Sunday, May 15, 2016

Redeeming Pentecost

This evening, in Portland, in close proximity to over 5,000 United Methodists for General Conference, our denominations largest gathering, and having experienced a rousing worship service this afternoon, the Spirit, the events of Pentecost, and the meaning behind the events of the second chapter of Acts have shifted for me in a rather significant way. Pentecost, the historical moment in the life of the early Christian church in which the Spirit descended, manifesting in the disciples being “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “divided tongues, as of fire” appearing to rest on each of them and giving the disciples the ability “to speak in other languages.” The languages that were spoken during this event were real, documented languages that allowed the disciples to speak to the crowd gathered around them, each in their own language despite the fact that they did not previously know the languages they were speaking.

This moment was pivotal for the disciples in the early church. As they were trying to put things back together after the ascension of Jesus, they were struggling with how they could be a voice of hope to those around them in need. Suddenly, finding themselves imbued with the ability to speak directly to the masses was emboldening to them, allowing them to see that, not only did they have a message that needed to be heard but that they would be given the words that needed to be spoken at that time.

Sanctuary of First United Methodist Church
in Portland, OR (Photo Credit: David Mauzy)
My relationship and understanding of the events of Pentecost have been complicated to say the least.  I used to attend a church where I was taught that speaking in tongues actually took on multiple forms, that it could be a private prayer language between the speaker and God; real translatable language as in Acts; or prophetic messages to the church if someone else has the gift of interpretation. I remember the first time that I heard people praying in tongues in my old church.  I was both intrigued and unnerved by it.

In time, I would come to learn more about their understanding of this practice.  For them, the emphasis was on the power of God being channeled through humans and manifesting in spiritual gifts as described in 1st Corinthians 12 – 14. While many gifts are referenced in those chapters, the gift of tongues was always held out as kind of the gateway gift, the one that allowed you to take on the label of having been baptized in the Spirit.

Now, since having left behind that previous church context, I honestly haven’t thought much about Pentecost, at least not in the same way that I did before. In my old church, the gift of speaking of tongues, which I never actually experienced and never observed it manifesting in real translatable languages as we see in Acts, was more about the power of God being received and channeled through the speaker. Today, I experienced a bit of paradigm shift though. It allowed me to see Pentecost in a new way, a way that brought power and significance back to it for me.

This afternoon, during a worship service surrounded by other queer Christians and their allies, I saw the power of seeing Pentecost, not from the perspective of the speaker, but from the position of the hearer. In my pew today, I saw, heard, and felt the power of God speaking, through the moving worship led by Mark Miller and the life-giving words of Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey, to diverse peoples from diverse backgrounds and diverse ways of being in the world. Diverse languages were included in the service in order to emphasize that there is a place for everyone and that all of us deserve to hear God speak to us in a way that is familiar to us.

Love Your Neighbor Coalition logo on the screen at First United Methodist
Church in Portland, OR (David Mauzy)
 Many from my previous church context would argue that what I experienced today was not the same as what happened at Pentecost, but I would say that they are wrong.  Today, the Spirit of God moved upon human vessels to deliver a much needed message of hope that in diverse languages to a discouraged people, reassuring them that, no matter how many barriers are created by society and the church, God will still find ways to speak to them and through them.

~ Culbs

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