My first experience with the Pentecostal movement was in the western suburbs of Sydney. This was outside my normal social experience. I grew up in affluent areas in the Presbyterian Church, but in the Pentecostal movement I found a church who lived as community and who studied the scriptures.
This was back in the early 1980’s and all the Pentecostal churches I became familiar with then contained the riff raff of society. These were mostly the dysfunctional, the poorer, the recovering from abuse, from drugs or crime, the ethnically diverse, and those rejected by the society I grew up in. Pentecostalism was looked down upon by the “discerning.” It was the church of the uncouth, where all kinds of “distasteful” things could happen.
The roots of the modern Pentecostal movement in America were similar. The literature tells us it sprang from Azusa Street. Brother Seymour attended a bible college in Topeka, where the students were seeking the meaning of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. When I say “attended,” Seymour sat in the corridor outside the class because he was black.
Seymour later moved to California, where a fellowship was launched on Azusa Street. People spoke in tongues and experienced other gifts of the Spirit, like healing. People came from all over America and the world to take part in this experience. It was a place where the rich and poor met, the black and white. Obviously, in the society of that day, this kind of movement would come under serious attack. It undermined carefully engineered social and business interests.
There was plenty of fodder with which attacks could be launched against the fledging movement. It attracted people of diverse motives, much like the church at Corinth which Paul started. Putting together a family of misfits isn’t easy, at any time. Spiritists, occultists, people looking for fame and fortune, all sought their opportunity to steer the movement off course. Brother Seymour’s task was to keep it centred and he did this by focusing on what was most important. It was the message of love, which Paul also majored on in Corinth, where people received each other in Christ, rather than sought their own agendas.
In all this dysfunctionality, God was bringing a message to the nation. The nation was to pull down its social walls and come together to love each other, to heal the wounds that their various forms of segregation had inflicted. The church that presented the same living witness to the Jewish and Roman worlds of Paul’s time was similarly dysfunctional. The church contains wounded people, and in its shame and disdain from society, somehow still manages to bring a renewing ethic, which starts to transform the world from its self-centredness.
The meaning of Pentecostalism stands out very clearly in my past experience, just as it did in the book of Acts. It brings broken people together. It challenges the separations within our societies. It gives rejected people a hope in God, who does not reject them. It teaches us by living experience, by putting us together with diverse people, that Jesus is Lord. The Lordship of Jesus means we are commanded to love each other. The Spirit moving amongst us all from different backgrounds, shows us we are one, and if one, then we receive and love one another. This is Pentecostalism and its witness to the world.
Eventually the Pentecostal movement that sprang from Azusa Street spilt up into white and black movements and to this extent the genuine nature of Pentecostalism was defeated. Instead of embracing the family orientation that God was leading us towards, the separate movements emulated the nature of the world around them. “Pentecostalism” then becomes a doctrine of personal experience, rather than an expression of healing across the social distinctions of our world. The essential purpose of Pentecostalism, as Paul showed Peter at Antioch, is the “one table,” one social, racial, economic table, repairing the beaches of injustice between us, doing what Jeruslem and Rome in the Apostle’s day refused.
You can understand the origins of the Word of Faith movement in the early American Pentecostal church. It came to a people largely disempowered in society. It taught that God would look after us, and we could trust him for help, where society had failed us. This emphasis has strong biblical support, especially in characters like Moses, Elijah and Elisha. These prophets took people from the oppression of a ruling elite, either in Egypt, or the elite within Israel itself, and showed them God’s love and care. Jesus spoke of these at the synagogue at Nazareth, when he said the gospel is good news for the poor. There, Jesus spoke of the foreigners, who were despised, as those for whom God intervened. The early church in Acts began on this footing, a place where those not accredited by society were received.
The initial message of the Word of Faith movement was a healing message. It was a way of integrating the fallen back into the social fabric, to be participants and influencers. But overtime it would lose its Pentecostal distinctive. As the church became socially mobile, and shifted into more economically comfortable positions, it forgot the context of the “faith message.” Its purpose is to show us that we can bring in and care for the marginalised. It shows us that we don’t have to worry about a society that sanctions us when we receive the rejected, because God will provide for us. If society rejects us, God will not. The Word of Faith message is not meant to make us comfortable within this society, as part of those separated from the broken and hated others of the world.
