“Please, please, I can’t breathe.” This desperate plea for help came from 46-year-old George Floyd, a black man, who was dying on the ground for his neck was being held down by a white police officer’s knee. “I can’t breathe.” He repeatedly pleaded for relief, but the brutality didn’t stop until he went unconscious and died. This tragedy has disturbed and wounded us so deeply. I know, many of you might feel your chest tight already as I talk about him again today.
And another tragedy terrified us last week. The Covid-19 death toll passed into six figures last Wednesday. Over a hundred thousand people, who breathed alive even a few months ago, died from this vicious virus. They were mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, spouses and even children. They didn’t all have to die. While some people claimed their freedom to live without restrictions and breathe freely without masks, more than a hundred thousand people died painfully, feeling shortness of breath.
Look at this society we are in. Can you feel the heavy and breathless air? The deeply entrenched racism has been worsened in this toxic political atmosphere. It has only fanned the flame of bigotry and discrimination. So it looks like some people even think it’s okay to shoot down an unarmed man jogging in his town if the man is black; it’s okay to falsely accuse a man and report him to the police if the man is black. And look at the devastating inequality. The structural racism has exacerbated even health disparity. Recent studies show how Covid-19 has disproportionately infected communities of color. Black people, for example, represent only 13% of the US population, but counties with higher black populations accounted for more than half of all Covid-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths as of mid-April. Can you believe this? Can we breathe comfortably in this suffocating atmosphere? Oh Lord, we really need some breathing room today.
And today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us, in the beginning, there was the breath of life. When the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, this wind from God swept over the deep and brought out the creation. This breath is called “Ruach Elohim” in Hebrew, which means, the breath of God. And yes, this is another name of the Holy Spirit. With this breath, God created heaven and earth. And God breathed this breath into Adam’s nostrils and made him a living being. Today is the day we praise this divine breath.
Here, some people may ask me, “How can we just joyfully praise this breath of God today as our society unjustly push people to their last breath? Isn’t it a big irony—we celebrating this breath of life today?” Maybe, it is. But I would rather proclaim, it’s precisely because of the social evil we are facing today, we should commemorate the day that the Holy Spirit came down to transform the followers of Jesus Christ and through them, the world. It’s precisely because of the mounting loss of life happening now, we should call upon the Spirit of the living God to come to us and restore our souls and this sin-sick land.
So I dare ask you today to join me in celebrating the day of Pentecost and opening your heart to the life-giving breath of God in our midst. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples and other followers of Jesus were praying together in a house. And the Holy Spirit came with “the rush of a violent wind” like a tornado. This breath of God also comes with a vision of flames. It’s like the tongues of fire touching and resting on each believer’s head. This breath, like a wind of fire, blows in and suddenly fills the entire house. Then what happen to the disciples and followers?
The Book of Acts testifies, upon receiving the breath of God, they built a bridge over any kind of barriers. The Holy Spirit gifted early Christians the ability to speak fluently in all different languages and the crowds who understood them were amazed. The breath of God enabled them to communicate heart-to-heart the good news of Jesus overcoming all barriers…not just a language barrier, but the barriers that divided them, such as race, nationality, culture, and class. By taking the breath of God, they were able to build a bridge and make a new race as the same offspring of Abraham. In the Roman society where discrimination was taken as normal, the Holy Spirit called Christians to be bridge builders and to proclaim the kingdom of reconciliation in the name of Jesus.
Early Christians not only built a bridge. Upon receiving the breath of God, they also built a community over any kind of differences. When the Holy Spirit came down and inspired these believers, they became one and equal. The Holy Spirit enabled them to communicate with God and also with one another. And there flourished spiritual renewal and anointing; there bloomed compassion and love for one another; there were opening of hearts and sharing of resources; and there emerged a community, the body of Christ, the church! In the society where difference led to bigotry, Christ believers gathered and the Holy Spirit raised the church, a loving community.
