We are told that on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 souls were added to the Church (Acts 2:41). This simple fact has for many linked the Day of Pentecost and the Gift of the Spirit to the Church to the process of evangelism. For many Christians in our culture, for whom evangelism has come to be the defining action of the Church, Pentecost need be nothing more. Thus the feast of the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes a celebration of a successful membership drive.
The problem surrounding such an interpretation is that the Church is easily reduced to a secular entity, whose goal is simply the increase of its membership, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit reduced to a boldness for evangelism. Lost in such an account are the deeper elements of the Scriptures and the feast itself.
First, there is the phenomenon of the languages. As noted in the hymnography of the Church, the miracle of Pentecost is a clear reversal of the tragedy of the Tower of Babel. The continuing fracture of humanity, from the Garden forward, is manifest as well in the fracture of human unity in the story of the Tower of Babel. Man is fractured in his relationship with God – he is fractured in his relationship with his family (Cain’s murder of Abel) and he is fractured in his relationship with the larger race of humanity. Of course, in death itself, we see the fracture within the person of each particular human being.
The Communion for which we were created is lost and the story of the progressive disaster of that lost communion marks the opening chapters of Genesis.
In contrast, the closing chapters of the Gospels as well as the continuing gospel account that is the book of Acts is a reversal of that lost communion – and the Church is the manifestation of man’s renewed communion with God.
Christ the Second Adam reverses the sting of death and triumphs over Hades, restoring in Himself man’s communion with God. From His side flows blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism) from which His bride, the Second Eve, is spiritually reborn and birthed into communion with Him in newness of life.
And in the miracle of Pentecost, the lost communion of the human race is overcome, as language no longer becomes the sign of disintegration, but the very vehicle of a new union.
None of this has any place in a secularized account of the Christian Church in which numerical growth is the only measure of its existence. Were numerical growth the mark of the Church’s life, in what way would the Church differ from any number of international civic clubs?
Of course it’s also true that one could point to the moral teaching of Christ and contrast that with the simple utilitarian ethics of most civic endeavors – but to see the teaching of Christ as an example of moral teaching is to miss the entire meaning of His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. The essential teaching of Christ is, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is not marked by the improved behavior of man, the prisoner of death and corruption – but the new life begotten in Him by the gift of the Spirit – raising humanity from death and corruption into the eternal life of God. And importantly, not simply as a promise of a happy afterlife, but as an entrance into a new life now – even when marked by suffering or martyrdom.
This is one of the great challenges of the Church in the modern age – to return the proclamation of the Gospel to its proper existential and realist foundations and rescue it from the increasing secularism of marketing growth and moralistic interpretations.
Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. The miracle of Pentecost is its manifestation of new life among mankind. It cannot be measured by 3,000 new members – but by the tragedy of Babel reversed. It is a new life into which we have been inaugurated. The call of the Church is to turn away from the siren call of modernist success and to keep its focus on the life of the Kingdom. The martyrs have given themselves for nothing less – and we should live only for this reality.