Our director of music recently asked me “what are we doing for Pentecost?” It was a warranted question. I am, after all, the pastor and she always keeps me on task. But I’m at a loss. I’ve tried everything and I’ve yet to crack Pentecost. This day, like the Holy Spirit, is mysterious and hard to package in a box with a nice bow. I’ve asked folks to wear red, which is cute, and we all look like we’re getting ready to tailgate for an NC State game. I’ve ordered a cake and had the congregation gather out on the lawn to celebrate the ‘birthday of the church.’ But no one really wants to eat a glob of sugar before they’ve had their grilled cheese and tomato soup.
There are many sentimental, even creative, ways to celebrate that quaint day when the Spirit erupted like a volcano spewing fire and chaos. On Hawaii’s Big Island, trees are being uprooted, homes are melting, and the whole topography of the landscape will change. On Pentecost, a group of frightened and ill-equipped followers of a charismatic preacher start proclaiming gospel resurrection in the streets. The shape of the world was altered forever.
So what are we doing for Pentecost, pastor? How do you plan to catch this violent wind that ‘blows wherever it pleases’ trap it in our church? How can we speak with tongues of fire and go out to set the world ablaze? Have you discovered a way to capture that dove and lock it in a cage?
Planning Pentecost is about as useful as trying to force a volcano to erupt and then figure out how to make it stop.
But wait! Here’s a new banner and a video I found on youtube.
It’s an incredible weight to bear—to believe that the Spirit’s presence rests on our shoulders. It’s functional atheism, or maybe responsible grace without the grace. And really, it resembles most of the modern philosophy of church growth that there must be a perfect recipe to woo the Spirit into the church. Here’s some foolproof bait to catch the Spirit: put away the pipe organ and get out the guitars. Hire a young pastor who (preferably) wears skinny jeans. A thirty minute message with a few jokes. That should do the trick.
Come Holy Spirit, come.
Meanwhile, as we’re cajoling the Spirit to show up, grace is erupting in the places we least expect—where folks are most afraid or where the world is most hungry for life. God doesn’t need our permission to show up. But maybe God finds more space to move in places that aren’t as comfortable and cozy as our lives.
I pray for the Spirit to come, even though I know that the better prayer is, “Come Ryan Snider, come.” Sure, our bodies will occupy space in a pew, but we’ll fail to stoke the spark in our hearts. Worse even, we won’t bother to adjust our sails when it starts getting a little windy. We’ll walk out the doors into the same unenchanted world, way too leery to go to places like Judea or Samaria and the ends of the earth.
So happy Pentecost! Any Pentecost plans? I have no idea. I hope that we’ll be expectant and hopeful, with eyes to see and ears to hear. Perhaps, there will be a brush of wind or maybe something will catch fire.
But please—don’t forget to wear red. I’ll hang the streamers in the sanctuary. Maybe we’ll find a way to catch the Spirit this time around. Or, maybe we’ll shoot and miss.
But hey, at least it will look like we tried.
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Brace yourself, church. Preachers across the world are polishing their best one-liners, knock-knocks, and irrelevant stories with a twist of humor. This year Easter will take place on April 1st, or April Fool’s Day. This hasn’t happened since 1956. Let’s try to restrain ourselves, shall we pastors? April Fool's has ambiguous origins: either rooted in an ancient Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria or when the Christian world switched from a Julian to a Gregorian calendar and some fools couldn’t keep up with the time change. Whatever the history, the pranks this year will fall on Easter day, as humorously as Valentine’s Day fell on Ash Wednesday. It’s a gold mine of comedic potential: wrapping grapes in tin foil to look like chocolate, filling chocolate easter bunnies with mustard, telling your kids that you’ve hidden the easter eggs when you’ve hidden nothing (Time Magazine). Should we get Jimmy Kimmel in on this?
We might give this unlikely synchrony some theological thought. Easter, the great April Fools joke. Christ Has Risen! April Fools. It’s all just a farce. There is no resurrection. The disciples stole the body and hid it. They created an elaborate narrative to save face. Turns out that Jesus wasn’t who he claimed to be. We’ve all been bamboozled by the disciples. Have you ever woken up and wondered if it’s all an elaborate hoax? We live in a logical and empirical world. There’s no such thing as angels and empty tombs. Life doesn’t work this way. The only thing that really rises on Easter Sunday is the church attendance (see what I mean about preacher jokes). It’s a joke that would cost me well over one-hundred grand and a good portion of my life.
Still, we'll gather on Sunday, somewhere on the spectrum of belief and disbelief. Some will come and remain unconvinced. Others will grab a hold of the metaphor of resurrection—maybe there’s no life after death, but at least there can be resurrection life before death. Christ is risen in the proclamation (kerygma) of the apostles. Christ’s presence was real, though not in a bodily sense. Still, it was as real to those disciples as it was to Paul on the Road to Damascus. Even others will come with joyous assurance in Christ’s bodily resurrection. Sometimes doubt is stolen by faith. What if those women were right? What if this story is too good not to be true? Could there be another layer added on to the joke?
I want to believe that the best April Fool’s joke was played on Mary and the disciples. This Sunday I’ll preach from Matthew’s telling of the story: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb, expecting nothing more than a tomb. Death is death. It’s final. Then, there’s an earthquake prompted by an angel. The stone is rolled away and it’s empty. The angel tells them, “He has risen from the dead.”
April Fools. Death isn’t the end. Life emerges out of, and in spite of, death.
Easter reminds us that life isn’t a tragedy; it’s a comedy. Scripture is a world where donkeys can talk, a man is swallowed by a fish, or a boy falls out of a window during a lengthy sermon. Early Christians understood the ruse long before us. Christ was bait—the mouse trap, the fish hook— by which God finally catches the devil, evil, and death and defeats it once and for all. Gotcha. In the Orthodox tradition, Christians gather on Easter Monday to tell jokes and stories. I love that. It’s the most fitting way to honor the greatest fool’s joke that God pulled on the world.
O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?
Maybe we are the fools for believing this story, but the foolishness is a badge of honor. In a cynical world we dare to be taken by hope, grace, and love. It reminds me of what Flannery O’Conner said: “you shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” If we’re fools, then we’ll only be holy fools—set apart in an upside down kingdom where the first is last, the greatest is the servant of all, and hope is unrelenting. If foolishness looks like extravagant forgiveness and bending the death dealing powers of our world to light and life, then I’m ok with being a bit of silliness.
“Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (CEB).
Is the joke on us? Or, is the joke on evil? There’s no evidence either way. But maybe there is enough crying already—at least for one day. Easter Sunday is a much better day, and a better joke, if we can find a way to laugh.