I had to laugh as I read the Gospel passage for Pentecost this week. The disciples are behind locked doors, scared to go out; Jesus comes in and breathes upon them. From where I sit in coronavirus lockdown, I know well what it feels like to stay inside for fear of what’s “out there.” My viscerally negative reaction to Jesus exhaling on his disciples tells me a lot about how well I’ve internalized the importance of social distancing. And then he says, “Peace be with you.” Sure, Jesus. I’ll get right on that. I just need to wash my hands first.
It was encouraging, though, to remember that despite the fact this Gospel is read at Pentecost, this story isn’t about that fire-and-language-filled day; this is the story of the disciples just after the crucifixion, terrified that what had just happened to their friend would happen to them. They didn’t know if they were being hunted down by local authorities or if the friends who presumably brought them food and news would sell them out. Even when Jesus arrived, their reaction wasn’t excitement or comfort at first. Surely, they thought they were seeing a ghost – what else could come so easily through a locked door? Even when they realized he was there in the flesh, they had to have been terrified that he would be angry with them. They’d abandoned him and left him alone to suffer a brutal death! It’s reasonable to think he’d be a little salty about the situation. And now that it was pretty clear he wasn’t just another ordinary human, given that he was recently dead but currently wasn’t… how badly had they just ticked off the Almighty with their cowardice?
While the point of this reading is really about Jesus commissioning his disciples, I find myself more struck by the fear and isolation they experienced before and during his arrival because it so clearly echoes my current life landscape. Their community was fractured and strange, even while it was still real and important; mine is too, right now. I’m sure they were conflicted about what to do next, fearful of how long this in-between time would last; I know I am. But Jesus shows up in the midst of it all anyway, tells them “Peace,” and after a little bit more panicking, things aren’t as bleak anymore.
Jesus’ response to their disbelief and terror is one of the things he says most frequently in the Gospels, and the one thing that I most want to hear too while I’m locked in my own upper room – “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t promise them immediate resolution to all their fears or assure them that their troubles are over; he just reminds them that he is there, they can experience peace anyway, and that worrying isn’t necessary. This is my lockdown mantra; peace. Peace be with me, and my neighbors, and my family, and my students. Our trials haven’t ended, but we’re still here, and Jesus has showed up the way he always does. The peace is there for us, if only we embrace it.
Dr. Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and their energetic toddler, Xavier.
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.
 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.
Today is the only Holy Day in the entire liturgical calendar devoted to the Holy Spirit. Think about it – Jesus gets all the good feast days. Christmas lasts for 12 days (not to mention a whole season devoted to the buildup to it.) Lent is 40 days; Easter 50. Every day within the season of Easter is called the 3rd or 5th or even 7th ___-day of Easter.
What do we call the first day after Pentecost?
The Spirit really gets a bum rap, and it’s not really fair. We’re talking about a whole third of the Trinity, after all. Without the Spirit, there wouldn’t be a Church. It is the Spirit that continues to move in us today, continues to animate the Church and keep it alive. Even throughout the years of persecution and pain, doubt and division, scandal and schism—Christianity is still around.
Today is the Church’s birthday. So, what are we celebrating?
In the Gospel reading, Jesus says that the Spirit will lead us all to truth. I will admit, sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that. I’ve been given a class of students to teach this semester (something I’m pretty sure they’ll never let me do again), and it has truly been an awe-inspiring to see how difficult it is to try and lead someone to any kind of truth. No wonder Jesus got frustrated with his disciples so often. And in times where I am just exhausted by work, by the stressors of life, it can become harder for me to strive to see the Spirit at work—both in myself, and in those around me.
I can sympathize with the disciples in the upper room that Pentecost day. All they had worked for still seemed to be lost, and while they had even seen Jesus fully resurrected and taken up into Heaven, they weren’t sure what to do next. He was their teacher, the one who knew what to do. Now what were they supposed to do with him gone?
I bet that for a lot of us, the feeling is mutual—when we get so consumed with the busy-ness of our lives that it makes us harder to see the greater purpose; when we get so weighed down with the concerns of the world that it’s harder for us to see our neighbor who is also struggling with us, who we might need to help carry, or who might need to help carry us. It can be hard to believe that the Spirit is still at work in a world that can seem so broken some days.
Yet, I know the fault is with me, and not with God. The problem is not that the Spirit has stopped moving, but more likely that I have stopped listening for it, even for just a bit. So, in this (one-day) season of Pentecost, how do we get better at listening to the Spirit? I’m no expert, but I think we have some clear lessons in Scripture on how to start.
The first thing: we need space. That can be a hard thing to find in our lives, and not just finding the free time—there is a constant temptation to fill up our lives with all kinds of excess and other random things. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with material possessions, but it sure does seem like we can get out of hand with it. The band “Arcade Fire” bemoans this in their song Everything Now: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” – and there are times where I find that line hits a little too close to home for me. I’m betting I’m not alone in that.
