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What is the significance of Pentecost? A test of spirit, and the challenge of bearing witness

18 May 2018

At Pentecost, Lucy Winkett argues that we are called to live dangerously

Mint Images/SuperStock

Close-up of the hull of an old, rusty fishing boat

Close-up of the hull of an old, rusty fishing boat

THE questions came fast, fired out in the efficient and unemotional voice of the experienced immigration barrister. “What is the significance of Pentecost?” “Where is it mentioned in the Bible?” “Which disciples described Pentecost?” “Which of Jesus’s relatives were present at Pentecost?”

I was listening to a list of questions that are regularly used by Home Office staff to ascertain whether a person claiming asylum in the UK on the basis of conversion to Christianity is genuine. There were many questions, and a significant proportion of them were about Pentecost. And then I asked members of my own congregation which members of Jesus’s family had been present at Pentecost. One knew. He was a retired clergyman.

Later on in court, during my testimony as a witness, I was asked whether — in my professional view — a person could be illiterate and be a Christian. I was also asked to give my own judgment on the level of questioning that the defendant had experienced.

HOME OFFICE staff have an incredibly difficult job. Trying to discern/judge/find evidence for the conversion to Christianity of a person whose life may well depend on their decision must be a responsibility that some find unbearable — especially on the scale that the authorities have to deal with. I have a great deal of sympathy for them.

But it occurred to me that the very act of interrogation on the subject of Pentecost — on the subject of the Holy Spirit — goes to the heart of one of the core teachings of Jesus: one that got his own followers into trouble, and should get us into trouble, too. It should send us to courts, to bear witness to the teaching of Christ that it is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that indicates authentic discipleship.

All through this Easter season, we are required by the lectionary to listen to the headlong, inspiring, often fraught opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It is truly an inspiration, in the original sense, in that the lives of these apostles were irrigated, infused, electrified — pick whichever metaphor you like — by what they experienced as spiritual energy that directed, cajoled, and provoked them into lives that they never imagined living.

The most beautiful scriptural word-pictures of fire, flames, and wind, and the mysterious reports of fishermen developing an inexplicable ability to be understood by people from all lands — all of these scriptural tales are signifiers: signposts pointing us towards a deep, transforming, revolutionary faith that formed new communities and, without any agreed straplines, policies, or even creeds for at least 400 years, still changed the world.

Peter Horree/Alamy13th-century Pentecost capital (the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin Mary and the disciples), Coimbra, Portugal

AFTER the years that I have spent in cathedral and parish ministry, my hunch is that the movement of the Holy Spirit is often much more ordinary than we are expecting.

Of course, there are extraordinary behaviours that some will point to as evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I have attended plenty of church worship sessions where people have been slain in the Spirit, or spoken in tongues; and, for the most part, I have also observed this behaviour being held well by Charismatic leaders and worship-song bands, who hold the chord of G at the end of a song to allow (encourage?) the chanting in tongues of a congregation.

But my own “praying home” is silence and sacrament. In this sense, I am a kinesthetic learner: I learn by doing things. The ordinariness (in some ways) of the celebration of the eucharist, with the eating and drinking of a crowd — sharing the same cup, breaking the same bread — is, for me, as charismatic and authentic an indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit as the more extraordinary ways of praying described above.

One of the tasks of a religious leader is to be attentive within society, community, and church to the movement of the Spirit: to notice, and, having noticed to go with it; to cultivate in ourselves and in our people a deep desire to be where the Spirit is, and to want to join in with what the Spirit is up to — whatever that is, and however challenging we might find it.

And, from my own experience, the signs of that Spirit have not been — in my lifetime, anyway — the unexplained sound of a rushing wind, or the sight of tongues of flame appearing in the assembly. But the signs of the movement of the Spirit have been no less transforming than these: sometimes, tears of recognition, the sudden release of joy, the laying down of a lifelong shame; or a deep and communal silence; or a brave vote in the PCC; or a long-term spiritual maturing in a congregation, evident in the deepening of the intercessions, hearing phrases borrowed, shared, and embellished between intercessors from week to week.

In short, noticing the movements of the Spirit has led me to hear whispers of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self control, and — in the Genesis sense — a brooding that sometimes lasts for a while before a chaotic life is transformed by a stirring of creativity and liberation. And so my picture of the movement of the Spirit is more like the movement of tectonic plates: long-term, often hidden, living by a different timetable, moving by a different force, and, from time to time, causing eruptions of energy or creativity which can leave us with a mountain to climb, or an earthquake that shakes the very foundations of life.

ONE of the most daring actions we undertake as a church is to sing the ninth-century invocation “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” And I don’t mean dangerous because, perhaps, if we meant what we sang, the service would go on for another couple of hours; or, if we meant what we sang, the preacher would throw away his or her notes; or, if we meant what we sang, something extraordinary would happen in the church, in the moment, that would satisfy our desire for drama, and convince us that we were in tune with the spiritual realm. These things are safer than they look.

Rather, I think it is dangerous to sing this, and to mean it, because it is a call to return — so prevalent in Hebrew scripture — to the deepest love, the purest courage, and the renewing creativity of the living God. If the story of Pentecost is to be digested by communities of believers, then these movements of the Spirit will get us into trouble, and will take us to the courts, not only of the legal variety, but those of public opinion and church authority.

THE book in which Pentecost is described is (to answer the lawyer’s question) called the Acts of the Apostles — not the To Do List, or the Wish List, or even the Strategic Plan of the Apostles. It is in the visible deeds that spring from this most invisible of spiritual forces that Christ’s love for the world he came to save becomes known.

And so, as I mentioned to the lawyer who asked me, it was not necessary to be able to read and write to be a Christian; nor was it necessary to list those of Jesus’s relatives who were present at Pentecost. But it was necessary to live a life irrigated by the Spirit, ready to grieve with those who grieve, to pray with groans too deep for words; ready to celebrate at the drop of a hat — and to live the only life we have, attentive to the creativity that the Spirit provokes, as she blows where she wills.

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.

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