Happy Pentecost, Dear Working Preachers!
If you have been reading my column these past years or are a regular listener of Sermon Brainwave, you can probably guess what I am about to say when it comes to preaching on Pentecost Sunday — pick your Spirit. That is, choose one of the designated texts and preach its pneumatology for all it’s worth. Invite your parishioners to imagine a specifically remarkable way in which the Spirit is active and alive in their lives. These texts won’t steer you wrong. Trust them to give you what you need to preach a sermon on the Spirit that your people need to hear.
I think too many of us preachers go into Pentecost Sunday with the pressure of coming up with a pneumatologically correct sermon, worrying that we get the doctrine of Holy Spirit right, so as not to lead our congregations astray through false teachings and heretical claims. But once we start going down the homiletical road of explaining the Spirit, we subsequently explain away her inspiration and imagination. I’ve said it before and I will likely say it again and again — no one wants to hear a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit; a sermon that tells people what they have to believe about the Spirit. One might call that a performative contradiction. As soon as we insist on absolutes when it comes to the Holy Spirit, I suspect we’ve forgotten that we are talking about the Spirit, who blows where she wills.
The Spirit is better thought of as a verb than a noun, or better yet, we remind ourselves that we are talking about the breath of God, after all.
But, in the midst discerning the Spirit’s work for and in your context, don’t forget to watch for the Spirit’s work for and in you. “Preaching depends on the animation of the Spirit; divine action is indispensable for preaching to happen.”1 I think we believe this, most of the time, some of the time, but maybe this is a good Sunday to be reminded of this promise. And maybe this season of Pentecost, it’s an intention, a mindfulness, that you hold tightly.
And why? Well, because we do forget, even in our assurance. We do forget, even in our dependence.
And it’s a delicate balance we weigh each and every week — how much to rely on the Spirit and when, as my homiletics professor Sheldon Tostengard would say, we realize that maybe we have taxed the Spirit a little too much.
It’s a fine line between confidence in the Spirit’s inspiration and taking advantage of that trust, especially with the demands of daily ministry and the realities of weekly parish needs. We know the truth, and it’s a nagging one, as the truth often is — those Sundays when we say, “well, it’s up to the Spirit today,” and we are not quite sure if we really did the faithful work we are called to do when it comes to preaching or we gave up too easily. This is not to be accusatory. This is not about shame and blame. We have all been there, and that is most definitely okay, because we will likely be there again.
Rather, it is to call attention to the ways in which in our line of work all too often the Spirit’s work is assumed or presumed. How then some people think that the Spirit’s work is expectable; offering statements about the Spirit’s work in the world as if they know what the Spirit is capable of better than she does.
I don’t doubt that people have genuine experiences of recognizing the Spirit’s work in their lives; that the only explanation often possible for recognizing the glory of God in our midst is the Spirit’s presence. But, I do get suspicious of those people who talk like they have the Spirit in their back pocket, as if the Spirit is their own personal superpower. As if the Spirit is theirs to control, thereby revealing their true feelings about God.
So, maybe this is why we need Pentecost Sunday, every year, and a Pentecost season, the longest season of the church year; and with texts that all say something different about the activity of the Holy Spirit in the world. Because there is a difference between noting inherent characteristics of the Spirit and standardizing her activity. There is a difference between believing in the promise of her activity and prescribing that activity. There is a difference between certainty of the Spirit’s activity and fixing her activity so that her future is predicated on our predictions.
Just let her breathe, Dear Working Preachers. Just let the Holy Spirit breathe.
1 Sally Brown and Luke Powery, Ways of the Word, (Fortress Press, 2016), 10.