Spirit. In his course on the Acts of the Apostles, Prof. Wright teaches, ‘Luke is looking back as if to say, This is the day we are on the way to our inheritance’.
Following a period of seven Sabbaths, the promised Spirit rushes in and the birth of God’s new people for the world commences with a loud bang: the rushing of the wind, and the crackling and licking of the flames that appeared and rested on all those gathered. They were all amazed and astonished as they realized that they could speak their native tongues and yet hear and understand one another. It was a sign which Stanley Hauerwas called ‘God’s new language’.
The outpouring of the Spirit announces the broadcast love of God in the ‘common tongue’ of the Church, declaring that the scattering and confusion of Babel has been undone. Hauerwas observes,
At Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words. It is instead a community whose memory of its savior creates the miracles of being a people whose very differences contribute to their unity. We call this new creation church (‘The Church as God’s New Language’, in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation, Fortress Press, 1987).
The point is that the undoing of Babel by the gift of Spirit God is part of the redemption, regathering and reshaping of God’s people, through whom the new creation story might continue to creatively speak his let-there-be-light language to the nations as God dwells in their midst.
Prof. Wight observes that all the pressure points in Acts are ‘temple pressure-points’, where the cultures come together and wrestle with the question of how the new family of God, the Church, will relate to one another in the context of Caesar’s empire. The question of how this new community will achieve its various heaven-and-earth aspirations within each of the different cultures of the time is the world that Luke introduces as he sees the Spirit falling upon and filling the disciples.
Today, the Church still wrestles with what it means to be the corporate expression of the body of Christ as we navigate new ‘temple pressure points’ in our various political and cultural contexts.
Consider these three ways of how ‘God’s new language’ of the Church and life in the Spirit that we commemorate on Pentecost still speaks today.At Pentecost God created a new language...it is a community whose memory of its Savior creates the miracles of being a people whose very differences contribute to their unity. We call this new creation 'church'. Hauerwas Click To Tweet
Going Back to the Beginning
Before the calamity happened, before all the confusion and the real chaos started, in the beginning, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The coming of the Holy Spirit is not just the end of the story; rather, the Spirit signals new beginnings.
The storied world of the Bible narrates six intervals of God’s creative acts. From the dust of the ground God’s human creation was birthed by the wind of his breath. The Psalmist echoes,
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14).
Going back to the beginning refocuses our remembrance that we are ‘dust-people’, with the humility that seeks God’s empowering by the Spirit for the places in our lives, the Church, and in the world that could use a brand new start.
In times like these, with all of the ‘temple pressure points’ we face, we might begin afresh by humbly repenting and lamenting where new beginnings are needed in the dusty shambles of our lives, where things have fallen and crumbled because of our words or actions. The Apostle Paul reminds us,
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit (emphasis mine), any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-4).
Lord, help us get back to the beginning of what it means to share in the Spirit, with all boldness needed to consider others before ourselves.
Getting Boldness Back
The problem with Babel was not the bricks—the offense was not the building project itself. God often desires for us to be bold and to build. To be sure, the Acts of the Apostles is all about boldness in building for God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven.
Luke records Jesus’ own words,
‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Luke 1:8).
We receive power to bear witness (martus; martyrs) to the crucified Messiah and the power of his resurrection for restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping the world. Yet, how often do we instead mimic the ‘boldness of Babel’ with prideful attempts to create a name and a place for ourselves instead? Prof. Wright comments that the tower is a statement of ‘this is who we are’: a monolithic and arrogant human empire of imposed uniformity.
On the day of Pentecost, the gift of God’s ‘new language’ uniting his new family by the Spirit was accompanied by the sound of a rushing wind (Acts 2:2), reminding us of the sound of the mighty waters that could be heard when the glory of the God returned to the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 43:2,4).
We see that the temple of God and the place where he would come to dwell was never intended to remain a building with bricks and mortar, but was to be one of flesh and blood. Prof. Wright observes that according to Luke, God was establishing the new temple to what it was always meant to be:
Heaven and earth rejoined as the very breath of heaven itself comes to indwell people on earth, renewing them in ways they never imagined and equipping them now to be God’s people for the world. We are to anticipate that new creation by making the world a different place: by healing, acts of mercy and how we now live, speaking the languages of every language under heaven.
Retrieving the boldness needed to navigate ‘temple pressure points’ might look half-mad to those around us. Being bold often requires risking the sneering accusations that often misunderstand our intentions, or mistakenly assume us to be drunk on new wine (Acts 2:13).
The boldness of Pentecost envisions the variegated service and activity of God work to build the Church, the body of his beloved Son. The gifts of the Spirit and movements of grace are just as diverse our languages. Paul writes,
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. All these [gifts] are activated by one and the same Spirit who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1Corinthians 12:7,11).
Lord, help us to move forward as we boldly pursue the common good, becoming cheerful givers.
Giving Instead of Getting
There is an adage that says, In order to keep it, you’ve got to give it away. Living with the tensions of ‘temple pressure points’, might ask us to risk living as ‘prodigal’ givers in Kingdom-shaped ways. By ‘prodigal’ I mean lavish: to be prodigal givers characterized by wasteful expenditures of love, mercy, and grace, even selling our goods and distributing our possessions.
The shared understanding facilitated by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost creates opportunities for a worldwide family more interested in giving rather than getting. Luke describes what the common life and language looked like for the early church:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people (Acts 2:44-47).
This year, Pentecost has been a reminder for me to go back to the beginning, to reflect on the Spirit’s power which unites us rather than divides us. I am being encouraged towards confessing, repenting, lamenting, listening, forgiving, and giving and receiving the profuse love of God and love of the other (the ‘enemy’). I am praying for the Spirit’s empowering and enabling that might shine the love of Christ into places of hopelessness and restlessness, a love which wisely and practically steps with all boldness and humility into places of pain and confusion and conflict and tension.
Lord, hear our prayer.
As I write this, my friends Aubrey and Chris are still waiting to take Corbin home. He needs to be able to breath independently and weigh over 4 lbs before he can leave the hospital. Today, Aubrey wrote to me of the joys of giving her son, ‘kangaroo care’, which is when she is able to hold him as her rests on her with skin-to-skin contact. And, as I reflect on this image, I consider the Spirit’s own warm embrace and pray that others might also know the loving touch of God in Jesus Christ,
‘For the promise is for you, for your children, all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Luke 2:39).