Pentecost and the social influencers who changed history

by Sarah-Leah Pimentel

The Christian tradition celebrates Pentecost on 28 May 2023, recalling the moment when the apostles, liberated from fear, left their hiding place and freely began to share the good news of salvation.

Decontextualised from life in the Roman Empire, we may fail to recognise how transformative that moment was. Up until the Crucifixion of Jesus, the fledgling Christian movement had a leader – Christ himself. The apostles and Jesus’ supporters believed his message and started sharing his new commandment of love among their social circles.

The religious and ruling elite of the time knew that movements that reconfigure society were dangerous to the political status quo. Therefore, they engineered a political assassination on trumped-up charges. The new Christian movement had lost its leader, and its adherents were scattered into fearful silence. Or so the architects of the plot hoped.

Even with the news of the Resurrection, the people who encountered the risen Christ would have been unlikely to go to the papers — or the town crier to use the communication platforms of the time — to announce that their leader lived. At best, they might have hoped that having defied the laws of physics, Jesus might also carry out a miraculous coup.

How disappointed they must have been when Jesus disappeared from their sight at the Ascension with an impossible-sounding instruction to preach the good news to the ends of the earth. The apostles must have returned from that encounter frustrated, baffled, and in fear that the political apparatus would now pick them out, one by one.

And then Pentecost happens. We read in Acts 2 that the Holy Spirit entered the room where they were cowering and appeared as tongues of fire on their heads. But the moment was more profound than that. Something within their collective being shifted that they overcame their fear, poured out onto the streets, and spoke their truth with such conviction that 3,000 people converted on that day alone. Today’s social influencers can’t even dream of this kind of return on investment!

Regardless of whether their conviction is spurred on by idealism or money, influencers are fearless in speaking their truth. They wear the products for which they are brand ambassadors. They encourage their adherents to act and thus show their flag of allegiance to the cause or product. They validate, follow, and interact with others in their network.

These techniques are used to convince children to drink Prime or — more constructively perhaps — to hold weekly climate change protests. Other influencers peddle misinformation and fuel collective fear to divide society.

In a world where competing ideologies try to shape our thinking and acting, how can we discern between life-giving narratives and those that plunge us into ever deeper conflict with one another?

This is why the story of Pentecost is so relevant to us. The Holy Spirit transformed the small, besieged Christian community. They became fearless storytellers whose testimony transmitted hope and joy. Thousands of people were prepared to risk the ire of the Roman authorities and their religious leaders to become part of a movement whose core message is to love God and their neighbour. Their courage and conviction shaped Western culture for 2,000 years.

When we listen to the countless narratives that bombard us each day, are we filled with joy, hope, and the possibility of a better future, or do we plunge into despair that makes us suspicious of others and allows hatred to fester in our hearts?

The Holy Spirit of Pentecost brings life and positive energy into our world. The spirit of darkness chips away at our resilience and leads us towards physical and spiritual death. We are free to decide which of these we allow to have power over us.

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