Pentecost

June 4, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Reading 3: 
Acts 2:1-21 or Romans 8:22-27
Reading 4: 
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
By Marjorie Suchocki

The Psalm is an exultation over the continuously creative care of God for this whole earth, while Our New Testament passages all focus on the coming and the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. Clearly there is a relationship between the texts, for through the Spirit God creatively calls the church in to being, and continuously cares for the church.

One focus for preaching this Pentecost sermon is to pick up the Psalm of joy and use it as a lens through which to give thanks for the “mighty works of God” as seen through the Spirit. The roles of the Spirit suggested in the New Testament are as follows:

From John 15 and 16: Here the Spirit is Helper, Spirit of truth, witness, one who reveals things as they are concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. Notice the significance that the introduction to the Spirit is as Helper. Without this name, the judgmental qualities of the Spirit could lead one to think of the Spirit of God as a rather fearsome Reality. The Spirit uncovers things, revealing things in the world—and therefore, of course, in us—as they truly are. Pretensions are wiped away, intentions are exposed, and sin is revealed in all its ugly destructiveness. Righteousness in such a light can be seen as a condemning sort of thing, that which is over-against the sin that is revealed, so that righteousness is a judgment. Such a Spirit might be feared rather than welcome. But the text calls this Spirit “Helper,” which has also been translated “”Comforter,” and this name is stressed. Is it not the case that the uncovering of sin is for the sake of coming to grips with sin, and becoming open to transformation? In this case, the naming of sin is far from something to be avoided, but the greatest help toward the good of ourselves and the world. The Spirit is Helper.

Psalm 104: It’s very interesting that the lectionary includes all but one sentence of the Psalm! The omitted text is “Let sinners be consumed from the earth and let the wicked be no more.” But if we see the Psalm in the context of John 15/16, might there not be a different nuance to this sentence that the gruesome damnation it usually suggests? Could it not rather be a call to creative transformation, so that sinners turn to righteousness and the wicked cease from wickedness? The force of the Johannine passage is the creative power of God to help us in our weakness, particularly the weakness of intending or doing that which causes harm. The power of the Spirit calls us to overcome such things. If we read the omitted verse in this light, then the final paean of the Psalm—“Bless the Lord, oh my soul, Praise the Lord!”—is a cry of joy that the goodness of God’s creative care for all creature triumphs when we turn from our tendencies to sin and wickedness. By the Spirit, our Helper, we can be transformed.

Romans 8: Here the Spirit is again Helper, helping us in our weakness. The context now is not expressed through the need to guide us toward transformation from sin, but to empower us as we grow in goodness. The Spirit prays with us. The amazing thing about this is that in our praying, we usually understand ourselves to be praying to God, but it turns out that we are praying with God. The Spirit goes deeper than our words, into the very heart of our concerns, and indeed, of our very being. It’s as if the Spirit dips into us, to that place in us that is deeper than our capacity to speak, and interprets it directly for us, with or without words. In this praying in the Spirit, the Spirit calls us up from our depths with the intent that we shall be conformed to the love of God. “…the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” And indeed, this passage of Romans 8:27 leads directly into that wonderful concluding affirmation that nothing, nothing, nothing can “separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Acts 2: We come finally to the culminating text for Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit in the birth of the church. If we follow our theme by looking to this passage to see what it says about the Spirit, Acts tells us that the Spirit is universal, present with all the world, as represented by those from the nations who were gathered together on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit who is so intimately known through the praying of Romans 8, or the convicting power of John 16, is as present to others as to oneself; there is a universal presence to the Spirit. But each hears the Spirit in his or her own language, his or her own context, his or her own particularity. What is heard in this vast variety bears some commonality: in 2:11, we are told that what these persons from the nations heard was “the mighty deeds of God.” What are these deeds? Psalm 104 has told of God’s mighty deeds in creation, with that hint of re-creation in the omitted part of verse 35; John 15/16 has told of God’s mighty deeds in helping us toward transformation from that which hinders good; Romans 8 has spoken of God’s mighty deeds in leading us toward growth in the Spirit, in God’s love. Acts 2 names the mighty deed of God in and through the teaching, works, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus there is a particular and personal dimension to the work of the Spirit, and a communal, universal dimension to the Spirit. The Spirit deals with each in his or her own uniqueness, but always in terms of God’s care for the fullness of creation, God’s “mighty deeds.” The Spirit, then, works with us individually toward a communal good, drawing us into the fold of God’s love not simply for us, but for all. For those of us called to faith in God through Jesus Christ, we are woven together through the Spirit into the continuous becoming of the church.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki is Professor Emerita, Claremont School of Theology, co-director of Process Studies, and the author of several books, including Divinity and Diversity, God Christ Church, and In God's Presence. She is the director of the annual Whitehead International Film Festival, held in Mudd Theatre during Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend and also teaches a Faith & Film class during this event.