06/06/2014 09:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Strutting With the Spirit: A Proposal for Pentecost

I was broke. For our first Easter together, in 1981, Priscilla left a basket at my door with a $10 gift certificate for a haircut. That same spring, I ticketed parked cars. My mainstay meal was boiled carrots in a white flour sauce. I was a graduate student, after all. And I was broke.

So I took to preaching. My roommate, a medical student, was sleeping with a church organist, who told me that her little Baptist church in Durham, North Carolina, needed a Sunday night preacher. So I took to preaching. Graduate student by day, preacher by night.

Sometimes I attended Sunday mornings, where the preacher really preached. He was a genuine Bible-thumping, stage strutting, sweat drenched, feet-off-the-ground and knees-to-the-chin preacher. There was lots of repetition, a mountain of hallelujahs, plenty of Amens!--but precious little content.

The preacher knew a slice of American church culture. The holy spirit, he believed, charged him with high octane energy. 2014-06-05-Acts4andlearn.jpg

What he had a harder time grasping is that the holy spirit, at least in the Bible, values preparation, thoughtfulness, and planning. You can see this, for instance, when John and Peter are put on trial early in the book of Acts, just two chapters after the story of Pentecost. Peter preaches a surprisingly brief sermon (especially for Peter). Here's how the short story goes:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

What does Peter's sermon consist of? The Jewish Bible, for the most part. The centerpiece--and substance--of Peter's miniscule sermon is Psalm 118:22: "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone" (Acts 4:11).

Filled with the spirit, Peter doesn't babble or bounce or strut or scream. Filled with the spirit, Peter digs into the Jewish scriptures. But wait. Could it be that this psalm dawned on Peter in a flash of inspiration?

No. Psalm 118:22 was familiar to the early church. In one New Testament letter, 1 Peter 2:1-10, it occurs alongside a list of other biblical texts--as if these passages were meant to be memorized. Psalm 118:22 was part and parcel of early church testimonies to Jesus, part of a manual containing what Christians needed to know when their backs were against the wall.

At the end of this sermon, you'll discover another clue to how Peter knew this psalm: "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus" (Acts 4:13).

The hearers realize Peter and company were Jesus' companions. How so? Jesus had used this verse in his parable of wicked tenants who murdered the owner's son. In other words, Jesus quoted Psalm 118:22 (Mark 12:10-11; Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17). How then did the Jewish leaders realize that Peter had been with Jesus? Peter used the same scripture in the same way as Jesus--to understand Jesus' death. In short, Peter learned this psalm straight from Jesus. That's what amazed Peter's hearers and clued them into this: Peter and John were companions of Jesus.

This little sermon teaches us that the holy spirit doesn't just inspire spontaneity. The works of the spirit aren't just strutting, amen-ing, hallelujah-ing. You can prepare for an experience of the holy spirit. You can study in anticipation of the holy spirit's work in your life. You can learn what creates a powerful witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And those things in the book of Acts are texts, sacred texts, the texts of the Old Testament.

It's easy to criticize that preacher as he strutted and fretted his hour on the stage. It's easy to think his sermons were tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But that would be to miss the point this Pentecost, which celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What point should we ponder this Pentecost? What proposal do I want to make as we anticipate the gift of the holy spirit?

However we preach, whatever we teach, whenever we speak, we should be prepared. How? Through a life of study, the practice of learning, even the discipline of memorizing. It's simple enough. And the impact of this sort of scholarship--let's call it everyday education--is extraordinary because it leads us straight into the company of the early church, with the boldness of uneducated and ordinary people, who were known as Spirit-filled companions of Jesus. How better for a Christian to be known?