Karoline Lewis suggests, in Sermon Brainwave podcasts, that we preachers need to “pick our Spirit” on the Day of Pentecost. In light of the significant differences between the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, that suggestion makes good sense. Nonetheless, it also strikes me that the accounts have something significant in common.
Both the Acts 2 account and the Johannine story have the same basic players in narratives involving the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, we are reminded in clear and graphic terms that Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus to the authorities and suffered a gruesome and guilt-wracked death. In the Johannine account, we read about the Paraclete after Judas has exited the scene to hand Jesus over.
Peter preaches his great sermon in Acts 2. Yet, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. This is the same Peter who declares in the Johannine account that he will go and die with Jesus. Yet, when crunch time arrives, he declares with the same vehemence that his is not one of Jesus’ disciples. This is the same Peter who gets a great deal of bad press from Paul in Galatians. And this is the same Peter who needs rehabilitation and a new vocation in John 21.
The other disciples are also present in each of the scenes. These are the ones who questioned, doubted, and resisted Jesus’ message. They didn’t get it, even though others did. They jockeyed for position and power. They wanted to call down fire from heaven on recalcitrant Samaritans. They wanted to shoo away the needy and vulnerable from Jesus’ care and attention. They were flummoxed by the bread and terrified by the storms.
Whether we are in the Book of Acts or the Gospel of John, these are the folks who serve as the foundation of the Christian movement. They don’t seem to be the best choices for the job.
There is this old joke. Jesus has just risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. He is hanging out with some angels on the clouds. They are looking down upon the earth.
One angel says, “Lord, that was amazing; we thought you were a “goner”. We thought it was over. But then, you rose from the dead. You trampled death under your feet. You’ve defeated Satan! What’s next?” Jesus answered, “I left a handful of people who really believe in me, and they are going to tell the world about me and make disciples.”
The angels were stunned. They simply stared at Jesus. The silence got to the point of being uncomfortable. Finally, one angel tentatively asked, “Lord, what is Plan B?”
Jesus answered, “There is No Plan B”.
If I am going to preach on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in some way this Sunday, then certainly I need to make some choices. But if I’m going to focus on the ones whom the Spirit fills and sends forth into the world, I don’t need to make such choices. In each account it’s the same motley crew that makes up the first generation of the Church.
That fact gives me great hope — not because of the motley crew, but because of what the Spirit can do with such a questionable lot.
The institutional Christian church around the world is in deep distress at this moment. The Russian Orthodox church is a willing tool of the Russian imperial project (and hopes that project can be a tool for the resurgence of that church). The Southern Baptist Convention is embroiled in conflict and controversy after an independent report detailing the amount and frequency of sexual abuse on the part of SBC clergy and the lengths to which the church bureaucracy has gone to cover up both the abuse and the scandal. Already that bureaucracy is trying to tell us that there’s nothing to see here, but there is.
The statistical connection between White Christian evangelicals and both White Christian Nationalism and fostering gun violence is clear and shocking. No matter what other variables might be involved, the Evangelical movement is deeply implicated in the violent, anti-democratic, racist project that animates the current ideological Right in the United States.
I wish that my own theological tradition and its institutional expressions were exempt from the disaster and decay. The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is urging an LCMS college to take the opportunity during their presidential search to restore a theological commitment to white supremacy and political quietism. While he doesn’t use those words, that’s the impact of his instructions. There’s no concern about making the LCMS White again. The task is simply to keep the White people in charge.
The ELCA faces a developing crisis around the actions of the bishop of the Sierra Pacific synod. A report has come out in the last few days that details patterns of racism, abuse of power, and cover-up. The bishop in question has doubled down on the rightness of their actions and is supported by the majority of that synod’s governing council. In spite of the fact that the report recommended formal disciplinary action by the denominational bishop, that denominational bishop left the decision to resign in the hands of the alleged perpetrator. Now, the shit has hit the fan for the denomination. I suspect that the resignations which result will be multiple.
The ELCA’s largest seminary, Luther, has its own controversy. Students, joined by some faculty and staff, are pressing the seminary to engage in the process to become a Reconciling in Christ seminary – an institution that formally and fully welcomes, embraces, and includes members of the LGBTQIA+ community as students, faculty, staff, and candidates for rostered ministry. The seminary administration has engaged in bureaucratic sleight of hand and behind the scenes power plays to suppress this conversation and controversy. But the issue is not going to go away quietly, even though the end of an academic term may give the seminary a bit of breathing space.
I rehearse the previous paragraphs in part to get some of this garbage out of my brain for a few moments. As I reread this brief (and tendentious) account, I am tempted to despair of any hope for the institutional church. I, too, would like to know if there’s a Plan B. And I sigh with the knowledge that there is not.
Then I look in the mirror and am reminded that this is not merely about that terrible Church “out there.” I am ashamed of large parts of the institutional church at this moment. I also know that at times that church has had good reason to be ashamed of me as well. Just as I bemoan the self-serving mediocrities that we find in leadership in my own and other denominations, I remember that I have spent time as a similar self-serving mediocrity when faced with real challenges in the church and the world. The brickbats I throw at church leaders routinely bounce back and hit me as well.
I don’t remember this merely to write off the bad behavior of the institutional church under the cheap grace of “all have sinned,” etc. No, church leaders and structures are currently accelerating the already troubling decline in church structures and systems we have know for several generations. The prediction that the ELCA may disappear as a functioning entity by 2050 seems more real and likely at this moment than it did a year ago.
All that being said, I think about that first Pentecost and the characters who were filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the real miracle of Pentecost is that the Spirit can take such characters and build a church at all. If that is the real miracle of Pentecost, then that miracle is not a one-off affair. Instead, that Pentecost miracle continues to happen day in and day out, week in and week out, in our communities of faith. I know many, many competent and committed Christians who engage in works of justice, love, and mercy in the name of Jesus. But even the best of us are broken, fallible, and afraid. Yet, the Spirit continues to build and to use the Church.
The Book of Acts reminds us, of course, that some sorting is necessary for the life and health of the Church. We should never preach the joy of Pentecost without recalling the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira, for example. I suspect that many of the leaders I mentioned above will not be part of how the Church moves forward in mission, in light of the mistakes and malfeasance of the past and present. But the Spirit will find others to take up the cause.
Here, perhaps, is the place to move to the Romans 8 passage. Whether we describe the Spirit in terms of Acts 2 or John 14, the result of that endowment is the courage to live and act as children of God, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” God sends the Holy Spirit so that the Church may continue the work of Christ in the world and to do “greater works” still. That all happens, not because anyone is particularly competent or qualified. Rather, that all happens because the Spirit makes it so.
There is hope for us yet.
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