In one of the more fantastical episodes in the New Testament, the Book of Acts records that the sky opened and tongues of fire descended upon Jesus’ followers while they were gathered in Jerusalem after his death.
They spoke in “other tongues,” yet people from neighboring lands were able to understand them and the whole conflagration drew a crowd and even some criticism.
Some Christian denominations have built their worship life on a literal interpretation of the events of the day depicted in Acts 2, now called Pentecost.
Churches in the Western liturgical traditions celebrate Pentecost on the Sunday nearest the 50th day after Easter, which will be tomorrow, thus the name “penta,” which is Greek for “five.”
Along with Christmas and Easter, Pentecost marks one of the three great feasts on the Christian calendar and it represents the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to abide with his church until the end of time.
Most people are familiar with the various Christian churches that go by the name Pentecostal, but they might not associate that name with the biblical event.
Pentecostalism includes a range of churches, most tracing their roots back to the beginning of the 20th Century and to one wave of a national revival known as the Great Awakening.
“Azusa Street was really the genesis of our church, at least in the modern era,” said the Rev. Robert Fleming, pastor of Good Shepherd Church of God in Christ in Pontotoc.
Pentecostals believe their worship mirrors that of the earliest Christians, but more recently the COGIC, like many historically black churches, emerged out of the charismatic atmosphere that was resurgent in turn of century Los Angeles.
Today the COGIC adheres to a full gospel theology, which includes a rather literal interpretation of scripture and a strong belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to manifest itself in everyday life.
That belief in charismatic expression is part of what links many historically black churches, like the COGIC, to other churches in the Pentecostal family, including United Pentecostal churches and even some non-denominational churches.
“I’d use the word ‘enthusiastic’ to describe our worship,’” said the Rev. Terry Garrett, pastor of Good News Church in Tupelo, pointing out that the Greek derivation of the word means to be infused with God, or “theos.”
Garrett’s church is technically non-denominational, but its worship is heavily infused with aspects of the charismatic movement.
For Garrett, the very existence of the church witnesses to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the world, the fulfillment of a promise Jesus made to his disciples when he appeared to them after his death.
There’s no reason, Garrett and many Pentecostals therefore believe, why the fantastic events of Pentecost wouldn’t be possible today, things like speaking in tongues, healing by faith and prophesying.
Fleming of Good Shepherd called these manifestations of the spirit “gifts,” adding, “They’re not performances, they’re signs of God’s blessing, and Paul speaks of them.”
The Rev. Russell Lormad, pastor of First United Pentecostal Church in Booneville, said the gifts are most often given to those who have a healthy relationship with God.
“It’s a form of praise, an inspired way of worshiping that may take several forms,” said Lormand.
Perhaps because of its bombastic appearance, Pentecostalism has seen its share of charlatans, and members of the denomination are sometimes lampooned in movies and the media, but Garrett doesn’t let it bother him.
“I’d rather have an occasional wild fire than no fire at all,” he said.
For Lormad, God’s power is so extraordinary that it has to bring forth extraordinary responses.
“This excitation, this dancing before the Lord, as David did, is a way of turning a dead religion into an exciting encounter with the living God,” he said.
Unity in diversity
The Bible recounts that there were “God fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” present on the day of Pentecost and many of them were unified by a common religious experience.
Most Christians see Pentecost as the birth of the church, but unfortunately the unity in diversity that characterized that initial event hasn’t endured.
One of the readings recited in liturgical churches for Pentecost is Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story God thwarts mankind’s hubris by causing people not to be able to understand one another.
The Rev. Will Rogers, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Tupelo, sees a clear lesson in that reading, one that stands in stark contrast to the linguistic harmony in the Pentecost story.
“It’s a bit of a paradox but it’s clear that we can get too smart for our own good. Just look at the atom bomb,” said Rogers. “We’re in the flesh, and we get sidetracked.”
As it does in most liturgical churches, Pentecost concludes the Easter season in the ELCA and begins the longest season of the year, called Ordinary Time.
In the ELCA Ordinary Time also ends on Reformation Sunday, the day on which Lutherans commemorate Martin Luther making public his “95 Theses,” his statement of discontent with certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
After Luther posted the theses the rest, as they say, is history. Rogers believes Christians will just have to find unity on a different level, and perhaps the event of Pentecost offers a clue.
“There’s definitely a message for us in the story of Pentecost,” said Rogers. “Unity in the spirit, brother. Unity in the spirit.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal