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Pentecost: the Birthday of the Church?

Lines from Handbook of the Christian Year (Abingdon, 1986) repeat a widespread notion about the meaning of Pentecost: "For Christians, Pentecost commemorated the birthday of the church…" (p. 21).

Reportedly, some Christian congregations have been so captivated by this understanding of the event that they have actually observed the festival by having a "birthday party," complete with cake and candles, during the morning worship service. Catchy and colorful as such celebrations may be, they can also work serious mischief by dramatizing and vivifying the idea that in the second chapter of Acts we are witnessing the birth of the church

From the Beginning…

To my mind the principal casualty of this misconception is the biblical doctrine of the church. Reformed Christians will sense that when they listen carefully to their Heidelberg Catechism:

What do you believe concerning
the "Holy Catholic Church"?

I believe that the Son of God,
through his Spirit and
Word,
out of the entire human
race,
from the beginning of the
world to its end,
gathers, protects, and
preserves for himself
a community chose for
eternal life
and united in true faith.
And of this community I am
and always will be
a living member.
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However introverted this definition of the church may appear in light of our contemporary understanding of mission, it is surely clear about the church's temporal dimensions. No one who confesses that God has been at work gathering a community "from the beginning of the world to its end" can ever seriously entertain the notion that the life of the church began in the early decades of the first century.

The catechism's use of a chosen "community" points us toward the biblical understanding of the church as the people of God. That concept protects theologians from imposing narrow chronological limits on the church and permits us to speak of the church in the Old Testament without anachronism. The call of Abraham and the covenant with Israel at Sinai rule out any thought of Pentecost as the birthday of the people of God. To treat it as such in effect transposes Marcion's biblical heresy into an ecclesiastical key, for it is not possible to reject the people of the Old Testament without simultaneously rejecting the Old Testament itself.

Promises Fulfilled

Pentecost, then, like the Christian canon, represents newness than beginning. On this day Christians celebrate the good news that the covenant love experienced by the Old Testament people of God has been freshly and fully given in Jesus Christ to the New Testament people of God. Leo the Great (d. 461) served the church well when he underlined the organic relationship between God's past and God's Pentecost. In his second sermon on Pentecost, Leo insisted that the gift given that day was not an absolute beginning but rather a fresh outpouring of grace:

Let us not doubt that when on Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled the Lord's disciples, he was not giving his gift for the first time but was rather extending a gift already given. The patriarchs, the prophets, the priests, and all the saints of earlier times were nourished by the same sanctifying spirit. No sacrament was ever instituted, no mystery ever celebrated, that did not involve his grace. The power of his gifts had ever been the same, though the gifts had not previously been given in so great a measure.

Indeed, Pentecost has more to do with filling and fulfilling than with beginning. The opening verse of the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1) makes that point. Although recent English versions have laid stress on the arrival of the day of Pentecost, the margin of the American Standard Version (1901) enriches the reader with the literal force of the Greek verb: "And when the day of Pentecost was being fulfilled…"

Pentecost has more to do with equipping the church than with creating it. Acts is abundantly clear about that: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). Filled with the Holy Spirit, disciples who had been timid and fearful now "spoke the word of God with boldness" and gave their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus "with great power".

The words of Thomas C. Hunter-Clare are an accurate guide toward appropriate observance of the day:

Praise, O praise our
heav'nly King
for his grace toward us;
gladly now his glory sing,
who doth such power
afford us!