Pentecost | John 20:19-23, John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21
Were they waiting or were they hiding?
There were about one hundred and twenty of them in all, gathered somewhere according to Acts (which is really Luke II, the Sequel.) The group included the inner circle of followers and Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Luke is careful to record that Jesus told his followers to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, we are told, the Spirit descended upon these followers like sparks falling from the sky.
John told the story differently, or perhaps told a different part of it. In the words of this gospel, Jesus himself appears and breathes upon his followers, conferring in some mystical way the Spirit of God upon these men and women. In this version, they were all definitely hiding behind locked doors out of fear, fear that the Romans and the temple leadership would do to them what had been done to Jesus.
Perhaps they were both hiding and waiting. At any rate, by the time about seven weeks had passed and the religious festival of Pentecost or Shavuot began (commemorating Moses receiving the law directly from the Lord,) something radical happened. Either the Spirit fell upon them, or they realized that they already were touched by God.
They found their spark.
Whether you read John or Luke or Acts, this story is not anything that you can really accept strictly on an intellectual basis. There appear to be contradictions. There is the troublesome detail of the appearance of tongues of flame. Either people speak in languages that they did not previously know or other people begin to understand foreign languages as their own. It would be interesting to hear an explanation of this narrative from the perspective of group psychology. It would be interesting, and it would not be a matter of faith.
We want to understand things. We want to know the reasons, explain the magic trick, be able to tell why an apple turns brown after you bite it. There are limits to reason, though. We can explain a great many things, but our explanation has little to do with whether we have faith in them. When you are jumping out of an airplane, understanding how a parachute works is extremely helpful. Having faith in the person who packed your chute is even better.
Understanding informs our faith, but it is not our faith.
John also records that Jesus stood and cried out, “The one believing in me, as the scripture has said, out of him will flow living water.” Living water, he says—the spring of life, the Holy Spirit. No fire falling, no blowing wind, but the Spirit of God flowing quietly from within until suddenly we notice.
Life can be surprisingly simple and surprisingly complex. Often we find ourselves hiding, either hiding from something or hiding something that is within us. We find ourselves waiting, sometimes for years, and sometimes for something that we finally realize we had all along.
Perhaps this is a good moment to remember the words of the late Maya Angelou from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
We may not ever be able to explain what happened to those early Christians at Pentecost. Maybe they hid and they waited until they simply changed the way they thought about what they were waiting for. Either way, there is no need to understand everything, and there is no need to wait for God to change the things around us—that may be for us to do ourselves. Pentecost means that God is already changing the things within us, the things that matter, the things that last. Eternal life has less to do with the time that passes by us than with the Spirit that flows within us.