Pentecost (C): Three Possibilities for Preaching
By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer
On Pentecost Sunday in Year C, the Gospel enables us to make connections between the “tongues of fire” and blessed chaos depicted in Acts, and Jesus’ final teaching about the Spirit and life on earth after his departure. In reading the text, three distinct sermon possibilities emerged that address how it is we live faithfully after the chaos of both the crucifixion/resurrection/ascension and of the descent of the Spirit recedes.
On the Value of Asking Questions
The Farewell Discourses in John, or what one scholar calls “Table Talks” with Jesus are punctuated with earnest questions from well-intentioned and confused disciples. Jesus knows it is his last night with them and shows them through gesture (foot-washing) and words how it is that they will go on…they will be okay…a “new normal” will emerge. Like us, the disciples are only capable of taking in Jesus’ teaching in bits and pieces, always partially—tending toward the literalizing of Jesus’ metaphorical language—and often reluctantly. Like us, the disciples questions reveal both an earnest desire to understand and follow Jesus and their ‘worldly,’ self-interested concern that they will be okay and survive the trial of the Passion that lies before them.
- Peter asks where Jesus is going (13.36)
- Thomas asks if the disciples can have a map to get there (14.5)
- Philip, at the beginning of today’s periscope, asks to see the Father and then promises he won’t ask any more questions (14.8)
- Judas (not Iscariot) wonders how Jesus will manage to reveal himself only to those who keep love him, and not to everyone else (14.22)
One idea for a sermon might be lifting up the questions that Pentecost brings up for us and encouraging question-asking as a fruitful means of prayer and an invitation to honesty that engenders genuine friendships among those on the “Way” (14.5f.)
Philip’s Quest to be Satisfied
Another tack for a sermon is to explore the insatiability of human desire, both for material ‘stuff’ and spiritual ones like proof that God exists and really loves us. After all, according to the Rolling Stones, we “can’t get no satisfaction,” and Dave Matthews echoes “what I want is what I’ve not got…”
“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” I suspect that most of us have made similar demands on God. Like the Devil testing Jesus, I remember as an 8-year-old asking God to remove the tissue paper flowers on my dresser drawer overnight, so that in the morning I would know God existed. The next morning the flowers with their green pipe-cleaner stems were still on the dresser. Of course, had they disappeared, I suspect I would only come up with more creative “tests” to satisfy my doubt. The reality is that God doesn’t ‘prove’ himself to us on our terms. Instead, we are invited to the mystery, not certainty, of faith.
Jesus responds to Philip’s desire for satisfaction first by exhorting him to believe. Jesus sounds disappointed—just for a moment—that Philip doesn’t believe that the Father and Jesus dwell within each other. But let’s cut Philip some slack because the content of what Jesus wants Philip to believe—the idea of “mutual indwelling” is really hard to understand. Jesus’ final “I AM” metaphor of the Father as Vinegrower, Jesus as true vine, and us as branches, from the next chapter, is helpful to folks like Philip, like me, and probably like you, who have trouble conceptualizing what it means for separate persons—human or Divine—to abide or dwell in one another. The process of believing is also a challenge to us because in John’s Gospel, belief isn’t a cognitive assertion, rather it indicates a relationship. Jesus wants Philip to know that Philip has seen the Father and has a loving relationship with the Father because he has seen and loves Jesus, the flesh and blood man who just washed his feet and looks him in the eye.
Jesus’ second response to Philip is to point him toward the ‘works’ themselves that the Father has done through Jesus. Jesus’ ‘works’ may refer to the “seven signs” so carefully conveyed with multi-layered symbols in the first half of the Gospel. Of the seven signs, one is celebrating, three are healings, one is feeding, another is rescuing, and the final one is resuscitating. Jesus indicates that those in relationship with him will do greater ‘works’ than what he has done. Of course, I doubt any one of us has done qualitatively ‘greater works’ than Jesus, but quantitatively the Body of Christ has done and does these works through our ministries in the community, in shaping people who respond to God’s call to serve, and in daily parish ministry where we work out, over and over again, how to follow Jesus’ new commandment in John: Love one another (13.33).
Spirit-Abiding Prayer & the Alignment of Desire
The last section of the lection jumps over seven verses to maintain a focus on Jesus’ teachings about the parakletos. Parakletos literally means ‘called to one’s side,’ but signifies counselor, helper, advocate, or intercessor. The word functions as the job description for the Holy Spirit…and, notably a self-description of Jesus while he is with his disciples. At this point in the narrative, Jesus is future-focused. He is preparing the disciples for how the Divine Presence will be transfigured after his incarnation ends through his glorification. There will still be Someone alongside the disciples, but now that Someone, the Spirit of truth, will be like our breath, both inside and outside, of whom we can be conscious or unconscious.
This Holy Spirit of truth, teaches us “everything” (v. 25) and reminds us of all that the Lord said to us while he “pitched his tent” among us as the fully human and fully divine One (1.14). God will send the Spirit, after Jesus’ ascension and at Jesus’ request, just as God sent Jesus. On one level, all life exists in the Divine Presence (1.3 – 5), and yet our subjective experience and the testimony of John’s Gospel is also that God coming toward us through the various “sendings,” of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, and then of the disciples, which includes each of us through baptisms. Or, to put it oppositely, God is always drawing us to Godself (John 12.32). Whichever direction, the movement results in connection, closeness, and intimacy…that is, a relationship, which what ‘belief’ means in John’s Gospel.
So picking up on the theme of asking questions as path for prayer, the preacher may want to use verse 14 as a case-study: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Out of context, this verse can be misused as though it is magical incantation. But let’s analyze this verse in its immediate context: Philip has just asked Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus responds to Philip’s “ask” by reminding / teaching / showing Philip that he and the Father are one. And yet, I suspect that Philip left the conversation confused, wanting to see the Father based on his pre-conceived notions of what the Father was like. At this point, Philip can’t yet conceive the radical teaching about the Father’s dwelling in the Son dwelling the Holy Spirit (or whatever order you want to put it in…even Jesus mixes the order up), much less the that the Holy Spirit abides in Philip, just as Philip abides in the Spirit. The invitation Jesus gives Philip, and us, is to become aware of the abiding presence. Then, I suspect, more and more of what we “ask,” Jesus will do because our desire aligns more closely with purposes of God.
Gordon D. Fee, “Expository Articles: John 14:8-17,” Interpretation 43/2 (1989): 170-174, cited in the Working Preacher Blog, accessed on 5/1/2019 here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=593
 I have learned this over the years through listening to the teachings of Dr. Karoline Lewis on faculty at Luther Seminary through their Center for Biblical Preaching, which produces the Working Preacher website.
 In John the glorification is a singular movement incorporating the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to the Father.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 3 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.