S. Day of Pentecost.19 “Awkward Age” John 14:23-31
“Arise, let us go from here…” Jesus says, last line of our Gospel, favorite of mine—which, for me, sums up the Day of Pentecost beautifully…
His line brings to mind one of my favorite memories of Pastor John Costello—a father and brother to me in the Faith. It was at a farewell banquet for a former staff member. John and I were seated next to each other, right in front of the podium, and we knew we were in trouble when the retiring worker was invited to say “a few words”, began with the dreaded: “I made some notes…” and produced a stack of 3×5 index cards—Dostoyevski-novel thick(!). This person had caused some drama for us both by being… how shall we say it? A bit “high maintenance”.
Many times, John had intervened for me—always with his characteristic grace, wit, humor, high intelligence, and above all with deep faithfulness and love for Christ and His Church—John dived in where angels fear to tread, took countless bullets for the team in over half a century of ministry, raised his blood pressure far higher than his doctor liked: all to make church life better for the rest of us. I miss him, can just about see him, second pew, pulpit side, with his eyes closed and head buried in his hands wondering where in the world this sermon introduction is going…(!?)
About 35 minutes into the retiree’s “few words”(!) which featured gems like pointing to me and saying: “When you chant, it reminds me how beautiful a spoken service can be…” John clambered to his feet (which was difficult for him at this point) and announced in a wonderfully resonant stage whisper, “How much longer is this going on? Let’s go…” and he and Ruth made a slow, but noisy (and to me, delightful!) exit. His exit was the promise that awkward days do have a joyful end.
“Arise, let us go from here.” Why does this sum up the Day of Pentecost for me? Well, the Day of Pentecost begins the “Time of the Church” that short (but long) interval in which we await our Lord’s glorious Return to end this old age of sin, suffering, and death and restore the Paradise of His full Presence. This is the Church’s awkward age—like our own early teen-age years: past the joys and innocence of childhood, in that geeky stage where we aren’t yet fully grown, don’t have the poise and maturity of adulthood, yet think we know much more than we really do. These years are why boarding school exists—marvelous, though ruinously expensive words to parental ears. Even Jesus hides His eyes from this stage of His Church’s Life(!).
For reasons that He mostly reserves to His own counsel, Jesus has left the devil, the prince of this world, front and center to run things while Jesus renovates Heaven for us and hides on earth in the dark corners of the Church’s Word and Sacrament ministry (which are much less satisfying and exciting than Jesus’ face to face Presence—as with the patriarchs of the Old Testament, or the Apostles of the New). It is the Church’s awkward age—not a fun time, for us. Too old to be innocent, too young to be wise…
This Time of the Church, the Pentecost Season, when we see Jesus hidden from plain view, and are forced to rely on Windy Ways of the Spirit is praised by Pentecostals as a great advance over the old, less wispy ways of Jesus. As if tongues of fire, hurricane winds, miraculous mastery of foreign grammar is a better deal than Jesus shepherding, guiding, teaching, smiling, joking with us, turning water to wine, walking on water, stilling storms, feeding thousands with the very bread of heaven, by His own hand.
Maybe I’m incorrigibly Lutheran, but I liked the old ways better and look forward to their restoration in the New Creation. Anyone who says “Let’s go!” from the retirement banquet, the awkward age, is speaking my language.
When Jesus speaks His “Arise, let us go!” He’s leading His weary disciples from Gethsemane’s Garden to Golgotha’s cross. Not exactly a fun trip. Metaphorically, I think we’re being called to arise from the glory days of Christ’s earthly ministry and dive into the wonders of church bureaucracies, totalitarian earthly governments, infomercials, “Office Space” type jobs, and the awkward teen-age years. Not exactly a fun trip, either. But, if Jesus is leading the Way, with the Paraclete for our wingman, if the Light at the end of the tunnel is not New Jersey (and it’s not, for us) then there is some hope. At least we’re moving.
Everyone tries to make the coming of the Holy Spirit into this wonderful treat for us—as if this is an improvement on the direct, face-to-face Presence of Jesus the disciples enjoyed for those 3 fast-flying years. Here’s why Pentecostalism is so tremendously, spectacularly, wrong: the life of the Church is not one steady uphill ascent from glory to glory. It’s more a hike through mountains with peaks and valleys. And the Pentecost Time of the Church is a valley. A windblown world with only the Spirit’s subtle whisper is not an upgrade from Jesus’ flesh and blood hand on our shoulder, leading, guiding. Pentecostals babble away in tongues that aren’t real languages and slap people on the forehead and promise all kinds of healings and small group encounters—and campfire songs 🙁 !!! The 70’s were a time of rejoicing in this and I (in the midst of my own literal, awkward teen age years) absolutely hated it. When someone pulls out a guitar at a church meeting and starts some folksy ballad… well, it’s like gunfire to a shell-shocked vet, for me. I’d rather be back at that retirement banquet.
Just as Jesus says the Father is greater than He (which I think means that Heaven—where, with Jesus, we’ll worship and behold the Father face to face in all His glory—will be better than only seeing Jesus in the flesh, with the Father and the Son’s glory hidden) so I also think the time when we rely on the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit (Who, like the wind, is invisible and difficult to detect) will be less great than having Jesus before our eyes. It’s the Church’s awkward age.
But “Arise, let us go from here…” tells us that this awkward, difficult age has an End. The retirement speech only seems endless and John’s “let’s go!” is light at the end of a tunnel, promising a happy ending—that afternoon actually was fantastic, like going home after dental surgery.
The cause of our misery is shown in the Old Testament reading (refreshingly, from the actual Old Testament). The whole earth had one language—till Babel. Today, we have the One Language restored to us in by the Spirit in the Word and Sacraments of Jesus. Yet we struggle over the world’s Babel to speak well…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the Holy Spirit. His coming is pure joy. But He is like the greatest Teacher you ever had, charismatic, filled with grace and wit and strength and power. You hang on His every word. And yet, and yet… it’s awkward, being with Him. Because He points out (by His majesty, effortless command) how far you have to go, how small, weak, geeky and well, just plain awkward you are. How feeble your imitation of Him.
It’s like the offertory anthem: we implore the Holy Spirit to dwell with us, that we would gracious be, wise, cherish all things good, be like Him who gave us Thee. But, it’s an awkward age because we see so clearly how far we have to go. Yet, Jesus’ “Arise, let’s go” promises we’ll get there—where Peace surpassing understanding guards hearts and minds in Him. Amen.