Sunday, May 31, 2009

From White to Red: Let's Have a Party!

Pentecost by Linda Smith

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit... All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’  ~ Acts 2:2-4a, 12-13, New Revised Standard Translation (NRSV)

Today the liturgical color of mainline churches changes from the white (representing Christ) of Eastertide to the red (representing the Holy Spirit) of Pentecost. I have always enjoyed developing liturgies for Pentecost Sunday, because it is, in fact, a birthday party!
One bible reading is always the same on Pentecost for each of the three lectionary cycles: Acts 2:1-13.
Did it really happen that "from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them"?  I doubt it. 
The book that has come to be called The Acts of the Apostles is actually the second part of Luke's gospel. 
Gospels are not history, as much as Christian fundamentalists would like to claim they are. Rather, they are what the word gospel says they are: good news. And the good news is told in story form, using all of the devices of the story teller, including allegory, parable,  symbolism, etc.
Even if what has been called the Holy Spirit, arriving with the sound of a rushing wind and tongues of fire, did not happen in the manner told by Luke, something certainly happened among the gathered group of Jesus' frightened and hiding followers that day seven weeks after his execution.
Of course, there are other readings for Pentecost Sunday besides the Acts of the Apostles. They  vary according to the cycle. My favorite gospel reading for Pentecost is John  15:26-27; 16:4b-15. It comes from the section of John's gospel that has been called the farewell discourse between Jesus and his disciples. And in it Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit, the paraclete in the Koine Greek of the New Testament. Besides Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, as those who hang on to the Elizabethan English of King James) Paraclete can also be translated as advocate, helper, counselor, etc.
John's gospel has Jesus, before his arrest and prosecution, telling his closest followers of the promise of the Paraclete: 

‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.' 

So the Paraclete is seen by mainline Christians as central to the formation and mission of the Church. The story of Pentecost (and why the festival is still celebrated) is that the Church was born on Pentecost and began it's mission of sharing the Good News (gospel) with the world. Following the Acts reading for Pentecost is the first sermon preached to share the Good News with the world. (Acts 2:14-36 if you want to read it).
My colleague and friend, Doug, pastors the congregation here in Louisville that I identify as my "home church."  He honors me by emailing to me his sermons before he preaches them. His Pentecost sermon that he will preach in about ten hours begins with this story:

Once upon a time, in someplace far, far away, a little child on the way home after Church, turned to Parent and said, “You know, the sermon this morning puzzled me, confused me.” Parent replied, wisely, “Oh? And how was that?” “Well,” said the child, “Preacher said that God is bigger than we are. Is that true?” “Yes, that’s true.” “And Preacher also said that God lives within us. Is that true too?” “Yes, it is.” Well,” said the child, “If God is bigger than we and lives within us, wouldn’t he show through?”

Doug points out that...
Sometimes there’s a power failure in the faith-lives of God’s people, and all things shut down, maybe need to be reset. Power failures can be caused by all sorts of things, but mostly because some infrastructure hasn’t been tended. Faith’s power grid can also shut down—or be in a brownout. The darkness then encroaches. The darkness in faith-terms includes despair, sin, evil, troubles, wars, breakage of the rules of society—the Commandments. The thing about that is, though, that there is nothing that can overcome the light of the Christ, the advocate, the Helper, the Comforter within us. That can be overshadowed by other lights around it, like the light of a streetlamp can overwhelm a nightlight—but the nightlight never goes out, never stops working, never ceases to be a help and a comfort and an advocate. It’s just momentarily overwhelmed. 

I have seen that darkness encroach in individual 
lives and also in the entire Church. It has happened many times through the 2,000 years since that first Pentecost. However, the light has always remained, even if but a flicker, in a few people, even as the darkness has hidden it the lives of the majority.
To me, that's the central point of Pentecost: through the Paraclete, the Church has the power to let the Good News shine in the world, if not by tongues of fire, then by telling and living the story of Christ Jesus. That's mission of those who claim the name of Christ Jesus, a mission that was begun on Pentecost. It's why we celebrate the Church's birthday today! And why I love this Sunday and the color red so much.


  1. I didn't realize today was Pentecost. Thanks for the background and the reason for the red.

    One of the things that has confused me is how anyone who claims to love God can hate any person. God is all, therefore everyone is God. Hating someone becomes a paradox.

  2. Aw, Nick, this is sweet.

    Thanks for the education about Pentecost, of which I have never known a thing.

    I really liked Doug's story about the little boy. Thank you.

  3. I like Squirl's comment about paradox. It occurs to me why my former Lutheran pastor always talked about "loving the Christ in each other." Yep, sometimes the "other" part isn't so lovable, but there is that Christ part that is, and if we can attach to that, life will be so much easier!

  4. Nick

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. I liked that post, Nick, and I would certainly like to hear your friend, Doug, give his homily. He makes them interesting.

    You do look magnificent in your robes, too.