“… they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house… 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.”
We have a challenge imagining this moment. Because our culture emphasizes the particularity of personal experience and our differences, rather than what is shared between us. We hear talk about diversity and inclusion, which might reflect a positive regard for community. But it may also reflect an assumption that, apart from our efforts to bring people together, we are separate and disconnected. We hear that, on the day of Pentecost, some people in that room dramatically experienced God’s power. Yet, we may be surprised to hear that all of them did, together!
This may be because we don’t appreciate how community is vital to individual human flourishing. We often want freedom for ourselves without personal accountability to others. And, we desire private opportunities without public responsibilities. Being in community with other people may seem occasionally beneficial, especially when it is on our terms. But we tend not to see it as essential to our lives.
Evangelical Christians rightly emphasize a personal relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And many in the broader Catholic tradition rightly point to how we grow in our relationship with God through community. So, we may think of this as an either/or choice. Yet, the New Testament treats our relationship with God as both personal and communal. Scripture encourages us to see how God is at work nurturing the lives of particular persons as well as transforming the health of whole communities.
We have lost at least one insight by moving from the King James translation to modern versions of the Bible. It centers on the difference between “ye” and “you.” Except in the American South, in modern American English, we don’t distinguish between you, plural, and you, singular. And so, when Jesus says, in the King James version of Mt. 5:48, “be ye perfect,” the contemporary NRSV translation has it as simply, “be perfect…” (meaning whole or complete). In other words, “you, be perfect!’ A modern ‘Southern’ translation would say, “y’all be perfect,” making clear that Jesus is not just speaking to individuals.
This can help us notice a paradox. We know how Episcopalians and other mainline Protestant Christians are sometimes uncomfortable when our brothers and sisters in Christ talk about ‘accepting Jesus as our personal savior.’ And yet, many of us along with other ‘mainline Christians’ assume that religion is always a personal and private matter. In other words, both evangelical and non-evangelical Christians often privilege the same assumption, that our faith is largely private, even if we don’t speak about it differently from each other.
All this is important as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. Just like the feast of the Resurrection, Pentecost is first about God’s missional community before it is about the experience of individual members.
The image above is Bonnie Van Voorst’s painting, Pentecost. This post is based on my homily for Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
Bonnie Van Voorst offers these thoughts regarding her evocative painting, Pentecost:
“At the bottom of the painting, blues, browns, and greens represent humanity. Above, blue, gold, and red symbolize the Trinity–blue for Christ’s immanence, gold for the Father’s transcendence, and red for the work of the Holy Spirit. “And the Father, as he had promised, gave [Jesus] the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today.” (Acts 2:33) The red descends to earth, settling on God’s people as they are filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Her painting has the evocative quality of many of those by Makoto Fujimura.