Pentecost is such an important day in the life of the church. Fifty days after Easter, God gave birth to the church in Jerusalem by binding all believers together in and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that’s what we celebrate today. The Scripture passages that are designated for Pentecost give us much to reflect on. We could talk about the Holy Spirit as the Advocate who reminds us of all that Jesus taught and who teaches us new things as we grow in discipleship, as Jesus described in the Gospel of John. We could ponder how the Holy Spirit prays for us and in us, even when we don’t know how to pray as we ought, as Paul explains in his letter to the Romans. We could explore all the nooks and crannies of the Pentecost story itself—the wind and the flames and the crowds from many different places, all hearing about God’s deeds of power in their own languages, and Peter’s sermon where he recalls the stirring words of the prophet Joel.
But in the midst of all these scriptural riches, it was a phrase from last week’s reading that was in my mind all week. They’re the last actual words that Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel: “Stay here in the city [of Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Jesus had promised that the power of God would be given to the disciples, and on Pentecost that promise was fulfilled. In Acts, Luke provides a dramatic description of how this happened. I Iove this story and Luke’s struggle to describe the events of that day. Words nearly fail him. First, he tries comparing the Spirit’s arrival to the sound of a violent wind, and I picture Jesus’ followers covering their ears and crouching in panic, expecting that soon everything that wasn’t nailed down would be flying around the room. But, the wind metaphor doesn’t quite capture what it was like, so Luke adds the image of tongues of fire, both among the disciples and resting on each of them.
Lots of noise and flames all over the place: could Luke have given a more vivid description of the Spirit’s arrival and the announcement that something totally new had been born into the world? It’s a great and memorable occasion, and the images of fire and wind are stamped in the collective memory of the Church and even in our United Methodist logo.
Maybe you’ve known a time when the presence of the Holy Spirit was made known in your own life or in the life of this congregation in an equally dramatic way. Perhaps you’ve had a moment when it felt like your faith ignited and began to burn in you, filling you with heat and light, giving you a new understanding of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. Maybe that experience upset all of your assumptions about who and what you are, throwing everything you thought you knew into chaos as surely as the Holy Spirit’s arrival did on that day of Pentecost. Maybe you remember times in the history of Zion when the Spirit fired it with a passion for worship and service, and fused it into a community. Dramatic events that make the Spirit’s presence known become touchstones in our individual and corporate lives.
But I would guess that, for most of us, the Spirit’s presence is made known in much quieter ways. Images of wind and flame make for a memorable story, but they may not seem to have much to do with our lives. Our memorable experiences of wind and flame are usually connected to their destructive power, and we’re grateful that these tend to be unusual events. When the Holy Spirit’s presence is made known to us in a dramatic way, we may have a rush of excitement and the occasional mountain-top experience. But, it’s hard to sustain the whirlwind and heat of the Spirit’s more dramatic appearances in our lives. Most of our time is spent in the plains and valleys of life, where the breezes are gentle and flames are contained in fire pits.
That’s why Jesus’ words in Luke seem more useful to me. Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be “clothed” with power from on high connects with our every-day lives. We all get dressed every day. We choose the clothing that will help us get through our daily activities. Maybe we put on protective clothing that will keep us safe, like steel-toed boots or the masks that we’ve so faithfully worn. Maybe we put on some specialized gear that helps us do our work or pastimes well, like an apron or a helmet. Maybe we’ll choose clothing that gives us the freedom to move and create, or the comfort that allows us to rest quietly and peacefully.
Often our clothing says something about our relationships and who we are. We each have a unique style that makes a statement about our personality. It may be subtle, or it may be more in-your-face with tee shirts that loudly and proudly proclaim what we believe. We wear clothing with logos that let others know whom we support or identify with—corporations, sports teams, political parties. Here in our congregation, we have aprons embroidered with Zion’s name. Every day, the clothing we choose equips us and identifies us.
When Jesus told the disciples that they would be “clothed” with power, he used a metaphor that was common in the language of his time. The word “clothed” literally meant then what it means now—to get dressed, to put garments on your body. But, in that time and place, it also meant to take on certain qualities. The Psalms describe God as being clothed in majesty and strength, and priests in righteousness and salvation. Proverbs tells of the capable wife who’s clothed in strength/dignity. This metaphor of clothing is all over Paul’s letters, where he encourages his readers to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, the breastplate of faith and love, the helmet of the hope of salvation and, indeed, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
To be clothed in something (or someone) meant that you had taken on that characteristic or likeness. So, when Jesus promises his disciples that they will be clothed in power, they understand that this power will be given to them so that they can make it a part of themselves. They’ll be able to use it as they live out their discipleship, and it will identity them as followers of Christ.
That power is part of our wardrobe, too. Every day, we can go into the world, clothed in the power of the Holy Spirit. That power frees us to fully use the gifts God has given us. It enables us to live according to kingdom values when the world tempts us to take an easier but less righteous path. It gives us the strength to face the next treatment, to walk into the counselor’s office, to go on when a loved one’s place at the table is empty. The Spirit’s power enables us to fulfill our baptismal vows—the promise we make to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. It gives us the confidence we need when the world tells us we’re not worth much, because this power comes from the Spirit who testifies to our spirits that we are the beloved of God. This is the power we are clothed in, every day.
