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The Politics of Scripture

Pentecost is Justice Revived

A Pentecostal revival of justice would bear all of the hallmarks of Luke’s story. In quick order the Spirit-driven church of Acts established a community where nobody was lacking. A revival today could bring that same ecstatic joy and establish a community oriented toward justice.

2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Acts 2:1-21

As a child in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the words “Pentecost” and “revival” were key terms for what it means to be faithful. In my community, “Pentecost” referred generally to the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, but more particularly to the gifts of the Spirit, especially the emotionally impactful experience of “speaking in tongues,” that Pentecostals continue to experience vividly today. And “revival” was the thing for which we prayed often, but its meaning seemed to be taken for granted more than spelled out. The most generous definition that I can offer, from what I learned as an ardent participant in it all, is that “revival” meant a greater enthusiasm and zeal for faith among believers, accompanied by an evangelistic crusade that would bring many others into that enthusiasm and zeal for serving God.

It was never quite clear whether any kind of societal or systemic effects would result from the revival beyond a collective mass of personal transformations resulting in a more spirited church. I remember vague references to the “Azusa Street Revival” that initiated the Pentecostal movement of the early 20th century, as well as to various “Great Awakening” movements in the US or England. Most of all, we prayed fervently for a revival that, if nothing else, would emulate the ecstatic outpouring of the Spirit in the book of Acts.

Now, critically distant, yet still fondly appreciative of many aspects of my Pentecostal heritage, I find myself once again praying for “revival” in the manner of the “Day of Pentecost.” Only now, the formulaic terms “Pentecost” and “revival” have a new partner – “justice” is the thing for which I pray to be revived by the power of the Spirit in our day. And while adding the word “justice” to “Pentecost” and “revival” may seem like an odd intrusion to the story, it is actually germane to Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Lost within all of the ecstatic elements, manifestations of power, and poetic descriptions of what must be a difficult event to describe, is Luke’s initial comment that all of these phenomena took place “in the fulfilling (συμπληροῦσθαι) of the day of Pentecost” (Acts 2:1). With that introduction, what Luke describes in Acts 2 is not a new concept, but a fulfillment of an Old Testament observance that had long been rooted in the thirst for abundant justice.

The celebration of Pentecost refers to what Jewish celebrants call “Shavuot.” Shavuot is Hebrew for “week,” hence the celebration is often called “the Festival of Weeks.” It was established as “a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations” in Leviticus 23:15-22. It begins, “And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation-offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord.”

The word “Pentecost” is the Greek word pentekoste in the Septuagint meaning 50. It signifies counting off seven weeks of seven days from Passover until the day after the seventh Sabbath, the 50th day. The Leviticus account of this celebration includes a thorough description of the offerings of bread using the first fruits of wheat flour, seven newborn lambs, a bull, two rams, a male goat and two more male lambs, with elevation offerings, burnt offerings, drink offerings, sin-offerings, and a sacrifice of well-being. Occupational work is forbidden, to enable everyone to attend a convocation for the presentations of these offerings.

With these copious offerings in each “settlement,” Pentecost was a day of celebrating abundance, with first fruits and newborns signifying a celebration of God’s life-giving provisions. An attitude of scarcity would argue that one must keep the newborns to ensure next year’s abundance, or that one must work while there is light, to prepare for tomorrow. Pentecost is a communal way of showing that the God of this year’s abundance is steadfast and trustworthy in the future.

After all the detailed instructions on how to celebrate God’s abundance with proper offerings of thankfulness, repentance, and worship, the text immediately takes a curious turn. Leviticus 23:22 reads, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.” The phrase, “I am the Lord your God” is a frequent reminder to the People of Israel of God’s hand in rescuing them from slavery and bringing them into a land of abundance.

Likewise, when the celebration of Pentecost is described in Deuteronomy 16:9-10, it is followed in v.11 with a vision of full inclusion: “Rejoice before the Lord your God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” In the Deuteronomy text, the Festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, is named as one of three celebrations that will be observed annually, along with Passover and the Festival of Booths. And, again, the instruction to observe these seasons is followed immediately by an instruction to establish judges to ensure justice, culminating with the words, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Celebrations like Pentecost are more than religious requirements. They demonstrate a way to translate God’s abundant provisions into an economy of justice built on abundance. Abundance is celebrated, not as a “blessing” to be hoarded, but as a gift to be shared. The landed share with the non-landed folk, the residents share with the aliens, widows and orphans glean produce because, in God’s economy, abundance leads to justice.

Paul Ricoeur has argued that the Apostle Paul exhibits a “logic of superabundance” through his use of the phrase “much more surely” throughout the fifth chapter of his letter to the church in Rome. I propose that the same can be said for Luke’s description of the Day of Pentecost. After starting his story by speaking of the “fulfilling” of the Day of Pentecost,” Luke uses the root of that word, πληρόω, two more times in the first four verses. He also repeatedly uses the terms “all” and “each,” as well as listing a long category of nations, with residents of each “hearing the mighty deeds of God in their own language” (Acts 2:9-11). With this rhetoric, Luke describes this event in way that reflects God’s abundance. Therefore, the “Pentecostal revival” for which I pray is this kind of Spirit-empowered community, that lives out of God’s abundant provisions toward the words, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” 

A Pentecostal revival of justice would bear all of the hallmarks of Luke’s story: The sense that “all of them were filled” (Acts 2:4) would challenge the myth of scarcity that fuels capitalism with an insatiable appetite for which one never has enough. The list of nations would challenge a worldview where ‘the other’ is viewed primarily a competitor. The “gift of tongues” would bring new languages that can build bridges across nativistic boundaries. The sweeping fire would both cleanse the heart of violence and animate the spirit for justice.

In quick order the Spirit-driven church of Acts established a community where nobody was lacking: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). A revival today could bring that same ecstatic joy and establish a community oriented toward justice. It is my hope that whatever else we have to say about Pentecost Sunday, we draw on the tradition of Shavuot and pray that Pentecost will be a time of justice revived.

One thought on “Pentecost is Justice Revived

  1. Thanks for this….. We need to see the political implications of all our liturgical festivals. Christian celebration and joy must spill over into the world that God so loved that he gave Himself for its salvation.

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