It helps to remember that when Jesus called his apostles, he didn’t tell them to pack a suitcase, much less a second pair of sandals. Does that mean that we too need to follow in such an example of poverty? I don’t know. As my wife and I prepare for the birth of our child in a few months, I think it’d be a rather foolish thing to suddenly decide to sell the house, bed, and all the other things that will help us provide for this new life. But maybe we need to not be so attached to them. The things we possess are, at best, means to an end. If they help us to become happier, better, more loving people, then great. If they don’t, then what are we doing with them? We need to keep on clearing out our clutter, both spiritually and physically, to help us listen better to the Spirit move in our lives.
The second thing: we need community. The apostles before Pentecost were huddled in fear, yes, but also together. The Spirit did not come to each of their individual houses, looking for them on their own. It found them in community. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Furthermore, that community doesn’t require some sort of saintly perfection in us. The Spirit didn’t come when the disciples were feeling particularly courageous—it showed up precisely when they were afraid. They were lost, and not sure what to do now that their Master was gone, but they still had each other. The Spirit did not ask for perfection from them; rather, it took what they were able to offer (even if it was just their presence) and strengthen them for what they would need. So to for us, even when we maybe aren’t “feeling it,” or don’t feel like we belong in this community of faith—the Spirit is still calling us, too, wanting to work in us all the more. God is not first seeking perfection; God first seeks us, as we are, and works with us, as we are, to help us become the best we can be.
Finally: we need to get out. Look, the wind and flame of Pentecost are an incredible sign of the Spirit’s presence with the apostles, but to me, that’s not the miracle. The miracle of Pentecost is that these sad, scared Apostles got out of the upper room, and went to spread the Gospel. The Spirit is does not want us to just stay within this community, but to share the Gospel message with the world. Much as no one puts a light under a basket, but lets it out to shine (to paraphrase Jesus), so too is the Spirit meant, like a driving wind, to drive us out into the world. You know, that world that can so often drag us down, that can worry and stress us out, that world which exhausts. I often feel like pulling the metaphorical covers over my head and trying to drown the world out, but this is not a Spirit-filled desire. I need to be able to go out into the world, even the parts of it I would rather ignore. We need to be able to encounter the world, and share the Gospel news to all we meet, especially to those who are in need, even when we might rather not.
What are we celebrating? That the Spirit is continuing to dwell with us still, and that we are given a chance today to do as the early disciples did—to testify to the Gospel message of Jesus. May the Spirit renew us all this Pentecost.
Chris Clow is a campus minister and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. When he isn’t composing music or begging students to sing in his choir, he likes to play games of all sorts, watch his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, spend time with his wife Emily and their pets, and prepare with joy (and just a touch of anxiety) for the arrival of their first child in September.
Have you ever been so anxious or afraid that you felt like you couldn’t breathe? Your chest tightens; your pulse quickens. It feels like your whole body is in overdrive. When I was a child and felt afraid at night, I would pull the covers up over my head. Whatever monsters were lurking in the dark or under my bed surely couldn’t get me if I was hidden away, safe from harm. As an adult, I no longer hide under the covers, but I still find myself seeking to hide away from the things in life that are scary or stressful. I still find myself realizing that my body has tightened and I can’t even take a deep breath.
When we enter today’s Gospel story we find the disciples in their own place of fear and trembling—huddled away behind locked doors, hiding from those who would persecute them. It’s a very different Pentecost than the one we see in Acts. There are no dramatic winds or tongues of fire. No ecstatic speeches in multiple languages. Instead, we see a quiet Pentecost. Into the midst of fear and trembling enters the Risen Christ and breathes into the disciples the Spirit, and with it, the Gift of Peace.
While it might seem less dramatic, it’s still a radical moment—to find peace in the midst of chaos. The disciples’ whole world had changed—everything that they had hoped for was linked to following Jesus. I imagine their fear left them breathless.
Into this space Jesus speaks, “peace be with you,” and breathes into them the Holy Spirit. Gail O’Day reminds us in her commentary in the New Interpreters Bible that this echoes the moment of Creation wherein God breaths into humanity the breath of life. Here we see a new creation and new life given to these disciples through this breath of the Spirit. I have to wonder if in this moment, they finally took a deep breath for the first time. I wonder if their shoulders relaxed and their fear melted away into a sense of radical peace.
Perhaps it is because I relate so much to these disciples that this image of breathing peace of the Spirit resonates with me. Or perhaps it is because as a yoga teacher, I know so well the power of connecting to the Spirit through our breath. Secular studies show us that these breathing practices do have an effect to calm our minds and bodies, but as a pastor, I think it’s more than that. When we pause to breathe in, to intentionally connect to the Spirit—our life source—that Spirit fills and empowers us. The Spirit changes us. She is there to transform us, if we only take a moment to connect.
Of course, this Spirit, this breath of life isn’t just there for Divine stress relief or touchy feely comfort. We are granted Peace so that we can be sent to continue Christ’s work in the world, even in the face of great trials. This story is both one of receiving the Spirit, as well as being commissioned by Christ to go forth to do God’s work in the world.
I wonder how often we as individuals and as communities of faith hide ourselves away in fear, rather than living a life centered in the radical peace of Christ. I wonder how often we stay in fear rather than journeying out to do the work that God has called us to do.
