Most often Pentecost comes to us as a momentous Christian occasion of spiritual power, ethnic unity, gender equality, multi-generational comradery, and immigrant hospitality. But when the moment has passed, it gives way to the more ignoble features of life and community, like spiritual apathy, sexism, racial prejudice, ageism, xenophobia, etc.
SUMMER IS ALMOST HERE, and churches ... slow ... down. Folks are planning for vacation. Staff are away. Pastors are away. It’s as if we take our status as middle-class bourgeoisie more seriously than our baptismal vows.
By contrast, in the summer the biblical texts pick up—in intensity, directness, drive. Pentecost falls on us like an avalanche of fire, teaching us languages we don’t know, names, places, people. The old joke is that war is God’s way of teaching geography to Americans. No, in the church, that would be Pentecost. The descent of the Holy Spirit empowers people to preach who most say shouldn’t (in our texts that includes Arabic-speakers, women, unnamed prophets), and confounds those of us who think we “should.” Then Trinity Sunday, and all three persons of the triune Godhead are on the stage. We now know God as fully as God can be known by mere creatures. What we can’t know is not because God is tragically removed or far away. No—it’s precisely because God has come so unbearably close and is so unimaginably beautiful. That’s why we can’t take all of God in. So we praise instead of merely examine. And then Jesus sends out the disciples in mission to do what he does, or even greater things. Teach. Heal. Exorcise. Baptize. This doesn’t sound like a summer vacation or even a mission trip. It sounds like a new way of being in community for others.
That’s what the church is, in summer or anytime.
IF YOU ASSOCIATE PENTECOST only with charismatic preachers, ecstatic worship, and tongue-talking, then you had better return to scripture. The lectionary passages for this Pentecost season are dark and sad, with a central focus on theodicy, which asks the question: How can there be a good and loving God when there is so much injustice, pain, and suffering in the world? The question has taken many forms: Is God a white racist? Is God a cosmic child abuser? Who can bear these questions, let alone seek to answer them?
Scripture gives no easy or trite answers. In fact, there are no clear attempts to resolve the issue. In the words of one writer reflecting on theodicy through her own battle with cancer: “I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” The lectionary reminds us over and over again that pain and suffering are part of life. You’ll have to weed through the popular theologies of the day, and even examine your own implicit theology, if you want to stand a chance at leading God’s people in how to respond to and live within the problem of pain and suffering in our world. Liberation is not always the conclusion. Neither is bondage. And blaming God is futile. At the core of these lectionary passages, you find a God who stands in the midst of suffering and pain, offering a variety of ways to cope, to heal, to resist.
Evangelism and Justice
1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
“Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary,” a phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, reminds us that genuine revelation leads to mission. That’s a key message we find in the lectionary passages for this week.
MOST OF OUR HOLY DAYS have been colonized. The commercialization of Christmas and Easter is not quite evil, but it is certainly an obstacle to deepening one’s faith.
Pentecost, however, we have all to ourselves. No one has figured out how to market it, perhaps because we Christians have so deemphasized it compared to our other great feasts. The Holy Spirit has sometimes been spoken of as the “shy” person of the Trinity. She’s always pointing to Jesus. The Spirit is fine to let Jesus have all the attention.
But what a feast to have all to ourselves! One in which all nations are drawn to worship Zion’s God. This flood of peoples is long promised in Israel’s scripture and is now made good by Christ’s Spirit.
North American culture continues to wrestle with racial politics. William Barber speaks of these days as a Third Reconstruction, after prior ones that arrived with Emancipation in the 1860s and the civil rights movements in the 1960s. This Third Reconstruction era includes #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, and struggles for citizenship wrestling against the demagogic, bloviating “No!” of politicians.
In all this, Pentecost says, “Yes.” I’m tempted to say “quietly,” but this yes is not quiet. It’s a hurricane. It’s followed by a sermon all listeners can hear in their own language. Even if the disciples can’t speak all those languages, God can. God made all nations. God called Israel to be God’s light and bride. And now, through Jesus, God is drawing all God’s beloved peoples again. The church must show this in our life together.
