Ah, Pentecost, every year the same story, and only one account of it at that. How does the preacher or Sunday school teacher speak a new word on the liturgical day dedicated to the Holy Spirit? How does one keep Pentecost fresh when it is the same strange tale year after year after year? How many birthday parties for the church can one throw – complete with red balloons and cake?
In my first call, when the head of staff was away, the Christian educator and I conspired to make sure Pentecost stood out. We gathered some brave souls to dance down the center aisle waving long poles festooned with red and orange fabric. As the Acts text was read, various people stood and joined their voices with mine – one in Spanish, one in German, one in Serbian. The choir sang a discordant anthem that featured wind-like sound effects and a minor key. It was brilliant, or so we thought.
The polite congregants said, “That was interesting.” Some used words like “memorable” and “unique.” One who was less polite left an anonymous note in my box: “I felt like I was in the community theatre yesterday with those undulating red banners and that strange music. Please don’t do anything like that again.” I suspect the head of staff got an earful when he returned. I am grateful he was mature and kind enough not to take me to task for our, umm, creativity.
But that’s the temptation, I think, with Pentecost. We read about flames and wind and many languages. We imagine the chaos, the drama, the excitement. We want those gathered in our sanctuaries to get a sense of the magnitude of the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. The problem is, when we do that, we are trying to choreograph the very person of the Trinity who highlights our inability to control the comings and goings of God. The Spirit blows where it wills, after all.
So perhaps this Pentecost we should trust the Spirit we celebrate. We don’t need to conjure up the Advocate that Jesus promises to send. We can rest secure that the Spirit will show up and speak regardless of whether or not we wear red, light candles on a cake, or even wave banners.
This is not to say we shouldn’t prepare. I question those preachers and teachers who say they don’t prepare because they are relying on the Holy Spirit. Testing God is frowned upon, or so I heard Jesus say in another liturgical season.
I humbly suggest giving the prophet Joel a quick read. Peter quotes him in these verses and a look into that small book could be fruitful. Why this text at this time? What does the quoting of this minor prophet lead us to believe God is up to in the next chapter of the salvation story? Words like “all” and “everyone” and “both” stand out. Is this a Sunday to explore the ever-expanding circle of God’s grace? In our current context might it be worth considering those voices God has given words to prophesy that are often silenced? Who is speaking through the power of the Spirit that we don’t want to hear?
A helpful foundation for this Acts text is an old fashion word study of pneuma in Luke and Acts. The word here is Spirit, not Advocate, and it can be found over thirty times in Luke-Acts. Take a tour of where the Spirit shows up and discover the connections. There is a lot of Spirit around the birth of Jesus. No surprise there. It is foretold that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth upon seeing Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaiming her blessed among women and blessed the fruit of her womb. The Holy Spirit rests on Simeon. It would seem that the Holy Spirit enables recognition of Jesus as Lord, another reason not to get too worked up when stepping into the pulpit. We are clearly not alone.
All throughout Acts it is the Holy Spirit who facilitates speaking in boldness and hearing with understanding. Pentecost is a miracle of understanding that kicks off miracle after miracle of proclamation, hearing and conversion. No one is immune to the Spirit’s power from the Pharisee Saul to the Ethiopian eunuch, proving once again that our job on Pentecost Sunday isn’t to call forth the Spirit but rather to proclaim the gospel with boldness and watch the Spirit work.
Know that the Spirit is alive, present, powerful and at work through you and in the ones who will be gathered this Sunday in your place of worship. You do not need to accessorize the gospel with undulating banners or haunting organ sounds, just preach Christ and him crucified. Like Peter, proclaim clearly what this gospel means and why it matters and then trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest. There is nothing more transformative or memorable or meaningful than that.
Finally, as you prepare to preach or teach this Pentecost keep in mind these words of theologian Jürgen Moltmann:
“The gift and the presence of the Holy Spirit is the greatest and most wonderful thing which we can experience – we ourselves, the human community, all living things and this earth. For with the Holy Spirit it is not just one random spirit that is present, among all the many good and evil spirits that there are. It is God himself, the creative and life-giving, redeeming and saving God. Where the Holy Spirit is present, God is present in a special way, and we experience God through our lives, which become wholly living from within. We experience whole, full, healed and redeemed life, experience it with all our senses. We feel and taste, we touch and see our life in God and God in our life.”
– Jürgen Moltman, “The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life”
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