Faithful friends in Christ, today, we remember all those people out there and also among us who cry out, “I can’t breathe.” And we remember the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. This Spirit is the breath of life that created all things with God. This Spirit is the breath of justice that inspired the judges and the prophets to bring deliverance and liberation to the people of God. This Spirit is the breath of love and truth that Jesus breathed onto the disciples. And this Spirit is the breath of guidance that still leads all believers to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
When this life-giving breath of God comes upon us and empowers us, we can surely do things that can help people around us breathe in this troubled world. As bridge builders of the Holy Spirit, let us be compassionate and loving above all. Please reach out to those who are in so much pain now, cry with those who are vulnerable to any kind of injustice, share their burdens of grief and despair, anger and fury. And we may offer comfort and peace of Christ with them. And as community builders, let us be righteous and courageous. Let’s stand against social injustice, raise our voice and proclaim justice in any possible ways. With the power of the Holy Spirit, we may partake in ministries that can change our corner of the world into God’s kingdom of peace. And we may transform this society slowly but surely.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come!” Today, we wholeheartedly plead and pray, “Come Holy Spirit come! Come and let us be your church overcoming all kinds of barriers and differences. Come Holy Spirit come! Come and let us breathe the breath of God and let us be your hands and feet to help others breathe and live in your love. Come. Do come!” We pray today in Jesus holy name. Amen.
It’s been already two months since we last met in this sanctuary and worshipped in person together. For the last two months, the landscape of our lives has drastically changed in a way we never imagined before. Death toll has mounted. Economy has failed. And people have suffered… suffered from losing friends and family members, losing jobs and businesses, and losing faith and hope. While we have been sheltered in place for the last two months, the world has become a strange place. And we all wonder if there’s any way-out. We are eager to find out when we would be free from all these miseries. But we know, nobody has the correct answer. Nobody can tell us when the day will finally arrive.
So these days, I frequently find myself daydream. I imagine the day when the COVID-19 vaccine gets distributed and we all get immunized. How joyful it would be! When the day comes fast enough, I would meet you all in the church and worship together in exuberant joy and thanksgiving, and I would give a big hug to every one of you before I leave. When the day comes, I would have a wonderful reunion with my family and friends in South Korea, and I would visit the resting place of my grandmother who recently passed away. I would go out and dine at my favorite restaurants. I would travel here and there.
And my daydreaming usually doesn’t stop here. I imagine further the day…the day when we finally overcome not only the pandemic but also the things this pandemic has revealed about our society. The deeply entrenched racism. The epidemic of violence and bigotry. The devastating inequality and disparity. And I imagine further the day, the day described in the Bible, the Day of the Lord, when the kingdom of God finally comes in our midst. When the day comes, we shall see justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We shall live in boundless peace and joy. We shall see no more deaths and tears, no more worries and cries. No more unemployment. No more hungers and struggles. These days, I frequently find myself daydream of such day.
Today we are celebrating the day of ascension. The Bible lessons for today tell us that a cloud took Jesus out of the disciples’ sight. And from that day on, the followers of Jesus began to wait for the day of his return, the Day of the Lord. They started to imagine the day when Jesus comes down from his heavenly seat, from the right hand of God. They imagined the day when he comes again to judge the living and the dead as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed.
So is this all about ascension? Jesus Christ is lifted up to heaven and we are to wait for the day of his return? Are we, Christians, supposed to only imagine and long for the new kingdom to come with Jesus Christ some day? I don’t think that’s everything about this Ascension Sunday. There’s more about our Lord’s Ascension. This event doesn’t leave us to be just passive or inattentive. Rather, it leaves us a task and keeps us active. It reminds us of a very critical mission we should carry out while waiting for the day.
In today’s Acts reading, the disciples get confused watching their resurrected Lord and Savior take off heavenward. They want to know where Jesus is going and when he would come back. But Jesus only says, “It is not for you to know, but wait until you receive the Holy Spirit.” And then he’s gone. The disciples are standing there looking up, wishing to see some sign, or to hear some more words of assurance. But instead, the disciples hear an awakening voice from two persons in white robes, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Here, the point is: “Don’t just stay there as spectators, but act like the follows of Jesus. He is surely coming.” If I may translate this in more colloquial phrases, it might be like, “Will you stand there forever? I told you, he’s coming back, so get back to your mission.”
