The Story of Pentecost
And the answer: the funny hat is a symbol of the tongues of fire that rested atop those first apostles in Acts 2.
But the story of Pentecost does not begin in Acts 2. It does not begin at Jesus’ Resurrection, or even his Incarnation. It begins a long time ago in a Garden far, far away, where a guy named Adam chose to do things his way, instead of God’s way.
We all know the story; the beginning of it anyway. Humanity turned away from God.
But God never turned away from us.
The rest of the story is all about God’s steadfast love for us. God has never, ever stopped loving us, and calling us home to Himself. In fact, He has gone to great lengths to restore our broken relationship – to restore the unity – for which we were created.
Early on in Genesis, we are given a glimpse of unity. In Genesis 11 we learn that after the Great Flood all of humanity was united. There was one tribe, one nation, one people, and one language. But in the midst of this unity, something was radically missing. It was the people’s relationship with the Living God. Even though everyone spoke the same language, their unity was a false unity, because it was not rooted in their relationship with God. It was rooted in themselves.
The people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”
They were seeking to build unity “by making a name for themselves” (Orthodox Study Bible, note p.16).
So God confounded their efforts. He confused their language so that they could not understand one another. There was great confusion among them, and they were scattered over the face of the earth.
This is the infamous Tower of Babel story.
Why did God act this way? Is God like the older kid in the sandbox who smashes the little kid’s sand castle? Nothing could be further from the truth!
God in His mercy and loving kindness divided up this false unity for the sake of the humans themselves; for the sake of their own salvation. They were not seeking to restore their relationship with God. They cared nothing for the name of the Lord God – the name by which all of humanity is saved.
God acted, in an effort to save His people from themselves.
The people were thus divided as a result of pride: their own self-seeking and self-serving. This division continues to this day. Pride divides. We see it in the nations of the world; in our institutions, in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in the church, in our families, and in ourselves.
When we seek ourselves first, to the exclusion of God, we are separated from God, and consequently from one another. Self-seeking is the inverse of self-giving. It is the exact opposite of Our Lord’s command to Love God, and to love one another.
Pride divides. But Love unites. Pride confuses and separates. But Love heals, and restores, and ultimately… saves.
And we see the unifying, healing, and restorative properties of God’s perfect love in the story of Pentecost.
We separated ourselves from God in our pride; in our self-seeking. But God in his perfect love has sought to restore our relationship with Him – our unity with Him – by his self-giving; by the gift of Himself to us. And this self-giving He has accomplished in two stages.
“Stage One, He sent down his Son, who became man in the Incarnation. The vices of the “old man” (including pride) were nailed upon the Cross. Our fallen human nature was then resurrected from the grave; and raised up to heaven at the Ascension. God, in the gift of his Son, has created a New Man, a New Adam; Jesus Christ, God and man. Stage Two, God sent His Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so that each one of us individually, and all of us together might be grafted into this New Man” (The Living God 255).
The story of the Tower of Babel is known as the anti-Pentecost. At Babel there was division, confusion, and misunderstanding. But at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God divided Himself up, and rested upon the individual disciples, that they might be of one mind, and one body, and one spirit, united as one in the New Adam, Jesus Christ Our Lord.
And this is where the tongues of fire come in.
We see this unity with Christ made manifest in the outward and visible sign of the tongues of fire.
The tongue is an instrument of speech. And the fire is the uncreated energy of God Himself.
Through tongues of fire, the speech of God, the Word of God, is communicated fully to the disciples. By the power of the Holy Spirit, humanity is once again filled with, and united to, the Word of God, which is to say, Christ himself!
Pentecost marks the completion of God’s loving plan of salvation for all of humanity; of the restoration of our unity with God. And in-so-doing it marks the beginning of the life of the church, the body of Christ, through which our salvation is found and perfected.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are united with the New Adam, the Word of God, and the many members are made One in Him.
The prophet Joel prophesied this day saying, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”
Incredibly, Joel also prophesies the means by which the Holy Spirit incorporates us into the body of Christ.
Just before the passage that St. Peter quotes, the prophet writes, “Be glad, O sons of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD, your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”
The rain, wheat, wine, and oil refer to baptism, Eucharist, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit or Chrismation; the great sacraments of initiation by which we are incorporated into the church; the body of Christ!
Pentecost is the day when all of humanity is invited into union with God the Father, through God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. It is the day the church was born.
The story of Pentecost began a long time ago, with the old Adam. But the story has not yet ended. It continues today. And we have a most important role to play.
It’s interesting to note that not everyone who was gathered that day had a flaming tongue dancing above their heads. Why would this be, if the promised Spirit was to be poured out on all flesh?
At the beginning of Acts 2 we learn that the when the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. Some translations say they were “with one accord in one place.” That is to say, they were not only together physically. They were also together spiritually. They were of one accord in their confession of faith that Jesus Christ was Lord, and that he had risen from the dead.
This, then, is our role.
That we gather together in one place, as we do this day, and in one accord in our confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that he has risen from the dead. This is the very environment by which the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and unites us to God the Father, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.