Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty—the faint surprise of minds incapable of wonder.
– Wendell Berry
We seldom associate Pentecost Sunday with work of any sort, even good work. Perhaps this is because the wild imagery of wind and flame and the strangeness of glossolalia tempts us to see Pentecost as distinctly other-worldly. Or perhaps we have simply assumed that work itself is inherent in the curse passed down from our primordial ancestors, and that the redemptive power unleashed at Pentecost is part of God’s action to release us from that curse—and so from work.
This is a misreading, both of the first chapters of Genesis—the gifts of tilling and keeping the garden were part of God’s instruction to humankind from the beginning—and of the story of Pentecost in its broader theological context as the commencement of the mission of proclaiming the gospel. It tends to obscure the fact that human work of a certain kind is part and parcel of our faithfully embodying our role as icons of the triune God.
Pentecost’s place in the liturgical calendar, as the culmination of Eastertide, signals that it’s time to turn our attention from celebrating the resurrection of Jesus to doing the good work the resurrection makes possible. The modifier “good” in the prior sentence makes all the difference, for at least according to the story of Babel in the book of Genesis, it was bad work—what Wendell Berry calls “the work of pride”—that made a mess of things in the first place. We read there of a humanity united in its ambition to exceed every creaturely limit, determined to “make a name for ourselves” by building “a tower with its top in the heavens.” Alarmed by the prospect of that much selfish ambition concentrated in one place, God confused their speech and scattered them to the four winds, perhaps figuring that a concupiscent humanity so divided might do less harm than one singularly focused.
The glossolalia of Pentecost, brought about by the coming of the Holy Spirit, signals the reversal of Babel’s curse. Cosmopolitan Jews from throughout the Near East and Mediterranean basin marveled that the disciples – provincial Galileans all – were speaking the several languages of the Jewish diaspora. At Pentecost we see the Creation of a new humanity, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). This new humanity is united, not by the ambition to exceed its limits or the desire to seek a name for itself, but by the generous love of God and neighbor.
In a world so deeply and violently fragmented as ours, one cannot be blamed for asking where this new humanity might be found. That it most often cannot is a testimony, both to the fact that the story of God’s redemptive work is still being written and to the failure of God’s people to embody their role as heralds of the new Creation. The ekklesia, as the body of Christ, is to be the first fruits of the new humanity, the partial and imperfect presence of God’s peaceable reign to the brokenness of the world. The good work of being this presence is made possible by Pentecost.
According to the first chapter of Acts, when Jesus met his disciples prior to his ascension, their concern was whether the time had finally come to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” to free God’s elect and their land from a more than 700 year history of military defeat, occupation, and colonization. Jesus’ response suggests that they were thinking too small, and that God had something bigger in mind—for them, for Israel, and for all Creation. “‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,’ he replied. ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 1:7-8).
Pentecost is the fulfillment of this promise. With the coming of the Spirit—the same Spirit given to all who are baptized—the followers of Jesus are given power for the very specific purpose of bearing witness to the reign of God over the new Creation. In the time of the apostles, this entailed powerfully preaching the good news of the kingdom throughout the new world; it also entailed being a new kind of community, one devoted to “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and where “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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42; 44-47).
In our own time, the good work of being witnesses to God’s reign may well look somewhat different, and will undoubtedly include practices that make us as strange to our world as the first followers of Jesus were to theirs. Such strangeness is and will be not for its own sake, but for the sake of the work of goodness in a world sorely lacking it. As I learned recently from one of my students, in the words of the songwriter and film producer Arthur Freed, “Don’t try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough.”