SERMON FOR WHITSUNDAY, JUNE 4, 2017
“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.”
IF YOU were to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre, you may have violated a primary rule of our American freedom of speech. Words should not irresponsibly cause harm, harm like fire being the result—irrespective of person or property, with its avarice to consume, threatening life and loss. We may say the word “Fire” with a kind of loathing or respect. It scared our forefathers. It scares us still.
Fire was imagined by the Greeks to be one of the four basic elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Each element was either cold or hot, wet or dry. Fire is both hot and dry, according to Aristotle. But what did he know?
We know that fire needs conditions in order to burn—it needs heat, fuel and air. Cool the temperature, or remove its fuel, or cut off its oxygen, and fire quickly goes out. Firefighters know these things and use the knowledge to stop fire where it is.
But don’t we want fire, sometimes? It’s thought that the discovery of fire was one of mankind’s greatest early achievements. That is the belief, anyway, of the weekend Barbeque artist. I am man: I make fire, I cook meat, I drink beer. We use fire for a good many things, including what powered your cars to get here this morning. Fire is a good thing when it’s properly used. We need fire, or life ends. The sun is a great ball of fire, and without it, 459.67 degrees below zero is the temperature of the universe. That’s not cold. That’s death. That’s nothing. Fire is good.
And fire is bad—or it can be.
St. Paul told Corinth that we are a building built for God and we must use care in what we build here into ourselves. The foundation is, for us all, Jesus Christ, but then we may build ourselves up with gold, silver, and gems, or else: wood, grass and straw. There are temples of gold, and there are huts of grass, even in real life. Which one survives a fire? Paul suggests that our building will have to pass a test of fire. If our temple is gold, silver and gemstones, it will survive and we will receive a reward. If our hut is only made of flammable items, it will burn down. Paul assures us that “he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” 1 Cor 3:9-17
What is the fire he speaks of? Christ’s disciples saw that fire on each other 2,000 years ago, on this day, Pentecost, as a sound of rushing wind filled the room where they prayed and waited. The Holy Spirit had come for them, and His fire was filling them, inspiring them, bringing life and power to the new Church of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is pictured as a descending dove, as living water, as wind, and as fire—he is without clear imagery, for these elements takes any form, move anywhere.
T. S. Eliot, the great Anglican poet knew this and wrote.
“The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror Of which the tongues declare The one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-To be redeemed from fire by fire.
“Who then devised the torment? Love. Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove. We only live, only suspire Consumed by either fire or fire.” T. S. Eliot – Four Quartets Little Gidding IV
To be consumed by fire or by fire is our fate. The fire above is God’s powerful Third Person, revealed to us ages ago, yet without theology to explain Himself, only that He pointed to God and inspired the Prophets. The fire below is a lake that consumes but doesn’t cease burning, nor are its victims relieved by extinction. The earth is no sanctuary, for it will be destroyed by fire as well. We will face fire at the end of all things, and we need to have that fire inside us now in order to survive it.
This fire was on earth from the beginning, was breathed into Adam and Eve, as the Spirit gave them life. But He would not live in human beings until the Son of man ascended and sent word from the Father that our time had come. Time for fire temples. Time for flame. Time for a new energy in faith that would conquer ignorance, hate, bigotry, sin and death.
What has happened to that fire? Do you see the vibrant flame of the Spirit in the Christianity of these days? Have we been able to cool that heat, remove the fuel from our hearts, starve it for air under blankets of busyness and daily living? Frank Zappa remarked that “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” I would offer instead: ‘sentimentality.’ Or entertainment.
We know that there are worlds to conquer, millions of people to come to Christian faith, children to teach, altars cold from lack of worship—and yet, it’s lunchtime and I think the Bear is having Burger Madness again. The world needs the church more than ever now. The world has, however, gone to the Mall. And it finds the church at the Mall too. Looking just like them. Looking for sales.
