What is the church? An extended lockdown may cause us to ask fundamental questions like this. The old normal is gone, perhaps forever. In this new reality we have to think hard about what remains constant and essential, while recognising there will be diverse views about this even among Christians – as recent debates around church buildings have shown. It’s particularly appropriate to ask questions like this as Pentecost Sunday draws near: a festival sometimes described as the birthday of the church.

So, what can the account of Pentecost in Acts tell us about the nature of the church? Many preachers will go instinctively to Acts chapter 2, verses 42 – 47. There we get a description of the first Christian community which incorporates worship, teaching, prayer, generosity, hospitality, signs and wonders. We recognise so much good in this picture that we may forget how radically the outward circumstances changed for the Jerusalem believers in the space of a mere 50 years. 

Temple worship, for instance, was an integral part of the Jerusalem Christians’ experience (Acts 2:46, 3:1, 21:23 – 26). For some, it must have seemed that this would last forever. While many of the first Christians may have anticipated the swift return of Christ, few of them will have expected to live out their days as Christians in a temple-less’ world. And yet, in AD70, the temple was destroyed. Some have speculated that the letter to the Hebrews was originally written in response to this loss of the temple – which even some early Christians may have mourned.

Acts also tells us of great gatherings in one place, and 3,000 converts on the first day. But this experience too may not have lasted long. We read in Acts of persecution and famine, and from later historians of horrific warfare, which would have taken a heavy toll on the Jerusalem church, much as our brothers and sisters in Christ have suffered in the modern Middle East. Since 2003, the Christian population of Iraq has gone down from 1.5 million to under 250,000.

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And while the generosity of the Jerusalem church was unshaken, poverty could soon have replaced the abundance of early days, following hard on famine and war. After all, one of Paul’s major tasks was raising money for the church in Jerusalem from the new Gentile Christian communities. In a very early Christian text called the Didache, a church cannot even be sure it can provide water for baptism by immersion. 

So, for a Christian celebrating Pentecost 50 years after Peter’s speech, the church’s outward circumstances would have been very different. The magnificent temple liturgy, the large crowds of fellow believers, and the money to distribute to those in need, may all have seemed like distant memories. We ourselves will have to reevaluate what we once considered fixed points. While mourning the loss of some things, we may also need to repent of thinking that God could not do without them. 

Yet, in Pentecost itself, we also have a sense of the constant mission of the church, beginning with the coming of the Holy Spirit. This mission remained true 50 years on, remains true for us today, and will remain true to the end of the age: the gathering of disciples from all nations into one people in Christ. 

In the Old Testament, Pentecost included the offering to God of the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16:9 – 12). Just as Jesus alludes to the mission of the disciples as a kind of harvest (Matthew 9:35 – 8), so the people gathered in Jerusalem are the first-fruits of the church in every land, which would come to include those of every nation, tribe, people and language. Many of us have been praying this week for that ongoing mission. 

The coming of the Holy Spirit connects with the symbolism of Pentecost. The Spirit is the first fruit of God’s promise, described by Paul as the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people” (Ephesians 1:14). And the Apostles speaking in tongues by the power of the Spirit reverses what happened at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1 – 9): just as that story speaks of the nations being divided for seeking to rival God, so Pentecost foreshadows those of every language coming together to worship Him (Revelation 7:9 – 12). As well as drawing people from every nation, the church points ahead to a future hope. 

This mission and hope of the church find its source in Christ. It does not change, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. People from every nation are brought together for a purpose: to be formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ, so that the church can be His hands and feet in the world until He comes again. As we reevaluate what is essential in our church life, and perhaps disagree with each other, this is the place from which we can all begin, and the test for all we do. As we ask together what is the church?”, let’s pray that celebrating Pentecost in lockdown helps us to focus anew on Jesus Christ its head. 

Yet, in Pentecost itself, we also have a sense of the constant mission of the church, beginning with the coming of the Holy Spirit.