Sunday, May 21, 2017

What can we say come June 4? Pentecost

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     [Here is a sermon I preached on Acts 2 and John 7:37-39 three years ago]

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).  I always think lighting one of those Olympic torch things (borrowed perhaps from a special Olympics venue nearby?) would be cool – or hot, and maybe a serious fire code violation.

     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 then, 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.

     But then, speaking of shy: 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 whisky early in the day? Fire on the head?  [I love the way old icons took this literally.]  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...

     …and being 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) – and 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, find 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 and a jaded and cynical? 

     Wallace Stevens, in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (inspired by Picasso's painting): “Throw away the lights, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark / that it is this or that it is that, But do not use the rotted names.”  I practice this by trying, as often as possible, to talk to non-church people, to Jewish people, to anybody who will listen, about things we believe and why they matter so much.  You can’t quote a verse or use a theological term.  A Pentecost exercise, I think.

     I love it that, in Judaism, Pentecost is the day that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  And don’t be tempted to say We have the Spirit, the law is kaput.  The Spirit enables the fulfillment of the law; have 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.  The lectionary’s epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 12, clarifies that the Spirit gives gifts, not for us to relax and enjoy, but for the building up of the church.  We are saved to find our place in the Body.

     This is a more sensible, realistic, and less emotional kind of Pentecost, living into the invisible but impactful wind of the Spirit.  In my little book, The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit, I try to speak of the Spirit and the mundane – which frankly is where we encounter the Spirit or not at all.

     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.  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.  A radical life of devotion, breaking bread, prayer, sharing possessions in common, 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.”

     The Revised Common Lectionary touches on John 20 – the “Jesus breathed on them,” which we considered back on April 23. 

   (Images are from Colleen Shay, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Picasso, Rembrandt)

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

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