Wear Your Red Proudly: A Pentecost Sermon

I’m wearing red suspenders and a red tie, and many of you are wearing red as well. And some of you may be wondering, Why? Because today is the day that we as a Church remember and celebrate Pentecost, the day in history when the Holy Spirit descended as if flames of fire on the heads of the disciples in Jerusalem, after Jesus had ascended to heaven. The full story of all what happened on that day can be found in Acts 2:1-13. We wear red to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit. Fire burns. Fire purifies. Fire transforms. Fire ignites. No, I’m not a pyromaniac. I’ve just been set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I want you to imagine that you are one of those disciples of Jesus long, long ago who had walked on this earth alongside our Lord. We are living between Ascension and Pentecost. Imagine all that you had gone through up to this point, all that you had experienced, seen, heard, and lived. Glance at the dusty and sweaty hungry crowds he spoke too on the mountains and the open plains, see the people who were healed by his power whenever he walked into a town or a city. Look to the cross up on that hill, but remember how you and many others who said they followed Jesus abandoned him at the last moment. And think on the resurrection, how weird yet amazing and awesome it IS, where Jesus was with you again, alive again. How you saw and felt his body, and how he welcomed you back into his arms and how you proclaimed him, "my Lord, and my God." But what happens now, after he has ascended?

By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Well, Jesus tells us what happens now when he’s no longer with us. The passage that was read earlier in different languages across our planet, is one from John 14:15-19, 25-27. Jesus is giving instructions to his disciples. He’s making them a promise. Though although he won’t be there in flesh and blood much longer, Jesus does not leave those who follow him alone, empty handed. He does not abandon us. He promises us the Spirit. “If ye love me,” as the old King James has it, “If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever. Even the Spirit of Truth.” We long for the Truth — for the real, the authentic, the true, and the honest. And this is the Spirit who comes to us on Pentecost. It is the Spirit’s special mission, constantly, to testify to this Truth who is Jesus.

The first Christian Pentecost was a transforming event. The important thing about Pentecost is not simply the coming of the Spirit that allows us to speak with one voice. The important thing about Pentecost is not that people could magically understand one another’s languages when before there was only confusion and chaos. No, the miracle of Pentecost is that the power of the Spirit of Truth empowers us to proclaim and preach and witness to the Risen Lord, Jesus--To all people, in all places, in all ways. The Spirit has come so that we might LIVE Jesus, so that others might see through us — through our words, through our actions, through our very lives — that Christ is Risen, that Christ is Lord, and that everything has been transformed. God wants you to be transformed. The Spirit moves us from simply feeling things about God, to taking action for Christ.

The Spirit empowers us to Press ON for the sake of the Gospel, to make us living and breathing witnesses to the life, to the death, and to the world shattering event that IS the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Spirit empowers us to move from compassion to action.

With this same Spirit, we preach to our world, to the Cities of Evanston and Chicago and our American nation, through our lives. Our witness is simply not with words, but with how we live in relation with others. The Spirit must be allowed to work through us, to shine brightly in all we do. We must allow the Holy Spirit to blow into our beings and transform everything about us and our communities. We must allow the Spirit to do its work, and not doubt the power of God to do a mighty work here, here and now, in this place!

We gotta be real about what is ahead of us though. We live in a world, and in a city, that doesn’t think the resurrection message of Jesus makes sense any more, doesn’t apply to their lives, that it is foolishness and has no meaning. It isn’t that folks simply disbelieve in Christianity, rather it is that the Christianity as popularly understood doesn’t provoke much interest anymore. They have simply grown bored with the idea of faith. The world believes only what it can see, and so it does not accept the reality of the unseen Holy Spirit. The Church cannot offer a visible Spirit, only a mutually loving community and a historically testable gospel that, together, evidence the Spirit. Talk of faith is not going to convince anyone to come on over and follow Jesus. Talk of Jesus will. Jesus is the answer for the world today. Living a life infused with the Spirit of Jesus, a life lived as Christ commanded full of love and grace, a life that in all ways displays the mighty power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, that is what is going to make the difference. We have a mighty battle on our hands against the powers of this world that want to silence our message, but nothing is impossible with the Holy Spirit, and the victory has already been won! Christ has risen, and nothing can stop the Spirit of Christ when he decides to blow.

