Timothy Larsen: The Spirit says it's Pentecost Sunday

Pentecostals generally do not observe Pentecost Sunday. One might assume this is because they do not follow the church calendar. Another theory: Every Sunday is Pentecost Sunday.

Let’s begin with a charismatic story. I was once asked by a minister to be the guest preacher for a Sunday morning worship. He assigned me “the Holy Spirit” as the theme for my sermon.

Being a good Pentecostal, I prayerfully read through every reference in the New Testament and some from the Old that mentioned the Spirit, seeking divine guidance on what my text should be. I felt led to preach from Acts 2.

It was only after I arrived and the service had actually begun that I realized it was Pentecost Sunday.

I suppose I can feel reassured that I was probably indeed led to the right text by the Spirit. On the other hand, owning a decent calendar could have saved me hours of prep time.

The truth is that Pentecostals generally do not observe Pentecost Sunday. One might assume that this is because they do not follow the church calendar. But that is only partially true; I have never known a Pentecostal church that did not celebrate as part of its corporate worship both Christmas and Easter.

Another theory: The Feast of Pentecost is not marked by Pentecostals because in their churches every Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. At least, that’s what I hope other people see.

Here’s a second story. Some years ago, when my home church at the time had a rather large congregation, I happened to notice during a service a woman who gave off the signs of uncertainty that indicate a first-time visitor.

My wife and I asked her to join us for lunch at our home, an invitation she accepted. Over the meal, she talked about her recent divorce. I thought our fellowship together was real, natural and meaningful. But she let us know that we should not expect to see her again. She had a different denominational identity and was already committed to a local congregation in that tradition.

Why had she visited our church, then? She explained that she thought it would be good to go to a Pentecostal church for Pentecost Sunday. I didn’t know it was Pentecost Sunday until that moment, but I would like to hope that our small act of hospitality reflected an impulse of the Spirit.

There is nothing else on earth like a moment when the Holy Spirit is present to charge simple human activities with divine import and power. The novelist James Baldwin was a Pentecostal preacher as a young man. While he later shed his Christian identity, he nevertheless could not deny what he had experienced, and he continued to testify even from outside the fold, as he wrote in “The Fire Next Time”:

There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing. … I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church. … Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word.”

Such an atmosphere, though, can be rather intimidating or even intrusive. Regulars like me know that there is no telling what someone might ask you to do in response (one hopes) to a prompting of the Spirit.

I have been in services where the congregation was suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to shout, dance, stand on their chairs and march out into the surrounding streets. While visiting other churches, I have often had a reverse culture shock at the timidity and reserve that marks the request to pass the peace. In churches where I have been a member, it would hardly faze people if the minister said, “Turn to your neighbor and swap clothes.”

The Spirit once led me and my family to Toronto, where we had no extended family, for two years. We did have one, solitary pre-existing friend, however. He was a minister of a mainline congregation, and we joined his church. It was the kind of careful-planning church that knows when Pentecost Sunday is.

Worship in that place struck us, especially at first, as formidably formal. My friend wanted me to see if I could “charismatic it up” a bit.

The practice for the church’s weekly communion was for those present to file forward and receive the elements at the front of the sanctuary. I suggested that because they were all up and moving anyway, we could invite them to continue on to a prayer station at the sides, where mature Christians would lay hands on them and bless them and be open to receiving specific prayer requests and allowing the Spirit to guide them in how they prayed.

Even I was taken aback to see members of this assembly start weeping as they began to walk toward a prayer station. A very simple format had created a space for the Spirit to work on some deep longings and needs.

The problem with consistently worshipping in a red-hot Pentecostal church -- as every old-timer knows -- is that there is nothing worse than those who are not being led by the Spirit but who are nevertheless trying to work something up in their own strength by insisting upon bizarre and invasive spontaneous activities. Thus, Pentecostals conversely also sneak off to be guests at other houses of worship, hoping that another tradition knows how to get other things right.

In the Pentecostal church I now attend, we have engineered the reverse format. It was originally designed for mainliners with a tight comfort zone, but it turns out it works equally well for jaded or burned-out charismatics who want something a little less striving for novelty and a little more orderly.

They still sometimes come to the stations weeping, and the Spirit still sometimes helps people to pray in a manner that strengthens, comforts and encourages them in powerful ways. Sometimes we even do it on Pentecost Sunday.

Small and simple human actions, prompted by the Spirit, can change lives.