Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What can we say May 23? Pentecost Sunday!

   Pentecost. Finally! At my place, we always read Acts 2:1-21 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 will reflect on both (along with Acts 2) in this blog. 

   We love the idea of Pentecost – and yet, as mainline Protestants, suffer s kind of reticence about the Holy Spirit. Which isn’t wrongheaded. I’ve heard so much sappy 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. 

   Try what helped me: to teach a series on the Holy Spirit (which issued, for me, in a little book, The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit - which I would commend to you, not because it's mine, but because it's short, and one example of how clergy might try to explain the Holy Spirit to church people - and to themselves!). Shyness about Holy Spirit talk syncs with the Holy Spirit’s persona, oddly enough. 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...

   The disciples catapulted onto the streets in Acts 2 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) – and can’t avoid chuckling when I get to “the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene” (what about the rest of Libya?).

   No “speaking in tongues” here. It’s not confusion or uber-Christianity, but understanding, beginning, and unity. How do we find the language to speak to people out there? No church jargon, and certainly no judgmental declamations. How do we talk about the best news ever to people who hear nothing but awful news and a jaded and cynical? 

   When rethinking Pentecost, it’s worth recalling 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).

   Growing things? Pentecost was also 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 - not on how to preach but how to continue preaching!). I stumble into preaching as if I 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. 

   Peter’s sermon is placed right here in Acts, we might presume, 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. Could such a sermon work? Only if the preacher has immense trust in such texts, and lets them linger, read slowly with pauses, trusting them to do their work. I think of St. Francis, commencing his order, appealing to the pope for support. His strategy? His defining of his movement? It’s just a laundry list of Bible verses, stuff Jesus said we should do. How lovely.

   Acts preaching only worked because of the lifestyle of the Body. Read Acts 2, 3, 4, and onward. Radical stuff! 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 Gospel text: at the Ascension, Jesus leaves, and the disciples must carry on down here - perhaps the way Gandalf kept leaving the hobbits to fend for themselves, trusting them with the fate of Middle Earth! But we are never as alone as they were. The Spirit Jesus leaves behind does amazing things, according to John 15:26-16:15. The Spirit bears witness to Jesus - so the pressure isn't all on us!  The Spirit convinces the world of sin - and us who are in the world but not good at being not of the world.  

  Jesus tantalizes by suggesting things will be even better for the disciples once he's gone! Why shouldn’t Jesus just stay? “Only through the internal presence of the Paraclete do the disciples come to understand Jesus fully” (Raymond Brown). The Spirit's business isn't a starring role anyhow. 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.

   Romans 8:22-27. 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 today's lectionary sectioning, the Spirit undercuts 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!" 

   And then Paul, so powerfully, speaks of the Spirit groaning within us, helping us in our weakness, sighing in us when we are clueless how or what to pray. Wow. I have used this often during the pandemic, and people resonate. When you sigh, in despair (as it feels to you!), this is actually God’s Spirit praying in you. Oh my. Such comfort, and hope. "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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