Tomorrow marks the day of Pentecost, the fiftieth day since Easter. The story of that day, told in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles always had a feel of the Old Testament about it, a strange and supernatural presence comes int the room and the people who were gathered there are endowed with preterhuman powers. Perhaps it is the very non-natural nature of the story that prompts it being considered only one Sunday in the year, or perhaps it is something much more worldly, a motivation much more Earth-bound. There are many churches that describe themselves as “Pentecostal,” but few that seem to embrace the meaning of what took place on that day in Jerusalem.
The “tongues” received by the disciples of Jesus gathered in that upper room were the capacity to communicate with people regardless of their background or culture, everyone could understand the message brought by Jesus. Christians of Pentecostal and charismatic traditions turned the ability to break down barriers into the power to create barriers. “Tongues” became a matter of personal religious experience, they became a mark whereby some Christians regarded themselves as “true” Christians, whereas those who did not have the experience were deficient in their faith. (Having an experience like that described in Acts Chapter 2 became what determined whether one was a Christian, if one was not thus “baptised in the Spirit,” one was lacking in an essential qualification to be counted among the faithful).
Spiritualising the story of the day of Pentecost, making it into a matter of subjective religious experience, inoculated the church against the subversive message at the heart of the story. At heart, the Pentecost story is about the sweeping away of human barriers and the inclusion of all people in a new society. In the first centuries of the church, such radical reconciliation and inclusivity may have been possible, but once the church became the religion of the empire, once that hierarchy and power became marks of the church, then the revolutionary message behind those events in Jerusalem would be ignored.
Look now for signs of radical reconciliation and inclusiveness and it is unlikely that they will be discernible among those churches that include “pentecostal” in their name, such churches are more known for their social and political conservatism than for their attempts at being radical, they are more likely to embrace policies excluding people than to contemplate being inclusive. Not that the mainstream churches are recognisable for their attempts at embracing the spirit of Pentecost. When did one last hear of a bishop selling his palace in order to share with the poor, as did the disciples in Acts Chapter 2?
The day of Pentecost might still be remembered by the church, but it is a remembrance more notable for what it lacks than what it includes.