Today is Pentecost—the day we celebrate the birth of the church.
The Worship Team works hard to make it a celebration because Pentecost shouldn’t be simply observed. Pentecost is to be celebrated. In fact, we need to celebrate and embrace Pentecost just as much as we do Christmas and Easter.
Christmas marks the coming of God with us. Easter marks God’s triumph over death. And Pentecost marks God’s Spirit being poured out. It marks what we do as followers of Christ—we become Church, members of the body of Christ who are all one in the body. But that is where Pentecost begins to differ from Christmas and Easter. With Christmas we get the coming of our Savior. With Easter we get our triumph of our Savior. With Pentecost though we get not a quaint babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Not a quiet morning where the tomb is found empty.
We get the Holy Spirit that comes suddenly, with a sound like a rush of violent wind, with divided tongues as of fire, filling people up with something that made them act in ways that could only be explained by others as them being drunk!
The tone of Pentecost is different. It’s fervent. It’s zealous. It’s surreal. People were filled with something beyond themselves, and given abilities they never had before.
It was all a paradox—an event that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses truth.
That first Pentecost was a paradox. But not only was it a paradox, it brought with it even more paradoxes.
Now Pentecost is similar to Christmas and Easter because it’s a miracle that brings deliverance, celebration, victory, and strength.
The signs of Pentecost are miraculous because what is the Holy Spirit if it is not God’s own agent— the very Spirit of the resurrected Jesus—to accompany us with signs of wonder and power.
The difference arises when the Holy Spirit shows up, and instead of cheerful splendor of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes…instead of joyous wonder of an empty tomb… we get violent winds and tongues of fire. Neither of which work nicely on a greeting card. But the born in human flesh, crucified, and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should expect no less in God’s Holy Spirit.
It is from this perspective that David Lose, preaching professor at Lutheran Seminary in Minnesota presents two paradoxes of Pentecost.
The first paradox is: The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.
Lose writes, “Remove the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hear James and John saying, ‘What a wild and crazy three-year-ride. That Jesus sure was a heck of a guy. Good thing we got that out of our system before we settle down and take on the family business.’” Lose is saying that the paradox here is: Once the Holy Spirit comes, a return to normalcy is no longer an option.
The disciples, and all disciples to follow, will now be propelled throughout the 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, but was then raised from the dead, ascended to heaven, and now sends his Holy Spirit to continue that work of redemption.
This is hard work—work that will demand much from us. It will demand that we give up being comfortable. It will demand we broaden our perspectives and heighten our awareness. It will demand that we listen to others, and consider different approaches toward achieving a shared goal.
The first paradox of Pentecost is: The Holy Spirit doesn’t solve the disciples’ problems. It creates them.
The second paradox that Lose proposes is: 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 setbacks and failures.
We’ve heard it said, and it’s likely that we ourselves have said it—“Failure is not an option.” It has become a reverberating mantra for our society. Sports teams use it, business and motivational speakers use it. Our elected leaders say this catchy phrase. Parents say it to their children. Even churches will use this phrase.
It’s this kind of mindset, however, that is paralyzing too many churches. Because failure is not an option, too often the church will do nothing in order to keep from failing!
Professor Lose suggests that the church’s mantra ought to be: “Failure is not only an option, it is inevitable.” The problems our world, and our churches face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine we will hit upon the best solution the first time out… or maybe ever.
Therefore, once we’ve discerned a calling and a vision, we must experiment, we must risk, we must at the very least try. And in doing so we ought to count on failing. And what will help us be comfortable with failure, is that with failure comes: Innovation. Invention. Knowledge. And Growth.
A teacher friend of mine once told me, “I tell my students to make a mistake every day— just not the same mistake!” Each mistake, each set back, each failure is not to be lamented. It is to be learned from so that as we move forward we do so stronger, wiser, better, and yes, more faithful.
The second paradox of Pentecost is: The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it.
Professor Lose offers those first two paradoxes of Pentecost, but I believe there is one more worth noting—especially today.
I find it fitting that Pentecost falls during the year when we celebrate those who have achieved their graduation. Every year, just as new journeys are about to commence, commencement speeches implore graduates to “follow your passion” “chart your own course” “march to the beat of your own drum” “follow your dreams and find yourself.”
All of these pithy clichés promote extreme individualism, which is the dominate attitude in American culture, not to mention a pervasive one in too many churches.
New York Times writer David Brooks spoke about this “litany of expressive individualism” as he called it. He writes, “This mantra misleads on nearly every front. Graduates are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood which is— finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community, and a calling — yet is only hearing about freedom and autonomy.”
Brooks admits that the problem this creates is that, “Young people are implored to find themselves first, and then go off and live their quest. However, very few young people can take an inward journey and come out with a developed self.”
Brooks suggests an alternative mindset, one more in line with what actually happens today, writing, “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function.
Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution. 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.”
Brooks offers a powerful perspective to how today’s graduates ought to approach their journey in life—let the environment around you, the context of your life, problems, and opportunities of the day summons you to where you will go in life. This perspective ought not be limited to just graduates, but to all of us no matter our place in life. And it ought to include the church because within it all is yet another paradox for the church.
The third paradox of Pentecost is: The Holy Spirit calls us to not stay within ourselves, but rather summons us to respond to the needs and opportunities of the day.
On that first Pentecost, Peter proclaims that God will pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh, yielding visions and dreams.
Peter looks into the hearts of the believers’ and sees a spiritual harvest that grows from God’s promise in a time of terror and death.
What he preached about then, still preaches today. The Holy Spirit is still being poured out, still inviting people to respond fervently and zealously. The Holy Spirit still seeks to make it that all people hear the Good News in word and deed. That is what Pentecost is about still today. But Pentecost also brings paradoxes.
The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems, but to create opportunity. The Holy Spirit does not prevent failure, but invites failure into the church. The Holy Spirit calls us to not stay within ourselves, but rather calls us to respond to the needs and opportunities of the day.
So on this day of Pentecost, may we consider…
What opportunities is the Holy Spirit creating for us here at First Christian Church, and as members of the body of Christ?
What risks, if any, are we willing to take, what failures are we willing to endure by pursuing those opportunities?
And what around us, right now, is calling us to respond to?
When we answer those questions, and live out our responses, then we will have not only embraced Pentecost paradoxes, but we will have done our part in preparing ourselves and our world for the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Amen.