I once heard academic and journalist Timothy Garton Ash on BBC Radio 4 offering a mischievous definition of a nation:
A group of people united by a shared hatred of their neighbours and a common misunderstanding of their own past.
Original? Or did he nick it from someone else? I have no idea, nor do I care. But what he describes is the opposite of what happened to the beleaguered and frightened friends of the crucified and raised Jesus of Nazareth on the Day of Pentecost.
Instead of being united by a shared hatred of those who had put Jesus to death and now threatened them, they were empowered to go into the heart of the ‘neighbourhood’ and tell the story of Jesus in ways that could be heard and understood by all-comers. Fear of the neighbour (and what he might do to them) was transformed into a rather reckless and fearless openness about God loving even the crucifiers and opening to them a new door to freedom.
But, rather than simply obliterate the past and start a ‘new’ future, the Holy Spirit seems to have taken seriously what Jesus said about new wine and refreshed wineskins: you don’t dump the past, but renew and refresh it. So, the Spirit who moved on the waters of the world’s first day, who breathed new life into the dead bones of Ezekiel’s vision, who inspired the prophets to recall their original vocation (to give up their life in order to be a blessing to the world), and who anointed Jesus to fulfil what had always been the calling of Israel, now reminds the bereaved and surprised disciples that their story makes sense after all. Instead of being the aberration or even denial of God’s intentions, Jesus has made sense of them.
So, Pentecost isn’t about something necessarily new. It is about God’s people being reminded of their story and vocation and being empowered to live it out in a still-hostile world. Thrown together as a ragbag of saints and sinners, this new community re-members its past and unites in shared love for its neighbours.