Tongues of Flame
Creative Commons image by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., on flickr
Dear Working Preacher,
Though I am normally cautious to generalize from my particular experience, when it comes to Pentecost I’m going to take that risk: I think that most of us get one thing exactly right about Pentecost and one thing incredibly wrong about this same day.
Here’s what we get right: Pentecost is the day on which the Church was born. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, made evident by the tongues of flame and rushing wind, creates a community of believers empowered to share the good news of Jesus with the world in word and deed. And so the disciples go forward and preach, and Jews from all over the world, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks and the giving of the law, hear the disciples preaching in their own language and many come to believe that Jesus was and is God’s chosen messiah.
So, yes, when we celebrate Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Spirit and the birthday of the church.
But here’s what we get wrong: Pentecost didn’t just happened once, a long, long time ago. There are, in Luke’s Acts of the Apostle’s, multiple Pentecosts; multiple times, that is, when the Spirit is poured out, amazing things happen, and people come to faith. Think about when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-40), or Paul’s conversion (9:1-19), or Peter’s “conversion” to a more universal understanding of Christianity in his encounter with Cornelius (10), just to name a few. Each of these stories represents a repetition and extension of the power of the Holy Spirit that starts at Pentecost but continues throughout the history of the early church.
And it doesn’t stop in Acts.
There are a variety of episodes in the Church’s history that we might also appropriately name another Pentecost. The flourishing of the monastic communities in the middle ages, the Reformation, the revivals of the first and second Great Awakenings in North America and more are all great examples. And perhaps we’d make bold to name the heightened appreciation and hunger of the divine in our own age as a potential Pentecost in the making.
And it’s not just big events.
Pentecost happens in our local contexts as well. One of the most powerful sermons I ever preached in the parish followed a successful mission enhancement campaign. And the funny thing is, I didn’t think it was a particularly good - let alone powerful - sermon at the time! (That's the Spirit, for you!) We were working with Kairos & Associates to raise money both to pay down our mortgage and to do some significant mission enhancement (new staff, refurbished facilities, growth in benevolence projects, etc.). Because of the size of the mortgage, this was the fourth campaign in twelve years and each one yielded a little less in terms of the net result. But we believed in our vision that it was time to imagine a fresh start and new beginning in the life of this congregation, and so the goal we set was twice the largest goal ever attempted and three times larger than the actual result they’d ever experienced. And you know what: we exceeded the goal by 10% and on Pentecost Sunday, three weeks after this result, I named what I had witnessed over the previous nine months of planning, shared vision, hard work, and faithful generosity an act of the Spirit. In fact, I went on to say that to me it seemed like another Pentecost, our Pentecost.
Like I said, I didn’t know it was a powerful sermon at the time, but over the next several weeks a number of folks from the congregation kept mentioning how naming our experience together as another Pentecost stuck with them, framed what had happened in a way that made sense to them, and changed the way they thought about themselves, the congregation and, indeed, Pentecost itself.
Pentecost isn’t over! Why should we be surprised by that? In the gospel reading today, Jesus makes an astounding promise to his disciples. He says that even if they have a hard time believing what he says based on his words alone, at least they can believe it because of the works they’ve seen him do. And then he goes on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
Did you hear that? We who believe in Jesus will do even greater works than he! Feeding, preaching, healing, giving life to the dead. Maybe the important question isn’t, “did you hear that?”, but rather, “do you believe it?” And here, Working Preacher, I won’t generalize. I’ll just confess that I regularly do not. It seems too astounding, too far fetched, too much beyond my knowledge or experience.
But sometimes, aided by Advocate Jesus promises that is also the Spirit that fell at that first Pentecost, I do see it. I see the people I’m around continuing the story that started so long ago by sharing their faith, living with confidence, claiming the power of God in their lives, reaching out in mercy and love to those around them, and more. I see them, that is, as the Church that continues to be created anew by the Spirit. And the thing is, the more I name this, the more I see it…and the easier it gets to name…and then to see…and so on and so on.
So here’s my suggestion for you, Working Preacher. Describe the Pentecost moments you see in your congregation, share this expanded vision of the work of the Spirit that continues to fall afresh on us, and invite your people to see in their congregation and their individual lives a new Pentecost. Perhaps you will even invite them to email you in the coming week where they see the Spirit active in their lives, or maybe even have them talk with each other about the Pentecosts they have experienced.
Then, you might wonder with them about what, when, and where the next Pentecost will be? Where might this community of faith respond to God’s call and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, respond in faith to the summons issued by God through the needs of neighbor and community?
However you decide to preach these passages, Working Preacher, know that your words may very well prove more powerful than you imagine. Because each time we help our people make sense of their lives and experiences through the stories and characters of Scripture we are helping them connect their faith to life and preparing them for an encounter with the living God.
So don’t just preach about Pentecost this year, Working Preacher, trust that the next Pentecost is happening in and through your words as they go out in the congregation accompanied by the Spirit and fall, like tongues of flame, on people hungry to have their spiritual lives rekindled. And know as you do how grateful I am for your partnership in the Gospel!
Yours in Christ,
Questions for Pentecost: John 14:8-17
- Philip asks Jesus to "show us the Father." At what times in your life have you very much wished you could just see God to encourage you in faith?
- Jesus responds that in seeing Jesus we have seen the Father. What does Jesus - the way he lived his life, his death, his resurrection - tell us about God?
Questions for Holy Trinity: John 16:12-15
- Jesus tells the disciples that he has things to tell them that they are not ready for, that they will not understand. When you don't understand something about the faith, what do you do? Talk with a friend? Ask your pastor? Just try to forget about it?
- This is Holy Trinity Sunday. What comes to mind when you think of the Trinity - questions, faithfulness, confusion, a puzzle, mystery? How can your congregation help you understand, or at least make some sense of, the Trinity? Does it matter if we understand something like this.
And two questions on Romans 5:1-5 (which is what I suspect I'll be writing on):
- Paul says that suffering can lead eventually to hope. Have you experienced this? Has suffering ever brought you to a renewed hope?
- What does Paul mean that "hope does not disappoint"? Isn't that the essence of hope - that it might not prove true and therefore disappoint? What kind of hope do you think Paul is talking about?
Note: My thanks to all those who have tried using question to prompt deeper reflection. And my apologies for when I fell behind (or forgot!) in writing them. This is the last of the weeks I said I'd offer questions for, but that doesn't mean this "experiment" has to stop. Indeed, the questions you come up with are likely to be far more relevant because you know your context and what you're preaching far better than I do! Thanks, again.