John Eldredge, one of my favorite authors, writes, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself, ‘What makes me come alive?’ Because what the world… needs is men who have come alive.” Wild at Heart He also noted that “The early Celtic Christians called the Holy Spirit ‘the wild goose.’ And the reason why is they knew that you cannot tame him.” The Holy Spirit could make us real Christians again, if we let Him. It needs us to open our lives up, airing out the dungeons of our souls, letting Him bring light in darkness and wholeness to our minds.
And it requires the most costly of all rocket fuels: love. A 20th century philosopher imagined that, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin It would be nice. It would turn the world upside down.
It was a day just like this one. Christ had ascended. People were in town for yet another Jewish holy day. The early summer harvest was acknowledged with feasting and worship, bringing families of Jews from all around the compass points—Greece, Rome, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia. All spoke foreign tongues and struggled with the local Aramaic. Few spoke Hebrew, except in their religious words. The disciples were waiting, as Christ had instructed them, for power from on high. They were to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Comforter.
Ever since Babel, mankind had spread across the lands, speaking strange words unknown to each other, warring and distrusting, identified by personal and national gods, idols and totems and talismans and fetishes, painting themselves and arming themselves, for mankind of all the creatures was not to be trusted. The Jews who had spread throughout this pagan world gained comfort from returning to the homeland, seeing one another, wishing they could return to autonomy and regain Israel’s lost glory. Solomon would never return, and David’s heir was no place to be found. The little they understood of each other’s speech expressed their mutual frustration.
Suddenly over a hundred joyful people poured out of a building where they’d been meeting. Their words of praise and announcement arrested the crowd, especially since they heard clearly enunciated words and grammar from their own lands of origin. They heard perfect Persian, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Scythian, and many African languages. And yet, these were simple Palestinian Jews.
Their message was even more arresting. God, it seemed, had come among men, giving His Spirit now to them and willing to be known by all others, empowering everyone to know God and be saved from their sins. A crowd gathered and one of these special ones found a place where he might be heard. Peter preached Christ crucified, the Messiah of Israel murdered by Israel. They were cut to the quick. Then Peter claimed this Messiah had risen to life again, and had been seen by them all, and had gone on high to His Father, to send the Spirit to men, which had just now happened. Every word was understood, though Peter spoke to everyone from Russian to Berber, from Indian to Roman, all at once. They all heard and understood, and furthermore, were moved eagerly to accept this wondrous news.
Shamed by the guilt of what Peter told them, they asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 2:37-38 Three thousand were baptized that day and the Church was born. Most of these returned to far lands, bringing the news of Christ crucified and resurrected. The word went ahead of the Apostles.
Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” The Spirit in these folk got started that day in a big way, one that couldn’t be engineered by an evangelistic outreach, a missions program, an ad campaign, or any managed project. We are rightly offended at glitzy schemes for ‘winning souls’ through media blitzes and loud gatherings with PA systems and glitter in the air vents. Yet—and I expose myself as well to my own complaint—I am more offended by how blasé we all are in the Presence of a Living God, indwelt by His Holy Spirit, eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and worrying about our parking space, today’s basketball playoff scores, political party wrangling, and rising gas prices. Can I get a camping space this summer? Should I still put in a drought-resistant yard?
Jesus promised that the Comforter would bring His disciples into all truth. Do you have all truth? Are you seeking it? Did He lie about that? Where is the truth in us? Does truth make you nervous, or excited, or drowsy, or happy? Does it make you feel smarter, or foolish? It could do both. Jesus told us, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.”
We are given one gift by the Holy Spirit, which is the Holy Spirit. That one gift is God alive in you. He has the power to build worlds, the power to build you into His Temple. He deserves nothing less. Gold: brought to Jesus by the magi, glorifying God’s presence in the first temple in the holy of holies, paving the streets of heaven. Silver: used instead of iron for everyday metal in God’s wondrous world. Gems: the foundations of our ultimate holy city and final home, sparkling with radiance as the light plays off their multifaceted surfaces.
Let Him build Himself a Temple in you, on the foundation of Christ, the chief cornerstone. Let Him fill that Temple with His fire, purifying, enlightening, making a sweet incense aroma to the Father from your sacrifice.
Come Holy Spirit, come. We call, not for the fire department, but for Thy Holy Fire, to breathe life into our spirits once more.