I can admit—I would really love for God to call me to something safe. I love stability. I love comfort. And yet, the work of the Gospel isn’t always comfortable, or safe, or easy. Working for Justice in the world sometimes means getting our hands dirty or getting out of our comfort zones. Sharing God’s love might mean taking a step out into the unknown.
This path that we are called to isn’t an easy one, but it is one we don’t walk alone. Every step, the Spirit is with us, breathing into us Peace; breathing into us courage; breathing into us life. I wonder what this looks like in our lives and in our communities? Might it mean we step out and take a risk in order to share the gospel rather than trying to just get by?
Perhaps this Pentecost, instead of wind and fire, we might search for just a moment of breath. In that space of silent prayer, we can draw our awareness to the presence of the Spirit around and within us. In that moment, we breathe in, knowing that the sustaining Life we breathe in is nothing short of the Divine Spirit. Perhaps this Pentecost, we might choose to breathe in peace even in the places of our lives or our community’s life where we are afraid. Perhaps we might choose to go forth from that space of radical peace to do the work of God.
The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.
 Gail O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville:Abingdon, 1995) 9: 846.
If you’ve attended a Catholic Mass, you might recognize those words as the cue for people to start stirring from their otherwise well-rehearsed Catholic aerobics. As a kid, this line was the long-awaited signal that, for a few brief seconds, I was allowed to move and talk as I “peaced” the people around me with a handshake and, well, the word “peace,” or alternatively “peace be with you,” if I was feeling chatty that day.
It’s a little odd, isn’t it? When I try to envision “peace,” the images that come to my mind are those of perfect stillness, meditation, quiet, but in my church, “peace” comes associated with a flurry of movement, a part of our structured liturgy that is decidedly un-structured, a part you’re practically guaranteed to experience differently every time because the people around you change every time. The moment of “peace” can feel very uncertain—sometimes the music minister comes in with the Lamb of God too early and you don’t get to peace those folks you really wanted to peace; sometimes the peace drags on forever, long after you’ve run out of people for your one-word exchange. The moment of peace can feel decidedly fickle.
Maybe that’s some of what Jesus is getting at in this passage from John. This all takes place at the Last Supper, shortly after Jesus calls out Judas on his impending betrayal (going so far as to tell him to get gone and start betraying, already) and tells Peter, his otherwise faithful friend, that he will fail in a big way to be there for Jesus when he needs him the most. It seems a strange time to claim that peace will always be present with his apostles. John’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ divinity more than the other Gospels, but in his capacity as human, Jesus has to be terrified. He’s in the midst of a long, awful anticipation. I imagine this is what you feel when waiting for a major surgery scheduled long in advance, or when you know that someone you care for is about to die and you’re dreading the phone call that signals the end, or when your friend is about to be deployed into a war zone. The dread can be overpowering. So many of us focus on doing, and find our peace there instead, in the minutiae of eating a meal or taking a walk or doing the work we love best.
Perhaps now is where you expect me to make a point about the glorification of busyness in our culture and how our peace comes primarily, or exclusively, from an internal prayer life or community worship, or meditation—all those “sit and be” occasions. Well, it can, and in part, it should. However, our culture being obsessed with doing hardly means that the only holy path is to stop doing. We’re back in the frustrating domain of no simple answers; of seeking balance instead of a clear-cut solution. How do we balance being and doing? How do we, like Jesus, sit at the table when we’re scared out of our minds, but talk about the work we’ve done and how others will build upon it? And then, how do we know when it’s time to stop sitting and get moving, because justice requires arduous dedication?
Jesus is pretty specific with Philip that, if he can’t believe that the Father is in Jesus because Jesus says so, he should believe because of the works he has seen. Catholic social teaching talks about the inherent dignity of work; the importance of feeling like one is contributing to their community, even in very small ways. We love to point at something we’ve worked on: be it a painting, an excellently-groomed tax report, or a child of ours who’s turning out pretty well, and remind ourselves how much our time and labor mattered. There’s a peacefulness in feeling useful and engaged. Perhaps that is some of what Jesus means when he says “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” When you find your vocation—that is, the thing in this world that you are called to do, the thing that won’t get done if you pass it by—even the most stressful and dreadful situations start to fill with meaning. Jesus knows, at least to some extent, that what he’s about to do matters, that it has to be done, and that he’s the only one who can do it right. The Spirit that Jesus says will come after him is an enlivening Spirit, one that prompts us to get going with the knowledge that we are not alone and that we will find a richer type of peace—more than just the peace of quiet sitting—through our labors.
So perhaps it’s not so odd that the “peace” at church is a peace of movement, bustling, awkward limp handshakes, and tentative smiles. When we are at home with who we are in relationship to God, our peace is bound up in doing. And on Pentecost, when we speak of being filled with the Spirit again, we might find ourselves refreshed, peaceful, and ready to get to work.
Emily S. Kahm is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, in spite of which she lives in Iowa, serving as the Director of Faith Formation for a Catholic parish. Her research investigates sexuality education in Christian churches and how young adults embrace, reject, or reinterpret church teaching on sex. After years in Kansas City, Boston, and Denver, she lives in a small town that nobody has ever heard of with her husband, Chris, and their two rabbits, Calliope and Exodus.