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By David Howell

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Preaching John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


Pentecost summons the preacher to a rich array of liturgical and scriptural resources.  In most mainline congregations, the Holy Spirit is the shadow figure in the Trinity, underrepresented in hymnody, preaching, and personal devotion. Pentecost challenges the preacher to evoke the Spirit in ways that engage the assembly’s intellect and imagination. So go ahead, take it as an opportunity to teach about the Holy Spirit, but let that same Spirit blow away stale didacticism and set your sermon on fire.

Wind and fire! Pentecost sweeps us into encounter with the untamed Spirit of God, unpredictable, surprising, and renewing. Make sure your reader for the Pentecost event in Acts can manage that daunting series of names, so that their exotic sound and cadence can be the rhythm section for apostles lit by the Spirit and speaking in many tongues. Then Peter takes the drum solo, proclaiming the fulfillment of the strange apocalyptic prophesy of Joel. Verses from Psalm 104 exult in God’s majesty revealed in creation, ever-renewing. Then in Romans, the whole earth groans with the labor of bringing forth that new creation.

Let your sermon come alive with the spirituality of touch and sound. Invite your assembly to recognize God in gentle breeze and bracing wind, in the roar of the storm and the whisper of each breath. Let your preaching draw people into the richness of the biblical story, God’s breath hovering over the waters, blowing life into dust at creation; God’s saving wind, pushing back the waters of the Red Sea; God in the whirlwind, sweeping Elijah into heaven, and speaking to Job, blowing away all his delusions of mastery and control. God’s spirit, groaning in creation, and sighing through us on the breath of prayer.

Turn, then, to the counterpoint of the gospel, John’s spirit of truth. With an abrupt shift in tone and register, the writer of John brings us into the shadows of the upper room and the charged intimacy of the Twelve, gathered with Jesus for the last time. Evoke that setting for your listeners so they may hear the urgent pressured speech of Jesus with a new immediacy. Explore (and resist trying to explain) this enigmatic figure of the Advocate (Yes, maybe you took Greek in seminary, and let it deepen your proclamation of the Spirit with us, the Paraclete “called to our side.” But keep it to yourself for now, and share it at Bible study or adult discussion). Let your sermon draw listeners into the emotional scene in order to open them (and you) to John’s theological imagination.

One place of entry may be the vulnerability of the disciples as they receive Jesus’ enigmatic and disturbing speech. Your listeners are no strangers to separation and loss; bring them into this scene by naming our own bittersweet partings. Twenty-first century Christians may well feel longing for the immediacy of Jesus’ presence as the disciples experienced it, and the sermon might explore our own sense of loss and absence, the challenges of trusting a God we cannot see, and of following when we do not know the way. In this story Jesus braces the disciples for an uncertain new world where they will take their places in a ministry that he is no longer visibly leading, yet a world still infused with God’s presence and activity in the Spirit.

Or, guide your hearers in an exploration of John’s dense theology. The forensic language of “Advocate,” “testify,” “witness,” and “judgment” offers one possible approach. Many of your listeners may have some courtroom experience, whether as lawyers, judges, jurors, defendants, witnesses, or plaintiffs, and so this line of development might give people a way into this challenging theology. But beware, preachers who take this track often end up declaring that the Spirit is our advocate. Notice that this Advocate, though, is God’s advocate, testifying to the truth on behalf of Jesus.

Or, go big and take on “truth.” Explore the ways Jesus uses this word here and elsewhere, including his compelling statement of identity: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Challenge your hearers to consider the ways we use and misuse, embrace and evade the truth. Soon after this night scene, Pilate will spar with Jesus by asking, “What is truth?” What do we believe to be true? What do we know to be true? Whom do we trust? On what do we stake our very lives?

Hold up the rich promise of the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit who breathes through us. Proclaim the life-giving power of God’s truth. Let us hear your own testimony, preacher. Where have you seen, felt, perceived, heard this same Spirit?

Barbara Melosh
Interim Pastor
Grace Lutheran
Hockessin, DE


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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