A Tale of Two Pentecosts

It’s an amazing number. The first Christian sermon, the first altar call, and 3000 people were immediately baptized! I suddenly feel very inadequate. It’s a big number; but it’s not a random number. 

It’s actually not the first Pentecost. Pentecost was originally a Jewish holiday celebrating the first harvest and (here’s the key) the giving of the Law to Moses. If you grew up watching the famous film The 10 Commandments, then you’re familiar with the scene.

Moses goes up the mountain, receives from God the 10 commandments written on tablets and then comes down the mountain with them in his hands only to find the people have already broken the first two commandments. They’ve made an idol, a golden calf, a man-made hand-made God for themselves to worship and rely on. Moses is enraged by this, but what happens next isn’t included in the movie, and rightly so. 

Moses is so enraged that he decides to take the Law into his own hands. He figures the wages of sin is death, right? So he pronounces judgment on the people, gathers his priests, arms them, and sends them out to slay their brethren for their sin. And when it’s all said and done about 3000 of them are no more. 

Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf, William Blake

Peter’s Pentecost could have gone this way too. He doesn’t come down a mountain having received the Law, he comes out of a locked room having received the Holy Spirit, but it is still a Spirit of fire, and it still announces the Law. 

Peter is aflame in his preaching and, like Moses, he lays down the Law. He promises a day of blood, and fire, and smoke, a day of the Lord, and then he reveals that that day has come. It came in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own Son; but when God’s own Son came down you didn’t just decide to make a cast of your own god, you cast God out and you crucified him. 

That’s the moment when Peter could have taken up the ministry of Moses. He could have gathered the twelve, armed them, and cut down another 3000 sinners. He doesn’t. Instead, the twelve, armed with the power of the Holy Spirit, announce the salvation of 3000 sinners, saying “this Jesus, whom you crucified, God raised for the forgiveness of your sin.” 

The Bible gives us these two Pentecost stories. Both describe an act of God, the giving of the law by God to Moses, and the giving of the Spirit by God to the apostles. But what they do with what God gives them differs drastically. At the end of one story 3000 are dead. At the end of the other 3000 are alive, raised with Christ in the power of the Spirit through baptism. 

Pentecost, Gebhard Fugel 1863-1939

This week, United Methodists from across Virginia met in Hampton for something called Annual Conference. Part way through the week attendee from my church sent me a text message saying “This Conference reminds me of an old saying, it’s one thing to enjoy sausage, it’s another thing to witness how it gets made.” 

She was right, it’s not a glamorous. It’s a giant ecclesial business meeting, perennially exhausting, often contentious, and generally very boring. And yet… As in most years was profoundly moved at this year’s Annual Conference more than once. 

Don’t get me wrong, our denomination, our Annual Conference, the church in general can drive me crazy sometimes, but this contrast between these two Pentecost stories is exactly where the tension (and the gospel, and our hope) lies. See the church, like humanity at large, we tend to gravitate toward the ministry of Moses. It is our nature to take judgment, righteousness, the Law, into our own hands with violent religious fervor. But in Peter’s Pentecost, and in the ministry of the church, we’ve been given a different way. 

Every year at Annual Conference there’s a part of the event where we are presented with the latest candidates for ministry (ordained and licensed ministry in the United Methodist Church). This is one of the moments that moved me this year. First we were all together for the first time in years and we got to sing a hymn, a capella. A room full of people enduring a three-day church meeting, for just a few minutes sang as one, singing praise to God. It made an impression on me. 

Then together we affirmed and blessed and celebrated that God is still calling people into church leadership, even after all this time, even in a time like this. But the thing that moved me most was the power of what these new pastors and church leaders have been armed with. 

Candidates for Licensed and Ordained ministry in the Virginia Conference of the Untied Methodist Church

What the church has been armed with is not the ministry of Moses, but the proclamation of Peter, the gospel, the Good News, that “This Jesus whom we crucified God raised, and has made him both Lord and Messiah,” pouring out on all flesh not wrath, but grace. Grace in the form of a promise which holds the power to forgive sins, reconcile the broken, and raise the dead. 

This evening we will be having our own church conference  (a local version of that state-wide gathering). I don’t plan on it being contentious. I’m actually quite excited about what’s going on at Grace, but there’s a chance you may find it a little boring, or a little like sausage making. Nevertheless, it is not lost on me and need not be lost on us the privilege of what we get to be a part of as the church, namely an act of God. 

I think that’s what moved me most this year, that even 2000 years later we are still being invited to participate in an act of God through Peter’s proclamation. No, that’s not quite it, at least that’s not all. 

I think what moved me the most this year is the realization that I actually believe this stuff is true. That, in a world of sin and death, we have been given a way, the Way, that leads to life–to the life that really is life. That’s what makes it such a privilege to be the church and proclaim with Peter, “this promise is for you, for your children, for all who are far away, and for me, for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 

So, as I do so believe, allow me to proclaim once again to you: This Jesus, whom we crucified, God has raised, and has made him both Lord and Messiah. He himself has promised that by the same Spirit that raised him from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies also by the forgiveness of your sin. This promise is for you, for your children, for all who are far away, and for me, for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 

Thanks be to God. 

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