As the church became more socially mobile, messages like the Word of Faith became used for our personal advancement and interests. They had lost their Pentecostal meaning, in which God would care for us as one people, bringing a renewing culture to the world. The Pentecostal message of inclusion and love for others, would give way to a personal message of prosperity that makes us more like the world than like the church that Jesus launched. This personalised message of Pentecostalism we see today isn’t Pentecostalism. It portrays the gifts of the Spirit as personal benefit, not as the sign of a new community. Instead of teaching us to love our enemies and to seek reconciliation and community with them, it teaches us to embrace tribalism, nationalism or sectarianism against them. This is a false kind of prosperity, a false security, that the bible witnesses against.
One sure sign of our loss today is that you don’t often see Christians out in the world standing in the gap for those the world has rejected. Like the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. You see people on the sea picking them up and you think in your heart, “I really hope some of these caring for the refugees are Christians, showing what the love of God means in a greedy economy.” It’s very sad that you often hear Christians say things like, “If you save the drowning, you are encouraging the traffic of immigrants.” Our way of teaching the poor is to let them suffer. This coincides with our economic policy today: “Lack and suffering is the best incentive to industry, so you shouldn’t help.” This is so far from what Jesus taught. Our Pentecostal witness is to heal the segregation among us, as a witness of the reconciling cross.
The meaning of Pentecost was very clear in the book of Acts. The different languages depicted the different people groups, all now received by God in Christ. It means that those men had rejected, God had now received. The Jews rejected those of other ethnicities. And both the Jewish and Roman cultures accepted or rejected people based on their social class. Pentecost had overthrown all this. The miracles of the Spirit among them, including the different tongues, meant that God had made one new family of us all. We all received the Spirit: we all must be one.
This has peculiar meaning in Hebrew faith. This oneness in Pentecost means that Yahweh, as he promised in Isaiah he would do, had become Lord of the entire cosmos, of all the ethnic groups, and had thus conquered the idols of paganism. Hebrew people knew that this indicated a renewal of the creation, a healing of the nations. They just didn’t know how God would do this. It turned out he would do this by making us a family, bringing us together under the commandment of Christ, to love one another, to break down the paganism in our own hearts, our self- centredness which divided and destroyed us. His forgiving us all on the cross makes him Lord of us all.
Pentecost means one new family, which means a healed and renewed creation. We tend to see Pentecost as primarily meaning individual spiritual experience, but this isn’t what it meant in Acts. In Acts it meant one new family. It is personal experience, but with the prime intention of making us one family.
This Hebrew view of the faith comes out very clearly in Romans 10, when we understand Paul’s perspective. He was speaking about Jew and gentile being one, sharing one table as a new family. We think he was speaking primarily of an individual faith, but rather he was speaking about faith joining us together. He quoted Joel, saying that all who call on the Lord shall be saved, which meant all ethnic groups. The point Paul was making was Pentecost heals the rift between us, and this was Joel’s hope. Pentecost is the hope for new community. Paul continued from Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of him on the mountains, proclaiming ‘Our God reigns.’” This means God reigns over the pagan idolatry of self, demolishing its former destructive rule in our hearts and communities. It’s hard to see a more beautiful theme in the scriptures.
The Spirit also had a very distinctive role in Hebrew faith. He was present in the creation. When the Spirit was invoked in the scriptures, like in Isaiah 11, he was coming for one purpose, to fill the creation with newness. This is how they saw Pentecost. This was Paul’s theology of the Spirit. The Spirit had come to bring about new creation, by bringing our communities into newness, by writing God’s law on our hearts, bringing us together into neighbourly love. Pentecost meant new relationships, which meant a healed creation, as Isaiah saw the creation blooming with restoration.
It was this Hebrew vision of Pentecost that some in the Corinthian church sought to destroy. They saw the Spirit in terms of their personal enrichment, a new power which distinguished them from other normal people. Their Greek background had diminished the importance of the creation and had left them with an individualistic faith. Both letters to the Corinthians were aimed against this. Paul claimed the Spirit was given to break down the barriers between them, for them to receive the weak among them, for them to love the poor, rather than to see themselves as better. This, Paul said, is the power of God, which breaks in pieces the rule of the false powers in the world.
This idea of divorcing Pentecost from the Hebrew Prophets’ vision of social justice fulfilled in the Messiah, and instead making it a Greek vision of personal fulfilment, is still prevalent in our cultures today. Speaking biblically, Pentecost is a peace movement transforming human empire. Even Jesus’ call in John, for all who thirst to come to him and drink, was a reference to Ezekiel’s vision of a renewed humanity living peaceably in the world.
Pentecost means we bring in the ones that the world rejects. And by doing this the creation is set free from its bondage to selfishness, to corruption. This is Pentecostal faith. Pentecost was 50 days after Passover, when Israel received the law, and the law was all about how they could live together as one family.