The disciples also listen to the voice of Jesus himself at the ascension. Jesus tells his disciples about the task, the final mission. He says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised” (Luke 24:48). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Be my witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the task. Be my witnesses—don’t just imagine or long for the day to come, but bear witness to what you have already experienced and what you have come to believe.
As you may know, it’s widely accepted that the same author wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. So they are two volumes in one series. The two readings we read this morning are the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Acts. That is, Luke closes Jesus’ story and starts a new story about early Christians’ lives. Between these two stories, Jesus’ ascension comes as a bridge. Yes, Luke writes the same narrative in both books. Why? I think it’s simply because the story is important and especially, the task is crucial. “The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48). Jesus asks us to go out and tell. Go and be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Faithful friends in Christ, on this Ascension of the Lord Sunday, we have to listen to Jesus calling us into our lifelong vocation as Christians: to be his witness. Then, how can we be his witness? Can we do that even in this pandemic? Of course. We don’t have to think big things. We can just start with small things. Think about practicing small acts of love and kindness. Small acts of care and hospitality. And think about sharing small words of comfort and encouragement. Small words of support and sympathy. These simple words and deeds are a good start witness Jesus. And they will never go in vain. They will be rewarded by God. For sure, it would be great if we can actually go out and bear witness to Jesus Christ to someone who doesn’t know Jesus. But today, let’s start simple.
Would you be a witness of Jesus with me today? On this day we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, we are called to share the good news, share the redeeming love that we have seen, felt, known, and experienced in Jesus Christ and in this community of God. So let’s not just long for the day, but be his witnesses today. Until Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, and we shall joyfully live in everlasting peace and love… until the day, let us earnestly work to make God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In the power of the Holy Spirit, let us be his witnesses in all we do, and do it all to the glory of God. Amen.
Today’s Gospel passage is a part of the so-called farewell discourse of Jesus. Simply put, these are Jesus’ last words. Continued from the story we read last week, Jesus is now preparing to go through his passion and death on the cross. Jesus already washed the disciples’ feet. With his last words, he hopes to get the disciples ready for his departure. He doesn’t have much time. He makes sure they understand what they should keep on doing after he’s gone. Thereby, it feels like the farewell discourse is not just Jesus’ last words, but it’s like the will of Jesus. And no doubt, it’s important for any followers of Jesus; this part summarizes all messages and signs of Jesus. This is the gist of Jesus’ messages and signs. Then, what’s the core message that Jesus delivers to the anxious disciples and to us?
Here, I believe, Jesus gives us two simple messages. The first message can be encapsulated in one word. Love. If I may put that in a phrase, it would be like, keep the commandment of love. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “they who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (John 14:15). And these commandments are what he just told them at the table. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-34). He asks the disciples to keep on doing this thing that he has taught and done on the earth. Love. Nothing else.
Keep on loving. This new commandment is what builds the kingdom of God here and now. This new commandment is the best weapon to fight against evil and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in this world. This new commandment is the only path to the promised new life in Christ. So love God and love one another no matter what. Jesus once more asks the disciples to keep on loving. And he promises, “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:21)
Then, what is the second message? The second message is this. Let the Holy Spirit help and guide you. As you keep on loving God and loving one another, you may find difficulties, you may be disheartened and wounded. Then, get help from the Holy Spirit whom I send on your way. This Spirit of God will be with you and dwell in your heart always. And this Spirit of truth will do the same work that I have done for you, and will continue my presence in your lives forever…Jesus assures the disciples and comforts their troubled hearts.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as “another Advocate.” He says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (14:16). (3) The Advocate’s original Latin word is the Paraclete, which is a composition of “para (alongside) + kletos (to be called).” So, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, means the one who is called alongside us to help us. This “another” Advocate is the helper, comforter, intercessor, and guide, just like Jesus, the first Advocate. Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because [the world] neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (14:17). So ask for help. Ask your?? way. Seek consolation. Request guidance. The Holy Spirit will empower you to move on whenever it is hard to keep the commandment of love.
