Pentecost Paradoxes

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What would you say if I suggested that we regularly misinterpret Pentecost? Actually, not just misinterpret it a little, but generally get Pentecost completely backwards. Intrigued? Curious? Offended? Read on.

Honestly, I suspect that we’ve heard the story of the wind and the tongues-of-flame and the dove and the crowds-hearing-the-sermon-in-their-own-languages just enough to believe that the promise of Pentecost is deliverance, celebration, victory, and strength. The signs of Pentecost, after all, are mighty. And what is the Holy Spirit if it is not God’s own agent — the very Spirit of the resurrected Jesus — now on earth to accompany us with signs of wonder and power.

Except that precisely because the promised Holy Spirit is the presence of the crucified and resurrected Christ, we should never expect things to be so easy. In the cross of Christ, we see God’s strength mediated through suffering, God’s victory achieved through defeat, and new life pledged and provided through death. The crucified and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should look for no less in God’s Holy Spirit.

For this reason, I want to offer for your consideration what I’d describe as two of the paradoxes of Pentecost. First, the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, “Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.” Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option. They will now be propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy. The Holy Spirit, take note, doesn’t solve the disciples’ problems, it creates them.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently challenged new college graduates to eschew the American obsession with self-fulfillment and instead find themselves in service to others by making and keeping what he described as sacred commitments and by rising to the challenges they discover all around and outside of them. “Most successful young people,” he writes, “don’t look inside and then plan a life. The look outside and find a problem, which summons their life…. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”

I believe that the same is true of a community. Our congregations will not discover themselves until they give themselves away. No amount of time spent on developing a mission statement or devising new member campaigns can substitute for looking around one’s neighborhood and asking, “Who needs us?” and “What can we do with our resources to bear God’s love to this part of the world?”

(You can watch a video we produced last spring that tries to get at this element of Pentecost by clicking here, and you can download a free copy of it it by going here. )

Paradox #2: The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it. Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures. As inspired as I was by the Mission Control dictum during the crisis of Apollo 13 that “failure is not an option,” I think that kind of mindset is paralyzing too many of our congregations. Failure is not only an option, it is inevitable. The problems this world — and our congregations — face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine that we will hit upon the best solution the first time out…or maybe ever. Once we’ve identified a worthy challenge, we must experiment…and count of failing, innovate…and count on failing, invent…and count on failing again. An English teacher in my children’s middle school once told me, “I tell my kids to make a mistake every day — just not the same mistake!” Each mistake, each set back, each false start, each failure is not to be lamented by learned from.

Further — and living in a success-obsessed world can lead us to forget this — ultimately it’s neither about us nor up to us. God is the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of this cosmos, and only God can bring the kind of redemption we long for and need. Our job is to partner with God’s work wherever we can discern it. If the cross teaches us nothing else, it teaches that success will not always look like success, and victory may often come disguised as defeat. The question isn’t whether we’re successful, but whether we’re faithful.  Or, as Cornell West once said, “Sure it’s a failure, but was it a good failure.”

This perspective grants a measure of freedom to throw ourselves into lost causes, to place ourselves on the side of those who are most vulnerable, and to take great risks and dare great ventures. Why? Because we trust that whatever the immediate results of our efforts, both our hopes and our future are secured not by our abilities but by God’s good promise. Resurrection, we need to remember, only and always follows crucifixion.

There’s a lot, I suspect, that we could do with this kind of message, Working Preacher, like inviting our people to brainstorm what problems the Holy Spirit is inviting us into this year, what failures we want to entertain, what great ventures we want to risk. I’ll leave the details to you, always grateful that through your words this week and always you continue to bear witness to both the promises and the paradoxes of God’s surprising, challenging, and renewing Holy Spirit. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,