Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

A True Pentecost

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"Feel the freedom." Image by hapal via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.


Pentecost Sunday. A rather troubling misnomer, after all. Because even though we know in theory that the Spirit was never meant to be contained to one Sunday alone, I suspect this might be what we teach and preach. After all, the long green season could be an imaginational hindrance, a liturgical limitation if one had to tend the Spirit each and every week. How can we possibly make it to Advent with the Spirit in mind all of the Sundays in Pentecost? That’s a lot of Sundays. But the question is, how can we not?

Part of the problem, of course, is that we approach Pentecost Sunday as if we need to encapsulate the entirety of the Holy Spirit in one fell swoop, in one single Sunday. After all, it’s Pentecost. This might be our only chance to offer a précis of the Spirit, make an argument for why the Spirit matters. And so we pack the entirety of our pneumatological insights into twelve-fifteen minutes sure either to put most in the pews to sleep or tax the patience of the Spirit a bit too much.

As if the Spirit can be constrained to a Sunday.

As if our sermons can summarize the Spirit.

As if we can adequately and thoroughly identify and condense the activity of the Spirit in a manuscript of four to five pages.

As if it is possible, in the end, to validate, prove, or justify the Spirit’s work.

Dear Working Preachers, let go of all these homiletical expectations and let the Spirit work. Now, there is a concept for preaching, right?

This week, I am not going to focus on one text, as I most frequently do, and which I tend to encourage. That is your job. What about the Spirit do your people need to hear this year? Is it John’s portrait of the Spirit? Is it Luke’s? Do they need to hear the creative power of the Spirit witnessed by the Psalmist? Or, to be reminded of the Spirit’s help, the Spirit’s intercession, when words fail? Only you can determine which text testifies to the power of the Spirit that speaks the kind of pneumatological truth that is necessary for your congregation’s time and place. I can’t. You will have to choose for your parishioners what aspects of the Spirit might actually make a difference in their lives of faith. What characteristics of the Spirit might actually make a difference for how they live their lives. What they ought to imagine about the Spirit that they have not thought about before.

To put it simply, preach that the Spirit does what the Spirit does. How? you might be asking? It’s all given to you in the texts provided. Trust these witnesses to the Spirit. And choose one that resonates with you and that, simply, your congregation needs to hear. And then maybe, Pentecost might matter beyond a Sunday designated by the church. Or, at least preach that that could be true.

But before you get too far down any pneumatological road, you may want to consider what the Holy Spirit means to you. Do you still trust the Spirit to show up in your sermon preparation? On Sunday mornings in the experience of worship? In your preaching? Do you realize that when someone says “Good sermon, pastor,” it likely has very little to do with you and everything to do with the Spirit doing what the Spirit does?

Do you still hope in the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, her power to blow change into our ecclesial systems that appear to be gasping for air? Her power to breathe new life into congregations that for all intents and purposes appear dead? Her power to bring new creation to beliefs and creeds that have become stagnant over time? Or, have we gotten to a place -- in our churches, in our church institutions, where we assume control over the Spirit. Where our longing for the Spirit’s imagination has turned into impatience. Where our hope in having the Spirit show up has turned into attempts to manage the Spirit’s presence with secular and indistinct demands of its manifestation. Where our yearning for the Spirit’s surprise has devolved into certainty of the Spirit’s core characteristics, core traits, core ways of being in the world.

As a result, with earthly and irreligious spiritual solutions meant to be relevant, substituting “creative” with “innovative,” “eschatology” with “forward-thinking,” and “inspiration” with “methodologies” and “taxonomies,” I wonder if the church would truly recognize an appearance of the Spirit. Rather, I suspect the church would shrug off a pneumatological apocalypse as too far outside the boundaries it has built, the stipulations it has constructed, the expectations it has erected.

Because a true Pentecost lets the Spirit be the Spirit. A true Pentecost makes space for the Spirit’s disruption, or rather, realizes after the fact that the Spirit insisted on the space for her disturbance. A true Pentecost sits in the disorder that is often the life of faith -- whether that is wondering if the Spirit will arrive (Acts), the grief of abandonment (John), the truth of death (Psalm 104), or our inability to speak of the grace we know to be ours (Romans) -- and believes that the Spirit will indeed show herself, not always on our time, not always to our liking, but, nevertheless, always.

Karoline

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