Keep on loving. This is what Jesus asks us to do in his last words. And how can we do that? First, by keeping the new commandment. And second, by getting help from the Holy Spirit. This is the will of Jesus our Lord. Of course, it’s not exactly the same as the will we know—a legal document containing instructions as to what should be done with one’s fortune after one’s death. But if I may point out one clear similarity between a secular will and Jesus’ farewell speech, that is, they are not recommendations, not proposals. They don’t give us a choice. There’s no room to consider whether we would like to keep it or not. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He says, “This is my commandment.” This is something you should carry out. Although people call Jesus’ last words “the farewell discourse,” I believe, the content in that discourse is not actually a matter of discussion, not a matter of personal preference. Rather, it’s a matter of obedience. Obedience to Jesus. Obedience to the one we call, our “Lord.”
As the followers of Jesus Christ, how much do we try to keep on loving others in our lives? How much do we keep the new commandment? Have you ever tried to love the unlovable persons around you? How many times a week do you try to hear the Holy Spirit abiding in you? How many times a week do you ask the Advocate to guide you and comfort you? I believe, these questions are what we always ask to ourselves in this Eastertide and beyond.
Faithful friends in Christ, we are commanded to love. Let us keep the new commandment that Jesus Christ gives us today. And find help and guidance from the Holy Spirit when it’s hard to keep it. That’s the way we obey his will. In this turbulent world, our God discloses through Jesus Christ the love that forgives and saves sinners, the love that transforms the world with justice and peace, the love that overcome the power of death. Whenever we lose the direction, when we lose the meaning of life, I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, may enkindle the light of this love in our hearts and enable us to keep on… keep on following Jesus and keep on walking on the journey of faith even through the wilderness.
 Debie Thomas, “Love and Obedience,” at Journey with Jesus.net
As many of you already know, my grandmother passed away last Tuesday. She was 95 years old, but without any illness or trouble, she just peacefully went back to God’s embrace. Thanks be to God and thank you for sending me your thoughts and prayers.
Last week, I took time and reflected on my grandmother’s life and legacy weaving the pieces of my memories of her and her stories I’ve heard. Like most Koreans in her generation, my grandmother lived a life inseparably intertwined with the turbulent modern history of Korea. I heard that during the Japanese occupation, my grandfather was forcibly taken to a coal mine. It was life-threatening. So many people like him died there in harsh conditions of forced-labor camps. Luckily, my grandfather returned to the family, but soon the Korean War separated them again. Although he survived again, he was not like before with traumas and inner wounds.
Meanwhile, with no special skills, my grandmother made a living by doing anything. I heard how much she struggled to live. She had to travel by foot village to village to sell some small goods carrying her baby on her back. She helplessly lost her two children during the war. And she had to feed her family by working day and night in a small farmland. In my memory, she always toils away in a field; her back is badly hunched for intensive labor, her rough hands and feet are deformed, and the tips of her fingernails are always black with the dirt stuck there. At a single glance, anyone can tell, life hasn’t been that nice to her.
True, people may see my grandmother’s life as an uneasy life with tragic events, with no special achievements. But no matter how they see it, I’m sure that her life was a great life, an abundant life, because she lived a life of genuine faith, lived as a faithful follower of Jesus. How am I sure about this? I’m so sure just for one simple reason, for she prayed every day. She’s a woman of prayer. In her room, there were a small prayer table and a sitting mat where she could kneel down. On the table, she kept her Bible, reading glasses, a cross, and some pictures. And there was a picture of me and Jee Hei taken in our church. I know, she prayed every day at that table. I know, she also prayed for me and Jee Hei, and for our church looking at the picture. And I know, it was in her prayers that she found a way to hear the voice of her good shepherd who comforted her even through the darkest valleys of life. It was in her prayers that she found a way to have contentment in poverty, to bare hope in trouble, and to cultivate joy in suffering.
