The Discouraging Power of Pentecost (and How To Avoid It)

Pentecost is a powerful and important day in the life of the Church. We sometimes refer to it as the “birthday” of the Church — when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, they proclaimed the Gospel in every language, and the message was unleashed upon the world.

Having just received Jesus’ commission to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, the disciples had to have wondered: how could they possibly accomplish this mission? Then Jesus instructed them to wait for power from on high, which likely both excited and intimidated them. But now, on Pentecost, by communicating with people from every corner of the known world, they actually accomplished this goal (at least symbolically) in one morning.

This is worth remembering. This is worth celebrating. This is worth encountering in worship every year. It has the power to inspire we who are called to pick up this great commission and carry it forward. But depending on how we approach this story, it also has the power to discourage us. There are three perspectives we should keep in mind as we celebrate this incredible event.

Moments and Journeys

We often highlight Pentecost as an incredible moment — and it was an incredible moment. But it was a moment within a much larger journey. It may be the “birthday” of the Church, but God’s work in the world and the calling of God’s people did not begin or end that day.

When we isolate Pentecost as a moment and neglect to place it within the larger and longer movement of God, we can discourage those for whom the work of God is much more a journey. Some people have their “date” — when they got saved. For lots of other people, a single date in which they became a Christian couldn’t be a more foreign experience. God’s transforming power is not open only to those who experience moments.

In my own life, I can identify a moment when I accepted my call to ministry, but if that’s the only part of the story I tell… I am being incredible unfair to my family, my teachers, my pastors — the many people who helped shape my faith and lead me to the point where I could accept my call.

Highlight and celebrate the moment, but honor the journey as well.

Ordinary and Extraordinary

Pentecost is not only a moment, but it is an extraordinary moment. Yet it is not valuable or even holy because it was extraordinary. What makes it holy is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. If we are only on the lookout for the extraordinary, we will miss some movements of the Spirit, and we can get discouraged while waiting.

It is easy to identify and even idolize the extraordinary moments of Scripture. Again, they are valuable, and they are often there to point to and reveal the identity, character, and purpose of God in the world. Yet, the Bible is also full of holiness found in the ordinary.

The donkey that Jesus rode on Palm Sunday did not speak, sing, or dance — yet it revealed Jesus’ royalty. The first communion elements were the bread that was already on the table and the cup that Jesus and his disciples were already sharing, and they became the body and blood of Christ. The first witnesses to the birth of the Messiah were not kings but shepherds, and the first evangelist to the Gentiles was not Paul but a formerly demon-possessed homeless man.

Wonder at the extraordinary, but present it as an expression of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit that can be found in all things.

Success and Failure

Three thousand people were baptized and joined the fledgling Jesus movement on Pentecost. This level of “success” has been experienced in moments throughout Church history — but it certainly isn’t the experience of the vast majority of pastors and churches. And even in times when most things seem to be working, we have a tendency to dwell on the few things that aren’t working.

In the middle of the Pentecost passage — the extraordinary moment in which the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit was as visible and powerful as it has ever been — there is failure. And it’s not like we skip it! We read it, and we joke about it! The disciples were accused of being drunk, Peter fires back that it’s too early to be drunk, and I usually note that this is a sign that Peter never tailgated for a college football game. But this accusation is a sign of failure. There were people who saw the Holy Spirit moving in and through Jesus’ closest followers and completely missed it!

What happens when someone is inspired by the Pentecost story, tries to talk to someone about their faith, and they get rejected? Discouragement. Doubt. Thoughts like, “maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t want to use me…”

Celebrate success, but remind people that all we can do is be faithful to follow and respond. It is the Holy Spirit’s work within other people’s hearts, minds, and spirits that determines the results.

Lectionary Connections: Year A Pentecost, Year B Pentecost, Year C Pentecost

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