Monday, May 28, 2007
Pentecost and Pentecostal
With the festival of Pentecost the church has again celebrated the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the faithful according to the promise of our Lord. This year in our lectionary (series C) the Acts 2 account of the Pentecost event was read, which included the familiar phenomena of the sound of the loud rushing wind, the tongues of fire, and the disciples speaking in many languages. It is an inspiring account of the church's official beginning, leaving no doubt as to the Lord's presence with his people or the fulfillment of his promise they they would receive power to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
In the beginning the church had no doubt about the empowering and renewing force of the Holy Spirit which it received through the living Word and the blessed sacraments. Children and adults alike received the "gift of the Holy Spirit" in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and they were regularly strengthened by that same Spirit as they were fed the Bread of Life in Christ through the proclamation of the Word and by dining at the Lord's Table.
However, throughout history there have been those who have questioned whether this work of the Spirit has been alive and well within the church. They would look at a particular situation where part of the Church seemed mired in lax practice and questionable morality, and then concluded that the Spirit was being resisted and that a new renewal movement needed to be kindled to inflame the church's zeal.
Such a movement hit Christianity in the beginning of the last century which resulted in the so-called "Pentecostal" churches, know today by such names as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God. However, this "movement" spilled over into the mainline church bodies beginning in the 60's (with Episcopal priest Fr. Bennet) and culminating in the 70's. Initially referred to as the Charismatic movement, after the emphasis of this movement on a rediscovery of the "charisms" or "gifts" of the Spirit, it later changed its a label to the Renewal movement, with the emphasis, it would seem, on the work of renewing the church and restoring it to its original First century zeal.
I came of age when this "movement" hit the Lutheran church, but little understood what it meant at the time. It would only be around 1985 when I encountered fellow camp staff workers who were avowed Charismatics, that I began a serious investigation into what it all meant.
In the years since then I have matured in my understanding of the Holy Spirit and this divine person's role in the church. One of my concerns with the movement has always been the need for an emotional lift to assure the faithful that God is active. I have also been alarmed by the excessive importance attached to the gift of tongues, listed low in priority even for Paul who willingly admitted that the gift of prophesy, which is the proclamation of the Word, was of much greater value. A careful study of 1 Corinthians 14 is still a good corrective to the excesses connected with the "speaking in tongues" phenomena that has so captivated some people.
Today the "movement" seems much more low-key. Within the LCMS, the official Charismatic group called "Renewal in Missouri" (RIM) went out of existence a few years back, probably assimilated into other larger moderate groups who could defend and champion their cause as necessary.
Nevertheless, the understanding of the Spirit's role and purpose remains confused for many in the church today. And the "movement," I fear, still has a divisive quality. There seems to be a great desire to replay that first Pentecost each time the faithful worship, even though the need for the sights and sounds of that day are no longer needed. This was an infant church being born in the midst of a largely pagan world. The challenges it faced were overwhelming. Today, by contrast there are a billion and a half Christians worldwide, with some estimates that one out of every three persons is part of this faith. Now don't get me wrong - there are many challenges for our own time to be sure. But we are no longer called to wait for this special event in each era. The outpouring of the Spirit that day has happened, and it has continued on countless occasions in innumerable fonts, as children are reborn of water and Spirit, and the church again grows and renews.
Even without the loud rushing wind and the tongues of fire I still knew the Spirit was present in church this Sunday. There was no doubt that the promise of our Lord continues. Personally I don't need an emotional experience to reassure me that the Spirit is alive and active. I have the Word. I know the Promise. And as Paul said long ago: "We walk by faith and not by sight."
A blessed Pentecost to all!