“This is the fire-tongued fork of holy ghost howl….this is pentecost in your head/ like becoming what you never dared/ for the first time and forever.”
Eastertide greetings, dear friend,
As we approach Pentecost, a day and tradition that bears great personal significance for me, I find myself reflecting on a familiar question: What, really, is power? Is it the ability to bend wills, to force compliance, to conquer with military might, or to escape political precarity? For me, this is the question to which Pentecost addresses itself most fully.
Before the epic scene of Pentecost in the Upper Room, just as Christ is set to ascend, he offers assurance of the power soon to come: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Incredibly, despite all they’ve witnessed and learned, the assembled apostles are still fixated on the hope of political power. “Lord,” they ask, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:5-6)
We see this same entrenched hope reflected in another post-resurrection account as Cleopas trods sullenly with his nameless companion en route to Emmaus following Jesus’s crucifixion: “We had hoped he was the one to set Israel free [from Rome]” (Luke 24:21). Indeed, this mistaken projection seems to figure prominently in the many fragile egos and delicate sensibilities Jesus’s words and work manage to bruise in the course of his ministry.
What accounts for the staying power of this idea of Jesus’s mission? Why, despite the pains he takes to demonstrate the true scope of his ultimate concern (including, especially, the most excruciating pains of abandonment and death on the cross), are even his closest companions convinced that his interests lie in political conquest? For that matter, we might well ask why so many of his putative followers today seem convinced of this?
I think the scene in Acts 1, mere days before Pentecost, suggests the apostles’ chronic misunderstanding owes to a particular attachment to worldly, domineering power—hard power, in other words. Christ’s assurance of the Holy Spirit is the promise of a new kind of power, a generative and creative power that utterly defies any attempt to constrain or inhibit our work of becoming the healing, loving presence God calls us in each moment to be. And, crucially, it is a power most fulsomely received and expressed in and through community.
This is the revelation of Pentecost, that the power we find in the sacred space of deep connection cannot be overcome by the schemes of the mighty. In this space of community, I mean real community—where you are free to be exactly who you are and who you are becoming—there is a power that long outlasts the hard power of those who impose their oppressive designs for their own ends.
This is what church can be—a place where our despair and collective trauma are transformed by the Holy Spirit into a living, breathing sanctuary, a spiritual refuge for those who seek the deep and mysterious freedom of covenantal belonging. This, Pentecost teaches, is the only power we will ever truly need.