Preaching through Lent and Eastertide is a daunting task, and pastors give their best energies to understanding the remarkable ways in which God has reset the whole horizon for humanity through the testing, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent coming of the Spirit in power. I stand in awe of this labor-intensive vocation of proclamation, and I am sympathetic with faithful preachers who strive to lead their congregations toward new vistas of insight and practice.
As each Sunday approaches, they wonder if their wrestling with Scripture will provide guidance and motivation, and they seek the enervating presence of the Spirit for this task. The sermon-writing chair, as Jim Somerville describes where he prepares, is nothing less than a hot seat.
In her classic spiritual writing The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila says that the soul becomes “alive in the heat of the Holy Spirit.” She likens the kindling of the soul to that of a silkworm who undergoes metamorphosis to a graceful new form of life. The ancient creed spoke of the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life,” which suggests that all creation depends upon the vivifying power of God’s warming presence.
Neville Callam, distinguished general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, says that Pentecost celebrates the reality that God “does not abandon disordered creation.” Huddled in the Upper Room, waiting — as instructed by the ascending Christ — for only God knows what, the Spirit will bring order out of chaos once again, as in the beginning. And the pressure to be on mission will heat up.
Key Scriptural metaphors for the Spirit are flame, wind and oil — a rather combustible mix. Whether guiding through the wilderness as fiery pillar, blowing life into creation, or anointing God’s messiah for powerful ministry, the Spirit is God’s powerful presence in material reality. Incarnation continues as God uses creaturely means to reorient toward redemption.
Next Sunday the church will celebrate Pentecost, which is about the new form of the people of God. No longer bound by national, ethnic or linguistic identity, the emerging church is a dynamic expression of God’s continuing work to gather into one body God’s own. The Spirit is always transgressing the boundaries we humans erect and requires us to think of our faith in more expansive ways.
Central in the early proclamation of the gospel is the word dunamis, used 120 times in the New Testament. It is one of the earliest words a fledgling Greek scholar learns. It refers to “strength, power or ability.” We derive words such as dynamite, dynamo and dynamic from this energetic word. In its varied contexts in the Gospels and Epistles, it describes the power that comes from God to live in the new creation, fueled by the Spirit in accordance with Christ’s resurrection.
The Spirit did not just come at Pentecost, even though that might be the most spectacular demonstration with the attendant wind, flaming tongues and powerful preaching. The Spirit broods over the face of the deep at the very beginning of creation, empowers leaders of the ancient people of God, hovers over the conceiving mother of Jesus, and now attends the birthing of the church.
As one of God’s two hands embracing the world, the Spirit joins the Son in expressing God’s self-giving love, which is altogether gift. Irenaeus of Lyon, in Against the Heresies, gave us this image of God’s desire to envelope all creation into God’s own perichoretic life.
This past Sunday, our communion table portrayed this reality. Three large candles, in anticipation of Trinity Sunday, had smaller tea lights within their trinitarian liminality. Lives can flourish and shimmer with vitality, as we understand that through the power of the Spirit we can participate in the very life of God and human limitation is transformed in God’s embrace.
It is not only with explosive energy that the Spirit comes, however. The Spirit more often works in quiet, almost imperceptible modes. The Spirit sustains individual lives within Christ’s Body, revealing our interdependence. From the Holy Breath of God (the Orthodox term for the Spirit) comes resilience; from the spark of the Spirit comes the capacity to imagine creative ministry; from the comforting Spirit comes the hope of eternal life, dwelling with God and all the saints who have gone before.
If we are receptive, the Spirit will continue to heat us up with compassion, generosity and transformative actions. It is easy for our ardor for the ways of God to cool, and we must be vigilant as the temptation is to settle for tepid faith, for it requires far less. It is only by the supply of the Spirit that we might fulfill what Ignatius of Loyola told his Jesuit recruits: “Go and set the world on fire.” May it be so!