Weekly Preaching: Pentecost 2019

June 4th, 2019

For more on Pentecost and the Holy Spirit in general, and attention to Acts 2:1-21 (and the alternate reading, Genesis 11), check out last year’s blog. To keep myself from the same old same old, I think I’ll focus on the Epistle, Romans 8:14-17, or the Gospel, John 14:8-17 (25-27) — or both.

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Periodically, when preaching on one of Paul’s letters, I invite people to imagine him sitting at a rough, simple desk, pen in hand — or even better, pacing back and forth, furrowing his brow, dictating to a scribe who had to be slack-jawed in admiration as Paul, out of thin air (or in a spasm of inspiration), spoke of eternal, emotional, empowering things with unmatched eloquence. If Paul dictated nothing else, Romans 8 would stand as a masterpiece of theology. Maybe Pentecost implies that God moved in untold ways in Paul’s mind and heart, enabling him to perceive what no one had ever perceived; then, miraculously, it comes across the centuries to us in a Bible. Our task is to read slowly, in considerable awe, praying to that same Spirit to show us something, to move our minds and hearts.

We are “children of God,” a notion we might take for granted until we ponder that no other religion ever dared such familial intimacy. The Roman deities had children, usually the fruit of sophomoric encounters. Achilles might be a typical “child of a god,” heroic, muscular, flawed but not your ordinary guy. Paul wrote to nobodies, and to somebodies, and they all are God’s children not because of their abilities or brilliance or derring-do, but because of the gift of God’s Spirit.

As children, they address God as “Abba,” an idea frequently preached upon. Recently I’ve wondered what Jesus’ first word might have been. He adored his mama, of course — but did he look at Joseph one day and intelligibly utter “Abba”? He knew Joseph’s tender mercy; did that help Jesus fathom the wonder of God his Father’s tender mercy?

Knowing people trembled before petty, moody deities like Achilles’ dad, Paul in his thin place explains we need not fear God or anything else. We aren’t in slavery. Well, we are; we are slaves to self, to sin, to the culture, to our brokenness. God in Christ through the Spirit liberates us to be God’s children. And it’s adoption! It's astonishing that when conceiving of the most wondrous relationship possible with God, Paul fixes his gaze upon what might seem as second rate relationship: the adopted, not "naturally-born" one.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

I have a book coming out later this year about Birth, with a chapter on adoption. Let me share a few excerpts as we explore adoption theologically (and this fits both Romans 8 and John 14!). How many people through history were adopted? Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Lafayette, the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Aristotle, Confucius, and Nelson Mandela. Queen Esther of the Bible was adopted. Superman was adopted, and so was Buddy, who was raised by an elf at the North Pole but then finally located his father, Walter, in New York. The profoundly moving film, “Lion,” tells the story of Saroo, adopted by an Australian family, finally managing to locate his mother in rural India. The themes of vulnerability, love and reconciliation in such stories fascinate all of us, including those who’ve never adopted or been adopted.

Consider Harry Potter: Albus Dumbledore delivered him as a baby to the Dursleys after the murder of young Harry’s parents. Of course, Harry wasn’t the only thing that Dumbledore left behind him on this occasion: he also granted Harry some strong magic granting him absolute protection from Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters while he lived with the Dursleys — until he came of age on his seventeenth birthday. And what story of an orphan is more compelling than John Irving’s stellar Cider House Rules, where Dr. Larch not only cares for orphans, but reads to them from great literature before bedtime, bidding them off to sleep with these immortal, encouraging words: “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”

Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then she wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

Relatives by Baptism, by the blood of the cross, by the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. How cool is it that Jesus, at the Last Supper, and in our Gospel reading for this week, promised his disciples and us that “I will not leave you orphaned.” The Greek, orphanous, is sometimes translated “desolate.” Jesus embraces and enfranchises not the well-born, but all who are born. Prevenient, prevailing grace.

But before we rummage around the John text, don’t neglect Paul’s one condition to his even more fantastic promise: You not only get adopted, but you inherit the wealth of the glorious kingdom! It’s like Rockefeller or better took me in and left me the riches! We surely may wish Paul had put a period after the word “heirs,” but no. He had to add “if we suffer with him.” It’s not, Oh, you might suffer for him. You will. And only if you do will that inheritance come.

The preacher has to parse what this might look like, not just for them but for the preacher. I recall going to the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” film. The guy sitting in front of me was sobbing after it ended. I asked “What are you feeling?” He said “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.” Paul suggests precisely the opposite in Romans 8, and saints through the centuries didn’t become saints because they were shielded from all difficulty by God. In a world out of sync with God, if it’s Jesus whom we’re attached to there will be pain, friction, some piercing.

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Finally, a couple of thoughts on John 14:8-17 (25-27). “Show us the Father” prompted Jesus (was he frustrated, annoyed, patient?) to say “He’s right here in front of you, you’ve been walking around with a clear window into the Father’s heart for three years!” But notice it’s not just a window. Maybe it’s a mirror. “You will do even greater works.” Show us the Father? We, inept, confused, broken disciples, are Jesus Body; we are the window to the Father. How odd of God to choose a fledgling band of such weaklings. And yet that is God’s own glory.

Gerhard Lohfink put it beautifully: “How does God’s omnipotence reach its goal in the world? – only through people… God is revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will, and trust of human beings, thus surrendering all power and yet achieving the divine purpose in the world."

Jesus very dangerously said, “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it.” False — or true in a spiritually robust way. It’s not that if you mutter “in Jesus’ name,” God is obligated. To ask in Jesus name is to ask with a heart very close to Jesus’ heart, in sync with what Jesus would will. Praying in Jesus’ name is more likely to be “Not my will, but your will,” or “Love does not insist on its own way.”

What can we say June 9? Pentecost originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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