And (don’t forget this!) those from all nations have to die to ourselves and be raised in Christ’s image. God is speaking, church! All we have to do is join in.
THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES for these weeks of Pentecost make the season come alive. Why? Because who doesn’t light up at receiving gifts? We humans are pretty good at giving gifts—Christmas, birthdays, graduations. Yet our giving pales in comparison to that of the Holy Spirit. Usually we give because we expect something in return. The Holy Spirit gives freely and abundantly out of unending love and grace. These scriptures tell of the Holy Spirit giving us all we will need to lead God’s people: happiness, tongues, humility, and boldness. And yet we’ll also get more than we need: The Holy Spirit both gives and empowers.
For the work ahead, we will certainly need a power that goes beyond ourselves—unless we are satisfied with half-baked sermons, timid leadership, and time-bound visions. In case this sounds like your grandmother’s preacher on the “fruits of the spirit,” remember that the Spirit put on display in these verses is the prophetic, justice-loving, reconciliation-seeking third person of the Trinity who anointed Jesus with his mission. His was a mission “to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18b-19). What a politically theological imagination, capable of transforming the world! It’s the same one the Holy Spirit gives to us today through the church for the world. That’s a gift worth dying for. Holy Spirit come, come quickly!
“It’s a new form of Christianity,” explained Opoku Onyinah, “now also living in the West.” He’s the president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, and also heads the Church of Pentecost, begun in Ghana and now in 84 nations. Onyinah was speaking at a workshop on “How Shall We Walk Between Cultures,” and explaining how African Christianity is interacting with postmodern culture. It was part of Empowered21, which gathered thousands of Pentecostals in Jerusalem over Pentecost.
I’ve found this idea intriguing. Pentecostalism, especially as it is emerging in the non-Western world, is a postmodern faith. Often I’ve said, “An evangelical wants to know what you believe, while a Pentecostal wants to hear your spiritual story.” Perhaps it’s an oversimplification. But Pentecostalism embodies a strong emphasis on narrative and finds reality in spiritual experiences that defy the logic and rationality of modern Western culture.
Socioeconomic reconciliation is the removal of gaps in opportunity, achievement, health, thriving, and well-being that exist between groups of people in our nation and world. In the face of myriad breaches of the common human bond and experience, a breakthrough act of the Spirit today would activate and agitate the established church in her ministry: a ministry of socioeconomic reconciliation.
The ministry of socioeconomic reconciliation will require a church empowered with tongues of fire and the gift of interpretation. These tongues must speak with a prophetic voice. But we must also have the heart and capacity to translate the words of marginalized communities into the language of policy, power, and program. That is why I thank God for the compelling, confusing roles I’ve been called into over the last nine months. This form of reconciliation requires the church to fulfill of the vocation of the militant mediator, which offers as much renewal in the streets and city hall as we experience in the sanctuary.
The issue isn’t that God does not have power; the issue seems to be more that we do not use the power that God gave to us. While we profess to love God and God’s son Jesus, we are all too ready to dismiss what God gave us in, with, and through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. While we say we are Christian, we bypass too often the words of Jesus and latch onto other parts of the Bible, most often the words of Paul. While Paul’s writings have their own power, they do not have the power of Jesus’ words, nor do they carry with them the promise of the Holy Spirit, which does have the power to sustain and strengthen us.
The boy is terrified. He has come thousands of miles running from terrible danger. He has encountered horrors on the way, riding on top of “La Bestia,” the train that carries migrants from Central America through Mexico. He stands in an immigration courtroom and hears the irritated judge threaten him with deportation because he has not been able to find a lawyer. He is staying with distant relatives as he goes through the court process, and they are barely able to feed the extra mouth, let alone pay for a lawyer for him. He is facing the very real possibility of being sent back into territories controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, the organized crime syndicate that murdered his cousin and has threatened to kill him and his family if he doesn’t join up. He knows that they are likely to make an example of him. He feels terribly alone. Even though the translator speaks his language, he feels like no one in this strange land understands the cry of his heart.
