After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is the third great Christian festival of the Christian year. Yet of these three great festivals, Pentecost is the Cinderella. Crowds flock to the churches at Christmas and Easter, but if Pentecost coincides with a Bank Holiday weekend, even the minister might be away.
In many minds Pentecost is marked by uncertainty. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ; at Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. But what do we celebrate at Pentecost? We know that Pentecost is about the Spirit. But who is the Spirit? What is the Spirit? For people outside the church – and many inside church – the Spirit is a mystery.
A good number of years ago the novelist Dorothy Sayers pointed out how for many Christians the Holy Spirit had to all intents and purposes been displaced from the Trinity.
“There are those who would worship the Father, the Son & the Virgin Mary; those who believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Scriptures; those who found their faith on the Father, the Son and the Church; and there are even those who seem to derive their spiritual power from the Father, the Son, and the minister”.
Thank God, there has been a sea-change since Dorothy Sayers first wrote those words. As a result of charismatic renewal the Spirit has begun to assume his rightful place in Christian theology. According to Peter Brierley in his UK Church Statistics 2005-2015 by 2015 there will be 2704 new (‘charismatic’) churches in the UK attended by some 226,650. In fact the influence of charismatic renewal has been far greater than these numbers suggest. Most of the evangelical churches in this country have in one way or another been influenced by charismatic renewal. The Alpha Course, which over 2 million people in the UK have attended since its inception in 1993, is overtly charismatic as far as its teaching on the Holy Spirit is concerned. Then, of course, there the new Pentecostal Churches of African and Caribbean origin: Peter Brierley reckons that in 2010 there were 465 churches in England with 72,287 members. And yet, in many if not most of the churches in the UK, Pentecost scarcely features on the collective consciousness of the average church member. We all send Christmas cards, some of us may send Easter cards, but whoever heard of a Pentecost card?
A few years ago I received quite a shock when a bright twelve year old girl in my church showed me a copy of a presentation she had made for her school on the Christian faith. It featured the two main Christian festivals – Christmas and Easter. There was also material on Advent and Lent, but there was nothing on Pentecost. True, she had attempted to expound the doctrine of the Trinity, but there was nothing about the coming of the Spirit and of the way in which the Spirit transforms lives. I felt somewhat rebuked. For all her life I had been this girl’s pastor. Yet, in spite of coming Sunday by Sunday to our church, it was clear that Pentecost just did not feature.
In the light of this widespread uncertainty if not ignorance of the Spirit, I believe that we need to make more of Pentecost. We need to ensure that Pentecost is well and truly celebrated as one of the great festivals of the church.
How true! I was thankful to be preaching Pentecost Sunday, but that was only as the minister was doing something else!