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For most of my life I was a Baptist; specifically a Missionary Baptist in the African American tradition of what that means.

In that tradition, we never observed Pentecost Sunday.

The African American Baptist liturgical calendar consisted of Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. In addition there were “Special Days” such as the Pastor’s Anniversary, Church Anniversary, and various anniversaries of auxiliaries such as Choir Anniversary, Ushers’ Anniversary, etc.

The only references to Pentecost I grew up with was in Sunday School, in sermons, and to the folk called Pentecostals. This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Ghost as we called him, was given short shrift in our churches. We believed that the Spirit empowered the singing and the preaching. And the visible and audible proof of our belief was the shouting of the saints! That meant that the Spirit was moving. So every Sunday was Pentecost for us.

Today, liturgical churches in the West celebrate Pentecost. In the Roman Catholic tradition, adherents pray the Novena of the Holy Ghost for nine days (the time between the Lord’s Ascension and Pentecost Sunday). In this novena, they pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It recalls the nine days the apostles and others prayed before the day of Pentecost.

Interestingly enough Christians who call themselves Pentecostal give scant attention to the yearly commemoration. Wheaton College professor Timothy Larsen, a Pentecostal himself, suggests that Pentecostals generally pay little regard to Pentecost Sunday because they reject the observance of the liturgical calendar. But Larsen asserts further that in a sense every Sunday is Pentecost for Pentecostals just like what we Baptists assumed. This is where there’s connection among Pentecostalism, the Baptist tradition, and the expression of Presbyterianism I am part of today.

My church will not be observing Pentecost Sunday today. Every Lord’s Day is a recognition of Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, ascension, and his sending of the Spirit upon the Church. On the Day of Pentecost ca. 33 AD Peter’s inspired sermon focused on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the central theme of the gospel. The giving of the Holy Spirit was for the chief purpose of the Church declaring the gospel of the Risen Christ. Owing to this, Christians live in this long Pentecostal moment.

As recorded in Acts 2, Jesus commanded the apostles to wait on the Promise. When the Spirit came upon the believers, he inspired them to exclaim and proclaim the goodness of God. The writer Luke highlights the gospel proclamation of the apostle Peter, which Christians for centuries have labeled the first Christian sermon.

To summarize this sermon, Peter offered a number of key points for our consideration. Let’s focus on three broad points.

First, Peter explains that what has happened is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in 2:28-32a:

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams,and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

This passage speaks about a time for God’s people when the Holy Spirit will come upon all peoples, and they will speak forth God’s words. That time has arrived.

Second, Peter emphasizes the person and work of Jesus Christ. In verses 22-36, Peter preached that those who saw Jesus and heard his teaching received proof of who was by miracles. He did them openly. Peter also pointed his hearers to Christ’s death on the cross. But God raised Jesus from the dead. Finally, this Jesus who died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven was Lord and Christ. This was the meaning of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Third, when the Jews heard the gospel preached, the Holy Spirit convicted them. They wanted to know what to do. Peter called them to repent and be baptized.

On this day, we should remember two things about Pentecost.

  • True gospel preaching is Spirit-empowered, Scriptural, and focused on the person and work of Christ.
  • Pentecost is ongoing. The Spirit has been poured out upon the Church, the gospel still goes forth; and the Spirit still convicts sinners of their sin, and moves them to receive Jesus as the one who has conquered sin, death, and the grave for their salvation. Pentecost is the re-telling the gospel story.

This is something the Church must do each Sunday.

Eric Washington

Eric Washington teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he directs African and African Diaspora Studies.

3 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m sorry that this is all that Pentecost is for you. There is so much more.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Thanks for your word and shared experience, Eric. I too grew up in a tradition that did not follow the “church universal” calendar, a long time member of General Assoc. of Regular Baptist churches. I look back fondly at that tradition for several things, one, for knowledge of the Bible through a strong emphasis on Sunday School education and through a “teaching” tradition from the pulpit; also, for knowledge of hymnody through a focus on music and congregational singing in every service. What I missed though, and what I gained from my education at Calvin and my eventual alliance with Reformed tradition was a systematic theology, not the pastor’s current whim, and the order of worship brought by first the Heidelberg Catechism and later by the common lectionary/church season calendar. Knowing what Pentecost was all about was accentuated by its “special day,” not at all just limited to a yearly occurrence. Yes, every Sunday celebrates that Christ arose on the first day, yet Good Friday/Easter in all their tension/drama/glory accentuate the concept, do they not? When I “converted” from Baptist to Reformed—the sticking point was over baptism, infant/covenantal v. adult/individual—my good minister advised me not to reject one for the other, but to embrace both as equal and legitimate interpretations of God’s grace. I love both traditions, and look forward to tonight’s ecumenical Pentecost(al) service. Blessings, and thanks btw for all your previous submissions to The Twelve.

  • Marge VanderWagen says:

    I read your article on Sunday afternoon. I wish I had read it before I wrote and preached my sermon.
    Good advice on what Pentecost is. Not was.

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