Weekly Preaching: Pentecost 2018

May 18th, 2018

The day of Pentecost. Regarding texts: at my place, we always read Acts 2 at the very opening, and then another of the lections just prior to the sermon. I'm unsure if I'll use Romans 8:22-27 or John 15:26-16:15, but I will reflect on both (along with Acts 2) below.

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First, some thoughts on the day of Pentecost. Various churches have their customs. In one of my churches, people wore red dresses and jackets. In another, they hung striking bright yellow and red streamers from the ceiling. At my current church, we have this swirly thing with colorful streamers someone waves at the front (which you can see in this video).

Mainline Protestants love Pentecost, but suffer a kind of inarticulate reticence about the Holy Spirit. For me, I’ve heard so much overwaxed chatter in my lifetime about who’s got the Spirit (and thus who doesn’t), where the Spirit is (and thus isn’t), powerful emotional experiences that feel to me to be more about intuition and native-born gushing than a movement of the Spirit. So, perhaps in the way Protestants have barely spoken of Mary in order not to be Catholic, I’ve shied away so as not to be confused with the emotivism that dominates so much of American religiosity.

"The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit" (Abingdon Press, 2010). Order here: http://bit.ly/2Gq9hun

I taught a series on the Holy Spirit, largely to discipline myself and force me to explore the third person of the Trinity in some depth. My studying became a little book, The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit. I commend it to you, not because it's mine, but because it's short and is one example of how clergy might try to explain the Holy Spirit to church people — and to themselves!

Frederick Dale Bruner shrewdly suggested that the Holy Spirit is the “shy member of the Trinity,” preferring to stay backstage, deferring to the glory of Jesus and the Father. Even on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t make a grand, personal appearance. It’s wind? Too much whiskey early in the day? Fire on the head? It’s the people of God who take center stage, their hair tussled and singed, staggering a little, bolting out into the street, talking a mile a minute...

In the Gospel, Jesus tantalizes by suggesting things will be even better for the disciples once he's gone! The Spirit's business isn't a starring role at all. The Spirit is deferential, glorifying the Father and the Son, like the stage director you never see but who makes the show unfold and keeps the stars in the bright lights looking good.

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The disciples catapulted onto the streets were — astonishingly — understood by pilgrims from all over the place, in all those languages birthed at the Tower of Babel, whose ill effects are now being reversed. I love rattling off (and I practice ahead of time) the list of peoples present in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9-11). I can’t avoid chuckling when I get to “the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene” (what about the rest of Libya?).

It’s not a prideful “speaking in tongues” (which some friends of mine use as a litmus test to see if you’re really saved…); there isn’t confusion or separation, but understanding and unity! I’ve preached, with validity, I think, on the idea of Pentecost people, God’s Spirit-empowered church, finding the language to speak to the people out there. No more church jargon, and certainly no smug, judgmental declamations. How do we talk about the best news ever to people who hear nothing but awful news? 

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In Judaism, Pentecost is the day that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Don’t be tempted to say We have the Spirit, the law is kaput. The Spirit enables the fulfillment of the law; haven't you read Matthew 5? The Spirit doesn’t unleash a burst of emotion; the Spirit plants and grows holiness in us. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5). He/she is the “Spirit of Holiness” (Rom. 1:4).

Speaking of growing things: I also love it that Pentecost was the celebration of a harvest. The Spirit, when you were sleeping, caused things to grow, and we humbly give thanks to God for the fruit of the earth. Do you garden? Or do you know someone who farms? Tell your people about the Spirit moving over the fields.

At Pentecost, the Spirit rushed, not on this or that individual, but on the Church, on the Body. It’s the church that is birthed, not a gaggle of solo Christians who happen to be near one another, on Pentecost. All preaching needs to speak to the Body (a major point in my book, The Beauty of the Word). Too often we preach as if we have a batch of little direct lines to each individual out there, and the sermon is You, you individual, go do this yourself, or believe this yourself. But preaching is to the Body, for the Body, and, of course, even from the Body.

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Peter’s sermon, evidently, is placed here in Acts as an exemplary early Christian sermon.  It would be tough, in our culture, to preach such a sermon: a pastiche of Bible quotes from obscure prophets primarily, and David looks like a crystal ball prophet. I have a friend who is finishing up her Doctorate of Ministry project on just this: how to recover in a fitting way Peter's approach to preaching.

In Acts 2, it is intriguing that salvation comes to — whom? “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord” (2:21). Not a set of dogmas or even behaviors, but a crying out, a plea, a calling on the Lord for help. I love that. Whom else would such a God save? Of course, the secret to early Christian preaching wasn’t merely the rhetoric. It was the lifestyle that flawlessly and compellingly mirrored the vision. Read Acts 2:42-47 and you’ll understand why the preaching worked, and perhaps some of why ours doesn’t. It spoke to a radical life of devotion, breaking bread, prayer, sharing possessions in common, and insuring there was no needy person. 

The emperor Julian the Apostate, trying to shed Christianity from the empire, complained, “The Christians care, not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” In today’s political climate, it is unpopular to speak of caring for the poor. But this is Christianity. I’ll take Jesus over political sway or social preference any day. Preachers (and these are very tough days in which to preach) have to find humble, gentle but direct ways to say “This just is Christianity.”

I think of what we said about the Ascension. Jesus leaves, and the disciples must carry on down here. Yet the Spirit Jesus leaves behind does amazing things, according to John 15:26-16:15. The Spirit bears witness to Jesus; the pressure isn't all on us! The Spirit convinces the world of sin, and also us who are in the world but not good at being not of the world. 

For Paul, this same Spirit does amazing, tender, desperately-needed work in each Christian's soul. Romans 8 in its entirety is a deep ocean we'll never fully sail across or understand its depths.  Back in verse 15 (sadly not in this lectionary sectioning) the Spirit undercuts both any sense that we are docile slaves and any slavery to anything not of God. The Spirit stirs in us the reality that we are adopted into God's family, the greatest privilege of which is being able to pray with the same intimacy to God that Jesus exhibited. The Spirit invites and liberates us to pray, "Abba! Father!" 

Paul, so powerfully, then speaks of the Spirit groaning within us, helping us in our weakness, sighing in us when we are clueless about how or what to pray. "Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me" — please, and now. "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, and make me love Thee as I ought to love."

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