It’s the season of hope.
We rely on hope as a force to inch us forward. No one wants to believe that our best days as individuals or as societies are behind us. Everyone wants to be a hopeful person. Or, at least, there are plenty of people out there eager to make sure everyone feels hopeful.
It’s a season when we’re urged to look for things — data, leaders, movements, promises, trends, exemplars — to provide the ground for hope. For others, it’s a time for sarcasm and mockery.
For me, Thanksgiving was always Christmas’ annoying little sister. Thanksgiving isn’t a festive season spanning three months that warrants its own albums; it’s a day when American gluttony reaches its zenith, and also the Cowboys play. It’s not a holy day of obligation — and in my worst moments, I complain to my preacher husband about the additional service “invading” our holy midweek day off work.
But this year Thanksgiving feels especially out of place — sandwiched between an early winter and the hopelessness of misunderstood lament. I want so badly to be thankful because I truly have so many reasons to fall on my knees in exaltation. But before I count my “blessings” — before the praise hits my lips, it’s strangled by the cry for others whose lots might only be described as cursed.
Adam Ericksen penned a great reflection this morning, saying, “God doesn’t force us to be thankful in times of grief and despair. Rather, God meets us in our honest and raw emotions.”
Bitterness seems all at once selfish and appropriate. I grieve the chasm that has been revealed between brothers and sisters. If there is anything I learned from my Monday night glued to television screens watching my former home of St. Louis in flames it’s that this “conversation” everyone keeps saying we need to have is happening in two different languages.
The story of Pentecost always begins with a sound; the gathering of people and a sound. So often we focus on what is being said at the time in the story and ignore all the listening that takes place.
First, there's a sound.
Second, people hear the sound.
An encounter with the Holy Spirit is predicated on a sound and listening.
I wonder what Peter was thinking that day…with all that noise.
When I read this account from Acts, it’s pretty clear that Peter’s first thought was, “Oh no! Everyone is going to think we’re drunk and it’s only 9:00 in the morning!”
The story of Pentecost is often told as if the most important thing that happened was the speaking in tongues...that people were empowered to speak. Indeed, it’s important. No doubt.
But first, first, they heard something. They listened.
Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit and reminds us that our story isn’t static but dynamic, alive, and unfolding. In the same way that the disciples moved out from Jerusalem after Pentecost, we are to move out of our places of comfort and complacency as we join God in the world he is making.
Can you imagine sitting in a public space and all of a sudden everyone around you starts to speak in a different language? And yet somehow you still understand them? Can you imagine the cacophony of sounds this event would cause? Can you envision the power it would take to make this astonishing moment happen?
Is it a miracle? Possession? Paranormal activity? It likely would freak you out.
This moment actually happens more often than we think. A glimpse of this cacophony of sounds can be found in our everyday lives. We hear loud voices coming through network and cable news shows, on Twitter and Facebook, and through other social media outlets. We hear rising decibels of chatter around social justice issues — from the right and from the left — about issues as diverse as abortion, same-sex marriage, income inequality, biblical obedience, or defining traditional values. We hear the noise. At times, it is almost deafening. The voices seem to fly past each other so fast that neither side seems to be listening to the other at all.
But then there are moments when we all come together to speak for one common purpose.
The women were there at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The women were there when they laid him in the tomb.
The women walked through the desolate graveyard in the darkest hours of the night — the hours just before dawn, carrying sweet spices prepared to anoint Jesus’ dead body for proper burial. But they never got the chance.
They witnessed the earthquake, talked to the angel, and ran to the other followers announcing the resurrection of their beloved.
And Jesus’ mother, Mary, huddled in the upper room praying with the other women and the rest of the disciples in the days following the resurrection. Until that day, 50 days later, when tongues of fire fell on them all and Peter reminded the crowd of Joel’s ancient prophecy: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”
From the cross to the upper room, the women are lifted up! As the church stands in the light of Easter Sunday and now sets its face toward Pentecost, let us remember the women. And, as we do, let’s also remember the women in our pews and surrounding communities — the challenges, fears, and the very real dangers women face every day.