Sermon delivered on Pentecost, June 15, 2008.
When we hear the term “rags to riches” we know the reference is to a person who was poor and at the end of his rope. Then, through a sudden turn of events or through a process of hard work and determination, the person attains a huge amount of wealth. Numerous CEOs of fortune 500 companies started in the mail room or the loading dock. Countless, now successful entrepreneurs started small companies that went bankrupt. Many, many well-known inventors designed several devices and prototypes that failed. Some have received a great inheritance or won the lottery.
One might not think so, but the Apostles of Jesus Christ have their own rags to riches story. Some may say, “Wait a minute, I don’t remember any of them getting rich because of following the Nazarene.” In fact, all, if not most of them, left their jobs and professions when Jesus called them. All of them, except for John the Beloved, were martyred/killed by either the Jewish or the Roman authorities. That does not sound like a great, happy ending. So, what do I mean by saying the Apostles went from rags to riches?
From the time they began to follow Jesus, up through His arrest, trial and crucifixion and even after His resurrection from the dead, the apostles were a rag-tag bunch. They never seemed to understand what Christ was trying to teach them. When Christ was arrested and put on trial, all them deserted Him. Even Peter, seemingly the most passionate follower, flat-out denied he knew Him three times. The apostles then went into hiding for fear they would meet the same fate. When witnesses came forward to tell of Jesus’ resurrection, most of the apostles did not believe it. When the resurrected Christ came to them Himself, they often did not recognize Him at first and even some still doubted. Jesus severely scolds them for their unbelief and hardness of heart (Mk.16:11?)
So how did these men go from dense, deserters, deniers and doubters to faithful, fervent, fearless defenders of the Good News concerning Jesus Christ as the risen Lord? Quite simple, it was the Holy Spirit that made all the difference. After the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate today, 50 days after Christ Resurrection and 10 days after His Ascension, the Apostles are completely transformed. Even though, Jesus foretold this change saying, “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk.16:18?). Even though Jesus commanded them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching (Mt.28:16-20). Even though Jesus promised them “I am with you always” (Mt.28:20). Even though Jesus teaches them all them all the prophetic scriptures concerning Himself (Lk.24:22?). It was not until after the Spirit of God descended upon the Apostles in the form of fiery tongues that they began to walk courageously in Jesus’ words.
And so it is with us. Despite all our doubts and fears, despite our stubborn refusal to believe, despite our turning our back to Christ, He still commands us to follow Him and do His work. Jesus is always sending His Spirit upon us, especially when we are gathered as the Church, the Body of Christ. That’s exactly what we are praying for during the consecration/epiklesis, “We ask, pray and entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts to bless, sanctify and make...this bread to become the precious Body of Your Christ and that which is in this cup to become the precious Blood of Your Christ ... changing them both by Your Holy Spirit.”
We are expecting another Pentecost every Divine Liturgy. Therefore, we must be ready to be transformed into a fearless, faithful follower of Christ. That’s the paradoxical beauty of it. We just need to be faithful. The Lord, more specifically the Holy Spirit, does the rest. He works with us and in us and through us to make Christ present in the world around us. We are called as Christians, as the Church, to continue the preaching, teaching, healing ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, we too can go from rags to riches. However, this is not the false teachings of the “prosperity gospel” or the “name it and claim it gospel.” The riches were talking about are not monetary wealth and material possessions. The riches of the Spirit are the gifts and fruits given to us by God. The gifts enumerated by St. Paul are prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership and mercifulness (Romans 12:6-7). The fruits, also listed by St. Paul, are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).
Therefore, as we fall down on bended knee at the Kneeling Prayers of Pentecost, let us bring our ragged habits, doubts and despairs before the throne of God. Let us humbly and trustingly plead with Christ our Lord and beseech Him to send down His Holy Spirit upon us so that we may be richly bestowed with all His gifts and fruits. As we are lifted up by Him, let us stand and walk with courageous faith to proclaim the Good News that Christ has risen from the dead, granting forgiveness and salvation to everyone and all the world. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.