But, simply wearing a particular kind of clothing doesn’t accomplish anything. We have to actually do what our clothing enables us to do. We have to live as the people our clothing identifies us as. A baseball player may wear a glove that makes a great catch in the outfield possible, but it’s not much use if the player stays in the locker room. An apron gives a cook the freedom to stir and chop and mix with abandon, but no meal will appear if the cook merely relaxes at the kitchen table. Hard hats allow construction workers to erect buildings and bridges, but nothing gets built if the workers remain in their trucks, gazing out at the construction site. Our clothing doesn’t do us any good unless we do the thing it equips us to do.
Clothing that proclaims who we are is just as useless if we don’t live up to the identity we advertise. A church I know decided to order clothing with the church’s logo on it. They debated about whether to include the UMC tagline “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” on the shirts. One member asked a very sobering question. She said, “What if we put that on our shirts, and someone challenges us about it? What if we aren’t living that out?” It was a good question. Would they be the people that their shirts said they were?
Back in the early 1980s, I worked as a salesperson for AT&T Information Systems. Those were the years when AT&T was making the transition from being a government-regulated utility to a market-driven computer-systems company. We had a rocky road to travel as we moved from the well-defined world of regulations and tariffs to the rough-and-tumble competition of the marketplace.
Management did everything they could to transform us into a professional sales force. At the time, the epitome of excellence in computer systems sales was IBM. IBM’s sales force was identified by their strict—if unofficial—dress code: a navy or dark gray suit, white shirt, red tie. Our managers decided that if we were going to sell like IBM’s sales reps, we needed to look like them, too.
So, we were all required to read John Malloy’s book Dress for Success. We were provided with a mail-order source for dark suits and white shirts. (I guess we were on our own for the red ties.) A wardrobe consultant visited each branch office and explained the nuances of fashion for our particular geographic region. Did you know that, in the 80s, Cleveland was the only place in the country where a brown suit could increase your credibility?
The problem was that the right suit doesn’t automatically confer knowledge, and the corner office can’t dress you with competence. Those dark suits may have been a symbol of credibility, but the suits alone can’t produce results. We had to actually go out and make sales calls. We had to know our product and the needs of our customers. We had to be persistent in telling them how we could meet their needs and to make sure we lived up to our promises. We could wear the clothing of competence and trustworthiness, but that alone wasn’t enough. After putting on our dark suits and white shirts, we had to do something.
When we, as Christians, are clothed in the power of the Holy Spirit, we too need to do something with it. All that power is meaningless unless we allow it to transform us, as individuals and as a congregation, and then use it to transform the world.
This is what Peter did. On the day of Pentecost, he heard the crowds sneer at what they were seeing and hearing, and that brash, impetuous man from Galilee, who so often had stumbled into verbal blunders, was empowered with a new eloquence. He didn’t shut the door and hide from the naysayers. He stood up amidst the crowd and, clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit, he delivered a stirring sermon.
We read only part of it, but we learn from later verses in Acts that Peter’s words about the good news of Jesus Christ, fueled by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, was so persuasive that his listeners were “cut to the heart” and wanted to know what they should do. Peter called on them to repent and be baptized, and that day three thousand people were added to the number of believers. In the days that followed, the disciples chose to live as people who had been clothed with power and, day by day, more and more people were being saved.
We, too, are clothed in power from on high, and like Peter and he early disciples, we have to do something with it. We can’t sit at home, wearing the Spirit’s power like our most comfy pajamas, as we shake our heads over the news on our screens; we need to use the power we’ve been given to confront the problems we see. We can’t wear the Spirit’s power and remain safely in our sanctuary, isolated from those who are suffering from poverty and injustice, however different from us they may be; we need to do all that is within our power to demand and create needed change, even when that change doesn’t directly benefit us. We can’t spend our days looking at our reflection in a mirror, thinking how good the Spirit’s power looks on us, while there is a world outside with a crying need for the good news of Jesus Christ; we need to wear the Spirit’s power in the world in a way that identifies us as people who are living, breathing examples of what a life in Christ looks like.
All through the Easter season, we spent a lot of time in the book of Acts. We heard the stories of what the first people to be clothed in the power from on high did with that power. They cared for the poor and the vulnerable, shared the good news, interacted with people they never dreamed of encountering in places they never imagined. They allowed the Spirit’s power to transform their lives and, through them, the lives of thousands. Their stories, told in Acts, make up the sequel to the gospel of Luke. Now, there is a sequel to Acts waiting to be written. God is calling each of us to be part of that sequel. God is calling us to write the sequel to Acts with our own lives as we use the power we’ve been clothed with.
Mark Twain is credited with saying that “the clothes make the man.” For Christians, the Holy Spirit’s power is the clothing that makes the Church. The power from on high, promised by Jesus, blew and burned through the disciples at Pentecost, and now that power is with us. We are empowered to proclaim love and grace, repentance and forgiveness, compassion and justice in Christ’s name. We are empowered to build God’s kingdom right here and right now. We’ve been clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is ours to wear—ours to live in, ours to live out of, and ours to live up to on this day of Pentecost and every day until Christ comes again. Amen, and amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young