Things You Don’t Learn in Sunday School: Pentecost’s Real Meaning


Pentecost and Memorial Day. Pentecost, what is often mistakenly referred to as the birth of the church and Memorial Day, a day set aside since the Civil War to remember those who have fought in war.  Sacred and secular. What could these two special days possibly have in common? Oh, and it’s the Indianapolis 500. But I won’t be weaving that spectacular event into this blog post.

Pentecost is one of those events that lends itself perfectly to Sunday School, especially if a creative teacher incorporates crafts! I did my own stint teaching children in Sunday School. Thankfully, for them, it didn’t last long. I was horrible at crafts. Inevitably, the Sunday School curriculum for Pentecost included pictures of a crowd of people with flames on top of their heads! For as horrible as I was at crafts, at least I didn’t scar kids for life with horrifying pictorial depictions of heads on fire! What were the adults writing Sunday School curriculum thinking?!?

You don’t remember seeing flames coming off people’s heads? Let me refresh your memory of the story from Acts 2.

Devout Jews from all over the Roman empire were in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks or Shavout. Shavout was a seasonal harvest festival that was held 50 (pente) days after Passover. Details were laid out in the Old Testament Leviticus 23:15-22. It’s tough getting through Leviticus. It’s not one of the more engaging books in the bible, but there is a very interesting little tidbit buried in this passage:

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 (Leviticus 23:22).

Back to our story of all the devout Jews milling around in Jerusalem for Shavout. Jesus’ followers, who were mostly devout Jews themselves, were still in Jerusalem. They were part of the crowds of people who’d come from all over the Roman empire to celebrate Shavout. The writer of the New Testament book of Acts describes what happened:

When the day of Pentecost (shavout)  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?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:1-13).

Peter seizes this opportunity to show how this Pentecost event is a fulfillment of a prophecy from the Hebrew prophet Joel:

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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:14-21).

Prophets were bold and always dramatic. They were on a mission directly from God, given a message to deliver to God’s people. Usually the message was a wake up call to get back into relationship with God.

Then Jesus comes along and mixes up that message a wee bit. He challenges worldly approval and religious authority by saying all are welcome into God’s community regardless of their tribe, religious upbringing, social status, gender, political leanings. Pentecost becomes an opportunity for Jesus’ followers to share his message beyond the confines of any church, breaking down whatever barriers have been erected, finding a common ground where to meet.

Interestingly, apocalyptic language, like what we see in this Pentecost passage, often gets resurrected in times of war. And it’s understandable. War is destructive and divisive, and often references the forces of evil. Sides are taken and havoc wrecked on anyone and everyone in its path. War is complicated, yet freedom and justice are often found at the core of why any war is fought in the first place.

The world can seem like a very dark and bitter place and, while I don’t think God’s kingdom is one of warfare, bloodshed, or suffering, Memorial Day is an opportunity to honor those who sacrificed for freedom and justice. Those who give their lives for justice and freedom deserved to be remembered for their sacrifice on all of our behalf.

And we’re back to Pentecost. Pentecost is rooted in a celebration for those who have been lifted out of poverty and slavery to remember that abundance and freedom obligate us to those who continue to live in poverty and chains. The Holy Spirit leads us out into the world equipped to meet people in the streets and marketplaces. Pentecost is part of the ongoing conversation of God and God’s people in a world much in need of transformation.


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