Fifty days after Easter Sunday the Christian church celebrates Pentecost (May 15 this year). In the book of Acts, Pentecost is the occasion of the powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the apostles as promised by Jesus.
Because of the importance of this event in the narrative of the early Christian community, it became a prominent feast day in the liturgical calendar. The significance of Pentecost is such that it is still generally commemorated even in traditions that do not follow the liturgical calendar or the Christian year. After all, it is often regarded as the “birthday” of the church, the beginning of a distinct community of persons committed to following the way of Jesus.
Pentecost has become nearly synonymous with the coming of the Spirit in the Christian tradition. Considerable attention has been focused on the power of the Spirit in the lives of individual believers and particular churches.
Less attention has been paid to the effects of the Spirit on the shape of the church as a whole. This aspect of the Pentecost narrative can be summed up in one word: plurality.
According to Acts, the last words of Jesus to his followers included a promise that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Through this power they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV).
Acts 2:1-12 records the fulfillment of this promise when a strong wind filled the house where followers of Jesus were staying. According to the narrative, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages. A crowd consisting of people “from every nation under heaven” heard them speaking in the native languages of all those gathered (vv. 5-6). They were understandably “amazed and perplexed” by this occurrence and wondered among themselves as to its meaning (v. 12).
Inquiry into the meaning of this story has continued through the centuries, as Christians have wrestled with the significance of this manifestation of Pentecostal plurality.
A most significant feature for the shape of the Christian community is the way in which it decenters gospel proclamation and the practice of theology from any particular cultural linguistic form. In other words, no single language or culture is to be viewed as the prime or inseparable conduit of the Spirit’s message.
This principle has been significant for the development of a Christian approach to mission. Christians have sought to make the Bible available to people in different cultures by translating it into their languages rather than insisting that new followers learn the biblical languages. This Pentecostal pattern makes the languages and cultures that receive the gospel normative for witness, worship and theological reflection in that setting rather than those from which gospel proclamation originated. Christianity takes root in a society without the presumption of cultural displacement and rejection.
One implication of this approach to mission is the resulting plurality of theological perspectives and conclusions. These emerge as diverse linguistic and cultural communities wrestle with the meaning of scripture in the face of pressure from new and changing historical events and social conditions.
This theological plurality makes some people uneasy and has led to attempts at developing a single, universal account of Christian faith that all must affirm if they are truly among the faithful. Such a response to Christian plurality may be well intentioned, but it is ultimately wrongheaded and actually stands in opposition to the work of the Spirit displayed at Pentecost.
Scripture bears witness to this plurality through the inclusion of four Gospels. The distinct perspectives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the life and ministry of Jesus alert us to the pluriform character of the gospel. They remind us that Christian faith can never be reduced to a “one size fits all” sort of theology.
The pages of scripture bear witness to this plurality in the earliest Christian communities. The work of the Spirit at Pentecost suggests that we should expect even greater plurality than that which is contained in the pages of scripture as the witness of the church to the gospel is expanded to all the peoples of the earth.
This means that biblical and orthodox faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist in character. The diversity of Christian faith is not a problem to be overcome. It is instead a basic part of the divine design and constitutes the very blessing of God for the church and the world. This is the message of Pentecost. NFJ
By John R. Franke
—John R. Franke is theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Ind., and general coordinator for the Gospel and Our Culture Network.