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Exploring the Meaning of Pentecost:
Pluralism, Unity, and Christian Faith

Schedule:

  • Study #1 -- Week of April 19: What Does This Mean?
  • Study #2 -- Week of April 26: Good News for All People
  • Study #3 -- Week of May 3: Different Kinds of Working
  • Study #4 -- Week of May 10: Welcome One Another
  • Study #5 -- Week of May 17: Maintain the Unity of the Spirit

Study #1: What Does This Mean?

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Scripture Text: Acts 2:1-12 (NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Notes

Pew Report: Global Christianity (2011): 2.18 billion Christians (6.9 billion total)

Traditional divisions: Roman Catholic (50.1%); Protestant (36.7%); Orthodox (11.9%); Other Christians (1.3%)

Theological and ecclesial plurality in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy

The Protestant tradition: Plurality in plurality—Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Anabaptist, Anglican, Methodist, etc.

World Christian Database: info on 9,000 denominations; 13,000 ethnolinguistic people groups; non-traditional churches

Neo-Apostolic Christianity: More than 20,000 distinct groups or movements that do not consider themselves Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant 2025, 581 million persons, 120 million more than those who self-identify as Protestants; half the size of RC church

Theological Differences/Divisions: What is God Like? What is the Gospel? Who is Jesus Christ? What is the Church? What is the Bible? Etc. It seems that everything up for debate.

How do we make sense of this in light of some common Christian beliefs based on Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16-17: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

James 1:5: If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you.

John 16:13: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak what he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

John 17:20-22: I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Possible Responses (Among Others): The Bible is not inspired. God is not as generous in dispensing wisdom as implied. The Spirit has failed to guide the church into truth. One segment of the church is right, the others need to follow along. Christian plurality is a hopeless morass.

Thesis: The events of Pentecost mean that the expression of biblical and orthodox Christian faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist.

The plurality of the Christian faith (and the world) is not a problem that we need overcome. Scripture both reflects and anticipates the pluralism and diversity of the Christian community. Pluralism is the intention and blessing of God, for the church and the world.

Questions for Reflection

  • How do you understand the significance of the Pentecost story in Acts? What does it mean to you? Why do you think the author tells this story?
  • What do you think about the vast plurality of the Christian tradition? What is your level of awareness? Does it surprise you? Does it trouble you?
  • How do you think about the theological and ethical differences among Christians? How do you understand them? What might they teach us about the nature of faith?
  • What challenges and opportunities does the diversity of Christianity present for the church? Do you think an awareness of this is important? Why or why not?
  • What does the diversity of the church mean to you? What difference does it make in your life and faith?
  • What is particularly significant to you in this study?
  • What questions do you have?

Study #2: Good News for All People

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Scripture Texts: Acts 2:1-12 (NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward all people!”

Notes

Thesis: The expression of biblical and orthodox Christian faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist

The plurality of the Christian faith is not a problem to overcome; Scripture both reflects and anticipates the plurality and diversity of the historic Christian faith community; this plurality is the blessing and intention of God; this Pentecostal Christian plurality is paradigmatic not only for the church but for the world.

However, God’s intention is not simply plurality but pluralism. The call to unity and solidarity is a call to move beyond the given reality of Christian, religious, and ideological plurality to pluralism.

Plurality is a fact; pluralism is an achievement

Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity

Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference

Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments

To that end, the next three sessions of this series will briefly sketch out a theology of Christian pluralism for the sake of an inclusive unity in the midst of the irreducible diversity of the human experience.

In other words, the event of Pentecost is another phase in God’s peace mission to the earth (the covenant with Abraham, the life and death of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit) that brings “tidings of great joy which will be to all people.”

Questions for Reflection

  • What does it mean to you when the angel announces that the birth of Jesus birth brings “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people”?
     
  • As you reflect on your own experience and awareness of Christianity, has it been faithful to the message of joy to all people? Why or why not?
     
  • How do you understand the difference between plurality and pluralism? Does it make sense to you? Why is the distinction important?
     
  • What do you think of the idea of Christian pluralism? What does it mean to you? What challenges and opportunities might it present for the church?
     
  • What connections do you see between the story of Pentecost and other parts of the Bible? How might it relate to Israel, Jesus, and the church?
     
  • What is particularly significant to you in this study?
     
  • What questions do you have?

Study #3: Different Kinds of Working

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Scripture Texts: Acts 2:1-12 (NRSV)
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All 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. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

1 Corinthians 12:4-6 4

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Notes

What is the theological basis or rationale for the “different kinds of working” in which it is the same God at work? This is part of the meaning of Pentecost and moves us in the direction of Christian Pluralism.

Toward a Theology of Christian Pluralism: The Life of God (Trinity); God Speaks (Revelation); Witness to Revelation (Scripture); Witness to Revelation (Church)

The Life of God (Trinity):

  • Based on the witness of scripture
  • Became succinct means of identifying the Christian conception of God
  • Confession emerged out of the attempt to address central theological questions for Christian faith
  • Particularly, the relationship of Jesus Christ to the core belief in one God: While Jesus is divine; he is not the same as the Father
  • Leads to numerous approaches and variations in attempting to explain the ways in which Father and Son are both one and yet also distinct: Modalism (over emphasis on unity); Tritheism (over emphasis on distinction)
  • The Spirit is also divine yet not the same as Father and Son
  • The Relational Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one by virtue of their interdependent relationality; God is plurality-in-unity and unity-in-plurality
  • Hence, difference and otherness are part of the divine life; while Father, Son, and Spirit together are one God; their unity is not an outgrowth of sameness. Rather, they are one in the very midst of their difference.

God Speaks (Revelation):

On what basis are we able to justify our convictions about God other than simply affirming what we want and/or hope to be true? The Christian response: God Speaks

The Creator-Creature Distinction:

One of the most basic assertions of the Bible is the difference between God and human beings. Simply stated, God is God and we are not. Isaiah 55:8-God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; God’s ways are not ours; 2 Peter 3:8-for God a day is like 1000 years and 1000 years are like a day. These and many other texts point to the conclusion that the infinite God is radically different from finite creatures. This is the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humans. Human beings cannot know comprehend ultimate divine truth.

However, because God wants to have a relationship with us, God condescends to our level. John Calvin says God makes “baby-talk” to us so that we can understand how God wants us to live. This is the idea of revelation.

The purpose of revelation is to draw creatures into relationship with their creator and to invite them to share in the love and fellowship of God and to participate in the divine mission of love and reconciliation

Revelation involves both a divine dimension and a human one: Divine-the revelation of God in Jesus Christ points to its objective character; Human-the reception of revelation by humans who hear and respond to it points to its subjective character and its plurality.

Questions for Reflection

  • Paul writes, “There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” What does this mean to you? What are the implications of this?
  • The Trinity is a mysterious idea to many people, even Christians. What do you think about this idea? Does it make sense to you? Does it matter to you? Why or why not?
  • What do you think about the idea that difference and otherness are part of God’s life as Father, Son, and Spirit? What might be some of the implications of this for human beings?
  • Does the “infinite qualitative difference” between God and human beings make sense to you? What are the implications of this notion for our understanding of God and God’s ways in the world?
  • What do you think about the idea that God “descends to our level” and speaks to us in ways that we can understand? Does this make sense to you? Do you see the connection with “different ways of working” and the idea of Christian pluralism?
  • What is particularly significant to you in this study?
  • What questions do you have?