The Colors of the Church

This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for Pentecost, 8 June 2003.  The Scriptures are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 22 – 27, and John 15: 26 – 27; 16: 4 – 15.


And the Preacher wrote, “To every thing there is a season.” The Preacher in this case is the writer of Ecclesiastes and the phrase is the beginning of Chapter 3 and a definition of seasons and time. Prompted by Jerry’s question last week, I figured that this day, which does constitute the birthday of the church, would be a good one to review for some and explain for others the seasons of the church and the associated colors.

The use of colors as a part of the church service began around the beginning of the 12th century A. D. Now, I suspect but could not prove that the relationship between the colors on the altar and the season of the liturgical calendar come from the days when the congregation could not read. Then it was necessary to provide visual references so that they would know what time of the year it was, at least from a church standpoint.

The church calendar actually starts in late November or early December with Advent. For the United Methodist Church, the color of Advent is purple. Purple stands for strength and is the traditional color of royalty and Advent is the season in which we celebrate the birth of our heavenly king. It also represents a time of penitence and preparation. Some churches have been using shades of blue instead of purple where blue represents hope. Thus, a dark shade of blue is a way to remember that Advent is the season of hope and promise.

The most common color used in church vestments is green. It represents life and growth and is used at times of passage from one season to the next. These times are called “ordinary time.” For the United Methodist Church, one passage of ordinary time is that time between Christmas and Lent. The second passage of ordinary time is between Pentecost, today, and the beginning of Advent. Sometimes in the past and especially in the Methodist Church, the first few Sundays of ordinary time were represented by the red of Pentecost and changed to green in the fall just before the beginning of Advent.

Lent starts with Ash Wednesday and is represented again by purple. Depending on the church and its traditions, Good Friday has no color or is represented by black. This is only day in the church calendar when black, the color of death is used. Easter and the Sundays following Easter are represented by white, the color of purity, innocence and holiness, and is used to represent a focus on the work of our Lord.

Pentecost, today, is red. Red represents the power of the Holy Spirit as it came upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. Red is most definitely a power color and is the way we remember the power and fire of the Holy Spirit as it descended upon the disciples that day in Jerusalem. It should communicate the strength and power that the Holy Spirit gives to us all in order for us, as God’s people, to call on the name of Jesus Christ.

But it was not the colors of the church that allowed people to know that a church was forming that day in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. You have to understand that everyone gathered that day in Jerusalem was there because it was Pentecost, not because the Holy Spirit was going to transform the nature of the church. Pentecost is one the three major Jewish festivals. It gets its name from the Greek word for “fifty” and comes fifty days after the Sabbath of the Passover.

It was a pilgrimage event, so it should not be surprising that there were people from all around the Mediterranean present. What was surprising was that with the presence of the Holy Spirit, each person there was able to speak to the others in their own tongue and dialect and understand what the others were saying. This was truly a sign of the “wonderful works of God.

But those who were not aware of what was transpiring among the disciples that day blamed their exuberance and joy on alcohol, exclaiming, “They are filled with new wine.” Why else would they hear what sounded like gibberish?

But Peter, the first to recognize that Jesus was the Christ, became the first to bear witness of Christ as the Savior. Pointing out that it was only nine in the morning (the third hour of the morning), Peter offered a more rational explanation of the disciples’ behavior.

Peter began his sermon by pointing out that what had transpired was the completion of the prophecy of Joel. Joel’s prophecy was that God promised that there would be a time would all those who followed God, not just be the prophets, the kings, or the priests, would received his Spirit. Peter pointed out that the time had come to pass for God to speak to and through all those who would come to Him, whether in visions, dreams or prophecy. God’s final act of salvation begins with the pouring out of His Spirit.

The passage from the Gospel for today comes right after Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. This was a time when the disciples were still thinking of their place in the kingdom of heaven in terms of power and glory, not service and humility. All of Jesus’ talk of loving everyone as an equal, of being the servant instead of the master really didn’t make sense to the disciples then and it still probably confuses people today.

We hear that we are the forgiven people, the special ones. Yet, Jesus’ words do not give us any vision of such a lofty stature in life. In fact, they speak of the opposite. And when we look at our lives and try to figure out how this will be, we are at a loss. Everything that He said runs counter to what our own minds say and we find ourselves quickly becoming disillusioned and dissatisfied. We find that the tasks before us, the things that we are asked to do to great a hill to climb.

Peter J. Gomes is the minister for the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He recently published a collection of sermons entitled “Strength for the Journey.” In one of those sermons, he spoke about Ernest Gordon, who had been the chaplain at Princeton. During World War II, Reverend Gordon was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and was interred at the camp near the River Kwai. Gomes writes,

“Gordon and his fellow British captives were initially very religions, reading their Bibles, praying, singing hymns, witnessing and testifying to their faith. They were hoping and expecting that God would reward them and fortify them for their faith by freeing them or at least mitigating their captivity. God didn’t deliver, however, and the men became both disillusioned and angry. They gave up on the outward display of their faith; but after a while, as the men began tending to the needs of their fellows — caring for them, protecting the weaker ones and in some cases dying for one another — they began to discern something of a spirit of God in their midst. They discovered that religion was not what you believed but what you did for others when it seemed that you could do nothing at all.

To survive a prison camp requires a special something. The men who Gomes wrote about found the spirit of God was there but not in the manner they initially sought. It came, as Paul said, as the aid when they were the weakest and it was reflected when others needed help.

It is that same spirit that allows us to find solutions to problems when the method that we wanted to use is not available. It is that same spirit that provides a sense of hope to those who would not normally have hope. Most importantly, it is the spirit that transforms lives.

When Jesus was still with the disciples, they were comfortable because they saw the mission of the church in terms of His presence. That is why none of them asked where Jesus was going when He spoke of leaving. It was only when they realized that the mission of the church would be left in their care and that they would be expected to carry out the mission that they began to panic. But through Pentecost and the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the disciples were given a new way to see life.

The same is true for us. We see before us many tasks, some personal and some related to this church. We may find that such tasks are so overwhelming that they cannot be completed or even begun. But, on this day when the Holy Spirit first made its presence known to the disciples, we are reminded that there is a solution to all the problems we face. Perhaps it is within us and we have not recognized it. Perhaps it is that thought in our minds asking to come into our lives.

It is not the colors that adorn the altar and the pulpit that will determine what is inside us. Nor will they help people to know that we are who we say we are. We are Christians, not simply because we say we are but because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to be a part of our lives. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that completes the work of Christ in transforming and redefining our lives; it is the Holy Spirit, the great Advocate that Jesus spoke of that provides the strength and wisdom when our strength and wisdom fail. As Paul wrote, it is that Holy Spirit that helps us when we can pray, as we should. It is that Holy Spirit when helps us when we are too weak to stand on our own.

So it really isn’t the colors that we wear today or the colors that are on the altar and lecture. But it is what is inside of us that is only represented by the colors. The Holy Spirit allows us to know that there is hope for tomorrow, that there is strength when we are weak. We are reminded today as we come to the communion table that Jesus knew that what would come after that his last gathering with the chosen twelve would take more strength and will-power than he could ever hope to have by himself. As we come to the table today, we are reminded again that the Holy Spirit is there, if we open our hearts. And if we accept Jesus as our Savior, if we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, then people will see our true colors and know that Jesus is alive and living through us.


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