This is why prayer is so important, because that’s where the Holy Spirit begins working, through our prayers. Let me give an example. Every time some sort of unspeakable tragedy happens, we see all over social media these hashtags pop up. #Pray for Paris. #Pray for Kabul. #Pray for Orlando #Pray for Manchester and now, #prayforLondon. When disaster strikes, people FEEL a lot of things. People say, politicians, celebrities, nobodies like me, we say “they are in our thoughts and prayers.” Our hearts overflow with compassion, but that’s where it generally stops. We want to DO something, but we stop at feelings. It stops with thoughts and prayers. It is a certifiable phenomenon that people seem to think feeling things and expressing those feelings on social media is equivalent to doing something. Look, I’m helping! Look, let me just be frank, no tweet, no matter who sends it, ever helps.

Hashtag compassion in the lived experience of 21st century America allows us to congratulate ourselves on our humanity without producing any change in our behavior. It encourages people to believe that our moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions we have been induced to feel. In short, it is a substitute for charity. Here’s an off the wall example of this, Les Misérables is one of the biggest musicals in the world! It’s about the struggle for justice and the miserableness of poverty. How many people do you think walk out of the theater and stroll on past the homeless beggar begging for spare change and just blissfully walk on by as if that person weren’t there, begging for money so that they can eat? I know I did it when I saw Les Mis at London’s West End. That’s one place I need to allow the Spirit to transform me — my encounters with homeless people, who I admit I am uncomfortable interacting with. I need to pray that the Holy Spirit takes my compassion for them in their poverty and move me to action. And so I commit to you, right here and now, to volunteering my time at our Church’s Souper Saturday soup Kitchen. I’ve been praying about it for a while — it’s time I did something with my prayers.

I want to say that Hashtag compassion ain’t the same has real, Spirit led compassion. Pentecost, the descending of the Spirit, turns our feelings into loving action. Spirit led compassion commences with prayer. Prayer simply isn’t words. Prayer is the beginning of action, it is the start of us orienting ourselves towards God’s purposes. The Spirit takes our compassionate prayers and turns them into action, because the Spirit transforms us to be bearers of good news. The Spirit is with you, wherever you are, in whatever you are doing, no matter if you’re praying “wow!” prayers, “Thank you!” prayers, “Help us! Prayers.” When you receive the Spirit Jesus promises us, you are empowered by that Spirit.

Last Sunday I prayed about something that really shook me up. I prayed, “We pray for the city of Portland, Oregon, for the families of Taliesin Namkai-Meche, age 23 / recent college graduate, and Sergeant First Class Rick Best, 53 and father of four, murdered by a white supremacist on public transportation, after they came to the defense of two young Muslim girls who were being abused for their faith. Lord, Grant us the courage to declare that racism is a sin. That bigotry is an affront to God. That an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. That we, as Christians and Americans can declare, “Not in our Name.” I want to challenge you, First Pres, on this Pentecost where we recall how the promised Spirit of Truth ignites the hearts of Jesus’ disciples, to not let this prayer become #prayforPortland, but rather a prayer that leads us from compassion to action as we strive to acknowledge and do something about the deadly racism in our land. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can witness to our risen Lord by standing up against hate.

Never forget, this is the same Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation; this is the same spirit that breathed life into Eve and Adam in the Garden. This is the same Spirit that spoke through Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Prophets and the Psalmists when they preached Liberation and Judgment and the reign of God. This is the same Spirit that breathed life into the dusty, old dry bones that Ezekiel preached too. This is the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove when John baptized him, when God the Father said “This is my Son.” The same spirit that raised Lazarus from the dead, the same spirit that was with Jesus up on the cross that brought us salvation! This same spirit came to the apostles at Pentecost, and gave birth to a Church that is meant to embody and proclaim Jesus Christ has risen from the dead! This is the same Spirit that has empowered faithful Christians throughout the centuries to live lives of Resurrection. This is the same Spirit that lives within you.

This is the same Spirit that is here in First Presbyterian that compels us as believers to proclaim to the world, “he who was dead is now alive. Christ is risen!” Through the power of the Spirit stand up for Jesus, live for Jesus, and let his resurrection glory shine through you. Don’t stop at compassion — let the Spirit transform your compassion into action. Stand up and live Jesus out in the City. Go and proclaim the risen Lord out in the Suburbs. Let your witness to the mighty power of the Spirit of God be heard across America! By the power of the Spirit of Truth, Let your Christ be known to the entire world! Wear your red proudly! Amen!

[I preached this sermon on Pentecost, 2017, based on the text from John 14, to a large PC(USA) Church in the greater Chicago area. I had been greatly troubled by the attack by a white supremacist in Portland, Oregon nearly two weeks earlier, and it was from this disquiet in my soul that this sermon emerged.]

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