Sunday, 5 March 2017

Rediscovering Whit Sunday

“A church living between Easter and Pentecost is always behind closed doors”
(E. Stanley Jones).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This past Christmas season, we took advantage of some Boxing Week sales and purchased a 7.5-foot tall artificial Christmas tree that came pre-wired with 600 LED lights. With its 59-inch diameter, it should be quite the tree when we set it up for the first time at Christmas 2017.

We haven’t had a Christmas tree in many years, at least since the kids grew up and moved out of the house, and we might not have bothered this year either, if it were not for the fact that we now are grandparents and will once again have a toddler wandering the house at Christmastime. Ah, the seasons of life.

But this is only March, and I’m not really interested in discussing Christmas. What I’ve been thinking about lately is that all but forgotten other event of the church calendar: Pentecost, and more specifically, Whit Sunday; the day the church used to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. What ever became of that? We celebrate Christmas and Easter well enough (all though how “well” is probably subjective), but what is perhaps the most important day of the church year, Pentecost, we have become strangely quiet on, letting it pass us by relatively unnoticed.

Is it easier to celebrate Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, than it is to celebrate being born again? Stop and think about that for a moment. Taken to the next level, is it easier to join the world and give lip service to his birth and resurrection, blended as it’s become with a plethora of secularism, than it is to go out into the world with his message? Maybe it costs less to give gifts to one another at Christmas than it does to give ourselves at Pentecost. If Christmas is about God “with” us, Pentecost is about God “in” us. Is God “in” you?

Imagine the early church with Pentecost eliminated

After that first Easter and before Pentecost, we read in John’s gospel that the disciples were huddled together behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (20:19). Now stop and try to imagine that for a few moments. They were hanging out together behind locked doors in fear of others. Does that sound familiar? At the risk of stepping on some toes, that sounds an awful lot like much of what we see in the church today. We’re really good at doing the holy-huddle behind closed doors, for fear of what our neighbors and the secular world around us thinks. But what are we scared of? Hmm, I wonder.

As I imagine the early church with Pentecost eliminated, I see a few pathetic individuals, people who have been given an incredible message of hope and good news, huddled together with their paralyzed message going no where. They would have been powerless. As I look at the church today, I see people big on Christmas, not quite so big on Easter, but when it comes to Pentecost, well, you have to wonder sometimes if they’ve even experienced it at all. Has the church of today become powerless too? I think that’s a valid question, don't you? At the very least we seem to be clinging to a paralyzed message. How sad!

But the disciples did not stay in their fearful holy-huddles

Moving forward from John 20 and into Acts 2, we see the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost. Suddenly their fear of the Jews led to Peter standing up with the rest of the disciples (Acts 2:14) and boldly tell the message of hope and good news, to perhaps some of the very people he was hiding from behind locked doors earlier. The result? “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). Three thousand converts in one day! Wow! Can we even begin to really imagine that?

Suddenly, because of having experienced Pentecost, they were no longer paralyzed. Suddenly, a handful of formerly timid men, instantly grew in number to about 3000 in just one day. Suddenly, having gone beyond only Christmas and Easter, they experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, for that small group of disciples, "God 'with' us" became "God 'in' us." Suddenly, the church was born. Suddenly, there was good news and there was hope, and if ever the was a time and reason to praise God, this was it!

But something happened: The power of Pentecost didn’t last

Somehow, somewhere, the church became powerless. What happened? Did the riches of the world entice us a little too much? Did we lose sight of our first love? Did we once again become scared? Did we rely too much on our institutions and buildings with those big lockable doors? Did we become more comfortable once again in our holy-huddles on wooden pews? Would we rather celebrate a baby’s birth and decorate our homes with artificial Christmas trees and ornaments and tinsel, and in the process lapse back into a form of pseudo-idolatry (I know, ouch!)?

What became of the church’s once powerful soul-winning message? Never mind the 3000 converts in one day, when was the last time we saw even a handful of new church members (and I’m not talking about shuffling sheep from one institution to another either), converted from their godless way of life to being born again through the power of the Holy Spirit? Ah, but don’t we have such lovely Christmas pageants and live nativity scenes to invite our neighbours to? (Yes, I’m being facetious, but only a little). But seriously, have our priorities somehow become screwed up? Hmm.

Rediscovering Whit Sunday

I think there’s another fear that many of us have, at least those of us who come out of a more conservative or evangelical camp, and that is the fear that by celebrating Whit Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, we might be embracing something out of the Catholic, Anglican, or one of the other mainline liberal churches, complete with religious pomp and ceremony. But who gave them exclusive rights to the celebration of Pentecost? And who says that observing Whit Sunday needs to be with religious pomp and ceremony? Can conservative evangelical Christians not also observe Pentecost like they do other dates on the church calendar? Cannot Christians who fellowship outside the traditional institutional church not also celebrate Pentecost? Still further on that, there is probably a fear by many that it too can become just another empty or shallow date on the religious calendar, and so we've thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water. After all, didn’t the apostle Paul say, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). If the truth were really known, I have usually held to the latter; every day is alike.

Still, I think there is real value in rediscovering Whit Sunday, if for no other reason, than that it refocuses us back on what happened on Pentecost, just as surely as we focus on the manger birth at Christmastime and celebrate the birth of our Savior. While I doubt there will ever be another Pentecost quite as grand as that first one, I do believe that God is still in the Pentecost business; he still gives his Holy Spirit to those who genuinely seek Him. So go ahead and circle June 4th, 2017, Whit Sunday, on your calendar. Celebrate Pentecost. Celebrate the birth of the church and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Unlock and open the doors and shake yourselves loose from your lethargic holy-huddles. Be free of your paralysis and stop being scared of __________ (fill in the blank). And who knows, we too may one day see many of our non-Christian family and friends join us in the family of God as they experience their own Pentecost.

So if you haven’t already, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

A last word

Finally, let me ask you: Are we going to continue being content with the status quo, or is it time for a real spiritual awakening, a real honest to goodness experience of God and his power? Is it time for the church to move back out into the world, or are we going to continue to be content, impotently stuck on our wooden sliver-infested pews, stuck somewhere between Easter and Pentecost, doing little more than counting down the days until we can once again put up our Christmas trees?

Christmas and Easter have already dawned, but has Pentecost? Sometimes I wonder.

Something to think about. Peace.

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