Pentecost B: Both-And

Readings

  • Acts 2:1-21
  • Psalm 104:24-35
  • Romans 8:22-27
  • John 15:26-27, 16:4-15
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

Much like in today’s reading, there are other times in the gospels where Jesus tells the disciples he is going to the Father and promises to send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Counsellor, the Companion – the Spirit of Truth to be with them.

And, despite those many promises of the sending of the Spirit.  Or, of rising after death.  Or even of the wonder of Jesus the Christ – GOD – coming into the world for the biggest God-promise yet, the Risen Lord does not exactly find his disciples assured, determined, or confidently anticipating him to come and breathe on them and present them with that promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  Instead, Jesus moves through a locked door where he finds the disciples huddled together in a locked room for fear of their enemies.[1]

Theologian Alyce McKenzie suggests that this is because humans have a bad habit.  A bad habit called selective hearing.  She says that:

“Whenever Jesus talked in the gospel about sending the Spirit or the coming of the Spirit, it was in connection with his leaving to go with God. And as soon as the disciples heard Jesus mention his leaving, they closed their ears and did not hear the details of who was coming to be present in his physical absence.  For us and for the disciples, it’s possible to see someone’s lips moving but not hear what they’re actually saying because we are distracted by our inner pain. That’s why Peter reproached Jesus for predicting his own abuse and death. He stopped listening too soon, and missed the good news in the bad, the joy in the sorrow. That’s why Jesus’ disciples in the synoptic gospels are surprised when the tomb is empty. They always stopped listening at “be killed” and missed hearing “and on the third day rise.””[2]

I like that Jesus is fully aware of this all too real human problem.  He opens today’s gospel reading by pointing directly to that problem:

But I have said these things to you so that when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them. “I didn’t say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I go away to the one who sent me. None of you ask me, ‘Where are you going?’ Yet because I have said these things to you, you are filled with sorrow. [John 16:4-6, CEB]

I also wonder whether those disciples heard the very next verse that it is better for them that Jesus goes.  That if Jesus doesn’t go then the next incredible gift from God, the Holy Spirit, can’t come.

Let me just pause there a moment while I relate a little observation to you.

A lot of people have been asking me about our recent holiday overseas.  It was a pretty incredible trip for both of us in many ways.  And, for the most part, the trip was easy and relaxed enough.  My spouse and I didn’t really fight; our travels within the European Union were relatively hassle-free; we were free enough from schedules that I began to lose track of what day it was, but not so much that I lost track of our itinerary; even language barriers weren’t so great that we couldn’t overcome them.  There wasn’t really anything hard about the trip – except for one thing that kept coming up for me during our last week.

The end of our exciting and wonderful time in Europe meant just that.  An end.  But it also meant a return to our home.  Something to look forward to.  The whole thing made even more complicated in the reality that the end of our trip was spent with my father, who I see only once or twice a year, which meant saying goodbye again and leaving him again.  Something that is especially hard, especially sad, and especially difficult for me.

When that time came, I sat in the rental car trying to find enough composure and calm to shift the car into drive, and I was once again reminded of the ‘both/and’ reality of life.  A very Lutheran quirk I have developed in a short period of time.

We hold so many tensions in ourselves throughout our lives: Departure and arrival, goodbye and hello are ones that come immediately to mind because of my story.  But, there a number that we find within our faith tradition: simul iustus et peccator – both righteous and sinner; both human and God; both body of Christ and bread; both despairing of the realities of the world and hoping for the promises of God.

Despite holding all those tensions together, people often try their darndest to pick one or the other.  And often do so before listening to the whole story – that pesky selective hearing thing again.

Some people want to focus on what they see as good: the right faith, the right manner to be a Christian, the right choices which are the only means to have reward and good fortune in the world, yet become blind to the reality of pain and suffering in the world.  Some people are so down in a well of despair and so focused on itemizing every instance of the world or in themselves as bad, painful, or hurtful, that they can’t see the Light of God for the darkness.

Which brings me, in an odd way, back to this Pentecost gospel lesson.

There’s something of a tension in that promise Jesus makes about the arrival of the Holy Spirit in his departing – something that says to the disciples that one can be sad for the loss but also excited and happy for the promised return of God, in whatever form.

This Pentecost text reminds us that that it is okay to be ‘both/and’.  Pentecost helps us to remember that there is a richness of life found in the ‘both/and’.  We are both claimed as followers of Christ, disciples, enveloped in the love of God and told that we are precious in God’s eyes; and sent out from that comfortable place of acknowledgement and naming and loving to the uncomfortable places of the world, guided by the Holy Spirit in all truth.

The Holy Spirit who announces to the world that it is wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgement.

That Holy Spirit, who, in the words of the Apostle Paul, frees us from the law of sin and death.

That Holy Spirit, who comes to us in our weakness and prays in us when we don’t have words.

That Holy Spirit, who once sparked life and breath in God’s created world and who in baptism sparks faith in us that trusts in God’s grace to cleanse us from sin and marks us as heirs of eternal life because of God’s righteousness.

That Holy Spirit, that Companion, who is present with us now.

I think Pentecost is a time to remember all the ways that the Holy Spirit has done just as Jesus said.  I think Pentecost is also a time of invitation for us to remember that who we are is also constantly living in God’s presence, guided by the Holy Spirit in the living, working, resting, and playing – here and now.

Pentecost is both a time to remember what happened, and a time to look forward to what is still happening.  It’s always both/and.

Let us pray,
Move, swirl, and dance among us.
Remind us that you you are always present:
encouraging, luring, and inspiring us
to be the loving people you created us to be.
Stir us during this hour to walk humbly, embrace love,
and do justice in our unjust and fragmented world. Amen.
~ written by Tim Graves, and posted on LiturgyBits.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Ginger Barfield. “Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading, May 24, 2015.  org
  2. James Boyce. “Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading, May 27, 2012.  org
  3. Alan Brehm. “The Breath of GodThe Waking Dreamer
  4. Mark Davis. “The Spirit as the Emissary of TruthLeft Behind and Loving It
  5. Judith Jones. “Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading, May 20, 2018.  org
  6. Alyce McKenzie. “Everyday Pentecost” Progressive Christian, May 20, 2012. Patheos
  7. Sharon H. Ringe. “Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15”  Preach This Week: Gospel Reading, May 31, 2009.  org

This week’s image is entitled, “Scenes from the life of Christ: 23. Pentecost,” created by Giotto, in 1304-1306.
The image is public domain, and is presented solely for education and admiration.  Reproduction from this page is discouraged.
You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here.
The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] Alyce McKenzie. “Everyday Pentecost” Progressive Christian, May 20, 2012. Patheos
[2] Alyce McKenzie. “Everyday Pentecost

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