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For a more inclusive vision of the church, look to Pentecost
How might the church be different today if we made Pentecost more central in our communal celebrations?
This is my new piece for US Catholic Magazine on the Pentecost. I am reposting it below. Thank you so much for following my work and reading this piece.
For many Christians around the world, Christmas and Easter are the busiest and most anticipated holidays of the church year. Christmas is a joyous season for many people of faith, but secular traditions have obscured some of the celebrations of the birth of Christ. Easter is viewed as the most important feast of the Christian liturgical year. Some Christians anticipate Holy Week as a chance to reflect on Jesus’ loving sacrifice and as a time to turn to God to seek compassion and forgiveness from their sins. And Easter offers a chance to rejoice in the hope of resurrection.
But how should Christians regard the feast of Pentecost, the day the church began? How might the church be different today if we made Pentecost more central in our communal celebrations?
Pentecost is a Christian holy day which is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter—that is, exactly 50 days after Easter. The name “Pentecost” is derived from the Greek word pentekoste which means fiftieth. On Pentecost, Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and followers of Jesus (Acts 2:1–31). But many Christians around the world do not view Pentecost Sunday as especially important. Some do not even celebrate it or acknowledge it. When I grew up in the Korean Presbyterian Church, our church never celebrated Pentecost or even mentioned it during worship or Bible studies. It was only in my adulthood that I began to hear of Pentecost Sunday and began to acknowledge its importance.
Since Pentecost has often been ignored by so many Christians, the question arises: How might the church be different if we focused on Pentecost as much as we focus on Christmas and Easter? There are several possibilities that come to mind: A church focused on Pentecost would have been more Spirit-centered and not exclusively Christocentric as it is today. And a Spirit-centered Christianity would have yielded different kinds of religious practice, worship, and teachings, which would have been more inclusive, welcoming, and accepting of women and racialized people.
A Spirit-centered Christianity would not have been so male centered. In the Bible, the Spirit is depicted in different ways: as wind, breath, light, and vibration. These non-gendered words are also action words, which are in line with the biblical word for God, YHWH, which means “I Am.” In Exodus 3:14, God says to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I Am has sent me to you.” This name of God implies that God is moving and active like the wind, breath, light, and vibration. Such an understanding of God helps us focus on the actions of God in the world, rather than on such traditional male images as king, lord, father, and master—all of which are nouns. Understanding a moving, active God emphasizes the mystery of God and encourages us to continuously explore and reimagine a God who is greater than anything we can ever imagine.
A non-gendered Spirit-God would have inspired a more inclusive church, supportive of women as leaders, preachers, teachers, and prophets. And this inclusion of women in the pulpit would have radically changed the early church. There were women teachers and leaders in the early church, and this tradition would have deepened and expanded if the church focused more on Pentecost.
A Spirit-centered Christianity would have taught a non-gendered understanding of God, which would have left the door more open to more feminine understandings of God, not just a masculine image of God as revealed through Jesus. It would have built on the feminine imagery already present in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. One prominent feminine image from the Bible is the figure of Wisdom. In the Hebrew scriptures, Wisdom is hokmah, which is a feminine word, and in the Greek of the Christian scriptures it is Sophia, which is also feminine. In the Bible, Wisdom is personified as a woman who builds a house and prepares a life-giving meal, then invites everyone to partake in it.
We see this feminine Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1–6: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her female servants; she calls from the highest place in the town, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live and walk in the way of insight.”
This portrayal of Wisdom as a woman is similar to the portrayal of Jesus who also builds a place for us and invites us all to partake of the meal.
A Pentecost-focused church would not have been confined to portrayals of a white God, based on the white male European leaders who imagined God in their own image. The Spirit-God whom we experience during Pentecost is lifegiving and empowering to all people. This is the power of God that we experience when Jesus leaves us, and the Spirit of God is poured down on all humanity. This Spirit-God breaks past the image of a white male God and reveals a life-giving Spirit for everyone. It helps us to move away from the prejudices which believe that white is best, and people of color subordinate. If everyone is equal in God’s sight, we need to emphasize a God who is not white. A church inspired by Pentecost would move away from fixation on a white God to an image of a Spirit-God who is non-racialized.
A church inspired by and focused on Pentecost will teach us to embrace people who are different from us and recognize that God loves everyone—with no expectations. Everyone means everyone. And everyone is invited to God’s table where a feast is prepared for all in the kin-dom of God. If the church could learn to focus on this important feast of the Pentecost as much as it does Christmas and Easter, the church and Christianity as we know it today could become more Spirit-filled, Spirit-centered, and life-giving to all people.
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