Growing up, I understood Pentecost as a celebration of the Holy Spirit. This is the day the church received the third Person of the Trinity and began moving with a new level of God-given power. Lately, I’ve come to see something else at work in Pentecost, something deeply significant to our youth.Pentecost is a major step in the development of the church’s understanding that, in Christ, all are invited into God’s family. Click To Tweet
Pentecost is a major step in the development of the church’s understanding that, in Christ, all are invited into God’s family. God’s people are no longer (only) Jews, but everyone is welcome! Many biblical scholars believe this is something the church discovered over time, as they gradually sorted out the implications of Jesus’ teachings and example.
Jesus Himself undermined traditional boundary markers between Judaism and Gentiles. New Testament scholars like James Dunn, Love Sechrest, and Joseph Hellerman believe there were roughly three things most people focused on when deciding if someone was Jewish or not: Sabbath observance, food laws, and circumcision. These are the things that, from a Jewish perspective (and Jesus talked mostly to His Jewish countrymen), decided if you were in God’s people, or out. Many of the extra laws Pharisees developed were around these three things, in particular. Jesus confronts these regularly in places like Mt. 15:21-28, 15:2, Lk. 15:11-32 (notice that the Prodigal Son story comes in response to questions about one who eats with sinners), 11:38, 13:10-17, etc. Many scholars in the last thirty years have concluded Jesus confronts these particular ideas because they are boundary markers, and He is opening the people of God to everyone.
This trend continues in the New Testament. Of course, in Acts 10, Peter has a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven as Cornelius asks Peter to visit him. Peter finally understands, as he connects his vision with seeing the Holy Spirit come upon the Gentiles with Cornelius, that everyone is welcome in this new people Jesus is creating. In Galatians, Paul recollects confronting Peter, who seems to have had trouble maintaining his commitment to this truth. It comes up again and again.
However, in the middle of this stands Pentecost. In Acts 2, Luke chooses which details to emphasize as he recounts this story. He chooses to emphasize the multi-national nature of the Jewish people in Jerusalem (2:5-9). Peter’s response from the prophet Joel builds on this idea, opening “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” Peter and Luke both understand Pentecost to be, among other things, a reminder of God’s radical welcome.
Why This Matters in Youth Ministry
Developmentally, our youth are typically asking where they are welcome. I keep a chart of human development stages in my office. Sure, it’s oversimplified, but it’s a helpful reminder of the questions our youth wrestle with. There’s a constant question, a constant longing for acceptance, and to have a place where they belong. The story of Pentecost is a reminder that God welcomes them.
Pentecost does two things for our youth groups. First, it reminds us as youth workers that God invites everyone. If we’re going to follow Jesus, we’re right to double down on hospitality and welcoming young people. The recent Barna Group Survey, The State of Youth Ministry, reminds us that one of the primary things adolescents seek in youth group is relationships. They crave acceptance, and we’re right to say to them “you’re accepted here because Jesus accepts everyone.” What a comfort!
Second, Pentecost is a helpful teaching tool to remind our youth that the same God who welcomes them also welcomes others. As disciples of Jesus, we need to figure out how to be loving and accepting of others. Because of where adolescents are developmentally, this can resonate deeply as we learn to be citizens of the coming Kingdom! It’s not always easy to set aside the way things work in high school (I eat at MY table with MY friends, while you eat over there). Pentecost is a reminder for our youth that, as disciples of Jesus, we must also extend that welcome Jesus gives us to others.
I think teaching about Pentecost isn’t a bad idea for a lesson!
- Can you think of someone who has been welcoming to you at church?
- Can you think of a time you were not welcome?
- Many of us understand the need to be welcoming. As Christians, why do we do that?
- Why do you think Jesus invites everyone? (For churches with a strong liturgical background, you might ask, “why does Jesus invite everyone to His table?”)
I made some claims about boundary markers that might seem odd to you. If you’d like to learn more about that, check out scholars interested in the New Perspective on Paul. For a very good, short introduction to the New Perspective on Paul, the Oxford Paul: A Very Short Introduction is fantastic! The author is a well-respected scholar named E.P. Sanders, who started the NPP. It’s about 100 pages, $10 bucks, and well worth your time.
Alternatively, the Wikipedia page on the New Perspective on Paul is pretty good and free.
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.