Pentecost Meditation — “Pentecost: The ‘Inside Story’”
2 Corinthians 3:12-18
May 23, 2010
We’re all familiar with the dramatic story of Pentecost recounted in Acts 2:2-12, complete with a rush of wind and tongues of fire. That’s a story we can imagine viewing from the sidelines, as spectators. This Pentecost I’m going to focus on the “inside story,” of Pentecost. My question is “what is the Pentecost that is going on in each of our inner lives that finds expression in our communal lives?
A few years ago I was in Sydney, Australia at a meeting of the World Methodist Council. I was appointed to a subcommittee to talk about theological education. There were about 12 of us, Methodists from different countries. Our task was to come up a list of common learning goals for pastors around the world based on our Wesleyan heritage.
Somebody said, “Well, it all boils down to Grace.” Someone else asked, “I hear people talk about Grace all the time. And I know from the hymn that it is Amazing. But what is it, anyway?” There was the kind of embarrassed silence you get when a question comes up that is so fundamental that no one has thought about it, or at least not lately. Then Richard Heitzenrader, Wesley scholar from The Divinity School of Duke University cleared his throat and said, “I’ve always defined it this way: Grace is what God, by the Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit, is doing in your inner life.”
Then the rest of us looked at each other like, “Well yeah, that’s what we were all about to say.”
One way to look at the purpose of preaching is that it is inviting people into a story with a better preface and a better ending than the stories we are each writing of our own lives. These days, many people don’t know the basics of the story of salvation. So a Pentecost meditation that takes the form of an invitation into an existing, saving story, seems like a good idea to me. It’s an invitation to a story that is superior to the small, smothering stories each of us is writing of our own lives in several respects.
The “inside story” of Pentecost is a story in progress.
It’s in progress right now in your inner life. Paul tells us to “turn to the Lord and the veil will be removed.” Direct your attention toward what God is doing in your inner life; behold the “inside story” capable of transforming your outside story.
If you came late to a play. The usher wouldn’t rush out and grab you and drag you up to the front, saying, “Where have you been? The actors and the musicians are waiting. The audience members have paid their money and they’re getting restless. No one can do anything without you. Get in here and write the play. And while you’re at it, write the score to the orchestral accompaniment, and sew those costumes!
No, the usher will escort you into the darkened theater where the play is in progress and show you to your seat with his mini flashlight. Because the “inside story” is a story in progress! It’s what God by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing in your innermost life already. That’s why Paul in verse 18 uses the present tense “we are being transformed.” Not past. not future. Now.
On Sunday when we preachers stand in the pulpit, we are expected to “bring it.” Especially on important days like Pentecost. And the other six days of the week in ministry, we are expected to make things happen. And we do try our best to, as Oswald Chambers named his famous devotional work, give “our utmost for God’s highest.”
But the other side of the truth is that we don’t have to get in the pulpit this Sunday and make anything happen. Our calling is to point people toward what God, by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, is already making happen. When we walk down the long, antiseptic hallway and enter that hospital room we aren’t bringing the Grace of God to the people inside. It is already there. We are helping people to recognize the Spirit’s presence deep within their lives. We preachers are not charged with the responsibility to raise Jesus from the dead, save humankind from their sins, and energize their sanctification. We don’t have to write the musical score and sew the costumes, while writing the story. We are just to invite people into it.
The catch is that we need to stay in touch with what the Spirit is doing in our inward lives before we can guide others in discerning that gracious activity at the depths of their lives.
The “inside story” of Pentecost is a story with a more reliable Protagonist than the stories we’re writing in which we are the hero or heroine.
The “inside story” is a story with a more reliable Protagonist than the story we’re writing with ourselves at the center. The Protagonist of this sacred story is God. “Such is the confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God (2 Cor 3:4) It is by God’s mercy that you are engaged in this ministry (2 Cor 4:1); We have this treasure in clay jars so it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us” (2 Cor 5:7). The Protagonist of the “inside story” of Pentecost is God.
I know a pastor in Pennsylvania whose name is Iva. Iva was in her mid thirties working as an office manager when the call to ministry took her by surprise. When she got her first church, she was fine with program planning, working with volunteers, even leading small groups. But preaching scared her to death. The whole idea of getting up and saying something that was from God that could change lives?? She hadn’t planned on doing that! She would be so nervous all week she could hardly function. She’d get up on Sunday and look out over the congregation. Everybody sitting in their section, like season ticket holders. The mature ladies Sunday School class section, the rowdy teenagers section, the young parents with children section. Iva thought of them as “the Crayola section,” because the kids all spent the worship hour drawing pictures on their children’s church bulletins. They would draw the soloist Mrs. Apgar’s beehive hairdo, the dove on the banner over the altar, whatever they saw they drew.
Iva was so nervous about preaching that she resorted to prayer. Everyday for 20 minutes she would do creative visualization prayer. She would picture herself preaching and Jesus standing next to her with his arm around her shoulder. Every day. She told me, “Alyce, it wasn’t a magic cure, but each week, preaching got a little more bearable and a little more bearable, degree by degree. Then one day it actually seemed kind of fun for a few seconds. I was making progress.”
One Sunday as I stood at the back of the church, a young mom came up with her daughter, Ashley. I knew Ashley. She was 7 and she was shy. Her mom said, “Pastor Iva, Ashley has something to show you.” Iva knelt to be at eye level and Ashley held out her chidlren’s bulletin. She said, softly, “Look at what I drew today. Here is you, Pastor Iva. And guess who this is.”
The “inside story” of Pentecost is a story in progress. It has a more reliable protagonist than our story.
The “inside story” of Pentecost has a better plot, featuring a much better ending than the one we are currently writing for ourselves.
It also has a better plot: the gradual transformation of the believer to conform to the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul uses the word metamorpheo (same word used to describe Jesus’ being transfigured by God’s presence on the Mountain).
What are your plans for this evening? I think I’ll try being transformed from one degree of glory closer to the image of Christ. What are your plans for this next week? I think I’ll try inviting my congregation into the “inside story” of Pentecost, a story in progress, with a reliable protagonist and a hopeful plot:
So that, “with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror we can all be transformed into God’s image from one degree of glory to another.”
From fear to confidence
From old creation to new creation
From self-centered story to God-centered story
What a gift to have this story going on in our lives right now! What a joy to be the ones who get to invite others into the story!
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. She is the author of several books for both clergy and lay audiences and a frequently featured speaker at workshops and conferences. Her small group studies for laypeople include The Parables for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) and Matthew: The Interpretation Study Bible Series (WJKP 1998) Her most recent book for preachers is Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons, WJKP, 2010).