Pentecost and evangelism have been intrinsically connected since the Spirit of God descended upon the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.
The New Testament’s Book of Acts (Chapter 2) provides a dramatic account of how a fearful group of uncertain believers waited, as they had been advised, for something to happen. God’s Spirit overcame them and they were motivated to bear witness to Jesus as they understood him. The resurrection experience of Jesus in their lives was the source of their witness. It engaged both head and heart. In other words, it held profound meaning
But from the beginning, that witness to unity in Christ amid human diversity centered in Jesus and took various forms. Unity amid diversity is also at the centre of Jesus’s resurrection in our lives now, and it is something I would like to unpack further.
There are many today who would like to believe that the story of Jesus was a pure and simple message for the first Christians which we can now discover in the Bible, define and then declare to the world. But it wasn’t so at the beginning—and it is really not so today.
Consider the original setting. Devotees from all across the known world at the time had remained in Jerusalem to celebrate a Jewish festival—Pentecost—remembering the giving of the Law, which occurred 50 days after Passover. Passover and Pentecost continue as key celebrations for Jews today, and Christians essentially adopted for themselves the liberation and lawgiving themes of these predecessor faith-events, with Jesus as the central figure in both.
Those who gathered for that first Christian Pentecost were a very diverse group. Different cultures and languages were just the beginning! “What do these strange events mean?” some asked. “Probably just a bunch of people under the influence,” was one assessment.
The apostle Peter stood before the gathered and confused crowd. He tried to bring order out of chaos and declared—with extensive reference to the Hebrew scriptures and a few well-chosen words—“You probably find this hard to believe, but the Jesus whose recent death many of you recall was actually the promised one from God. God has actually raised this Jesus after we thought him dead, and we are witnesses to that miracle. Join us in a new community centered on him.”
That new community, which was the original Christian church, continued to practice the signs and wonders which Jesus had performed. They met frequently to share table fellowship, provide mutual material support and advocate for social justice. Others observed this and declared: “See how they love one another!”
Large numbers responded to Peter’s invitation, and many lives were changed. No wonder we look back to that first Christian Pentecost with much joy!
Pentecost teaches us that both verbal and non-verbal, personal and societal witness were all part of the early church witness to Jesus. It also tells Christians that they did not “invent” the liberating meaning of the event. It also held the profound precedent of God at work in the Hebrew religion.
Some declared their faith in Jesus like Peter, using words, while others demonstrated that faith through communal/social deeds of love and justice. The same is true today. There is no set pattern for this witness—only a pluralistic biblical modelling of the Way.