Today is the so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples about this good shepherd and his sheep. We know how good this shepherd is. For example, Jesus tells us, this good shepherd is “the gate for the sheep” (John 10:9). What does it mean? In Jesus’ days, a shepherd used a temporary sheepfold in the wilderness to keep the sheep safe at night. But this shabby enclosure usually provided walls only. So, at its entrance, there’s no gate, no door as such. So the shepherd had to sit down in the doorway and made himself a gate—a human door.
But no matter how good this shepherd is, there’s one thing the sheep should do always to follow this good shepherd and stay guarded by him. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus repeatedly tells us this one thing. He says, when the shepherd calls his own sheep by name, the sheep “hear his voice” (John 10:3). The sheep knows his voice and listens to his call. Yes, the shepherd is good; he always calls the sheep by name in his merciful voice. But the sheep should carefully listen to him to travel with him. The sheep should recognize the shepherd’s voice and discern his voice from any other voices, like a voice of a thief or a bandit, not to be lost and killed but to “have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). Keep on listening to the voice of the shepherd…this is indeed the key to the shepherd-and-sheep relationship.
Then, here’s a question for you. How can we listen to the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd, in our life? I believe, there can be many other ways, but there’s one time-tested way that our ancestors of faith affirm in many parts of the Bible. Yes, that is, prayer. In our prayers, we listen to the call of our good shepherd. In our prayers, we hear the still small voice of the Spirit that heals and comforts us, empowers and uplifts us. In our prayers, we discern the voice of truth from a voice of a thief or a bandit who climbs in and sneak in our hearts. In times like this, a thief of fear evokes our sense of anxiety and a bandit of despair drags us into a pit of depression. But in our prayers, we realize again, it is our good shepherd whom we should listen to and follow.
Life is hard. Out beyond the village, there are roaming predators, wolves, and bandits. In this time of COVID-19 crisis, we feel like we are the sheep that trudge through the rocky hills searching for a patch of grass. We are the sheep that wander through the wilderness to find water. Yet, Jesus assures us: with the good shepherd who lays down his life for us, with this good shepherd who carefully watches over us at the closest distance, our life is always abundant, and our life is on the way of grace to green pastures and still waters. So, the only thing we should surely do here and now is keep on listening to his voice no matter what.
My father told me that last Tuesday, right before the moment of my grandmother’s passing, he prayed for her and she replied with amen even in a very small voice. And that was her last word. How wonderful one’s life is to depart from this world listening to family’s farewell prayer. And how blessed one’s life is to finish life with the word, “amen.” I thought this, “amen” encapsulates her whole life. Throughout her journey of life, she faithfully listened to the voice of her good shepherd. In any moment of hardships, with amen, she followed him wherever he led her. And with amen, she went after him to her everlasting home. “Amen, so be it, my shepherd. Your will be done,” I imagine her last amen might mean something like this.
Faithful friends in Christ, what is the most important thing in our lives? What does it really matter? Our achievements, honors, fames, financial portfolios, good salary? Not at all. When we stand before death, none of them really matters. And we know, the most well-lived life is the life of faith, the life guided by our good shepherd until the end. With him, life is abundant even in the darkest valleys, even in trials. To live this abundant life, I tell you again, there’s one thing, one simple thing, we should do. We should recognize and listen to the voice of our good shepherd in our prayers.
The good shepherd, who died and has risen for you, is waiting for you at the door today. He is calling you that you may hear his voice and travel with him in this Eastertide. So, now is the time for you to start praying, start listening to him. Block out a time in your schedule, designate a prayer spot in your house, and make prayer one of your most important daily routines. We need prayer in this time of crisis. It is never more needed than before. May the grace of our good shepherd be always with us and lead our ways. And may we also reply to him in our daily prayers and in our last prayer on earth, “Amen, so be it, my shepherd. Your will be done.”
Pastor Earl Kim