As I write this, tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. In the Christian faith, Pentecost is the commemoration of the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost is one of the church’s major holy days, along with Christmas and Easter. Yet, it doesn’t get nearly the same kind of billing as these other holidays, which are large commercial targets in American society. Even theologically speaking, Christians are more likely to grasp the significance of Jesus’ birth (Christmas) and resurrection (Easter) than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
To me, this is all the more reason why we need to celebrate Pentecost, deliberately and robustly. Too often, this holy day is relegated to the back seat, if not left behind altogether. Even in my tradition, the Assemblies of God, which is the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, Pentecost Sunday doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
I’m particularly aware of that this year, when Pentecost falls during Memorial Day weekend. I observe many of my colleagues, Assemblies of God pastors, who are excited about their special Memorial Day service this Sunday. They see this Sunday as a day to commemorate and to remember, just not so much Pentecost (the church’s agenda) as Memorial Day (the state’s agenda).
In my opinion, this is a problem. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with offering prayers regarding or giving some attention to Memorial Day during a Sunday worship service, but to make this the major focus of the day is surely missing the mark of worship in general, and Pentecost in particular.
I contend that one of the most powerful and insidious false gods is religious nationalism, our tendency to give our allegiance unhesitatingly and without qualification to the nation. We worship the nation as God. But the nation isn’t God, even if your nation is America, for “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he will rule forever and always” (Rev. 11:15).
Indeed, Pentecost proclaims the gift of God’s Spirit poured out “on all people” (Acts 2:17), giving to not only those who are insiders, but those who are far off outsiders (Eph. 2:17), that people from every nation will worship the Lord (Rev. 7:9). In other words, Pentecost is about all nations being reconciled to God and to each other, and this is by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Memorial Day matters. As Americans, it’s important to remember the example of those who have died serving country. Furthermore, it’s imperative to remember our call to minister comfort and companionship and any reasonable help to their families. From the perspective of the nation, this is what this weekend is all about.
But we carry more than the perspective of our nation; we carry the vision of God’s kingdom. And as a harbinger of that kingdom, our worship is to proclaim God’s message of reconciliation, including the salvation from sin and relationship with God we can have through the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).
This vision is primary for us as Christ-followers and worshipers. Tomorrow, in the worship of the congregation I pastor, we will offer prayers related to Memorial Day, but these will be a part of a greater whole, which is a service of worship to glorify God, to uplift the name of Jesus, and to hold out the living promise of the Holy Spirit to all who call on his name (Acts 2:21, 39). From beginning to end, Pentecost will be the focus, for it is only this Spirit, God’s Spirit, that is eternal and has the power to save.