St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Whitsunday, June 5, 2022
“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.”
IN OUR LITURGICAL, sacramental churches, we use color for communicating events and seasons of the church year. We have a number of white, green and violet seasons – Christmas and Easter, Epiphany and Trinity, Advent and Lent – but only one brief season in red. It was almost made white, and named by the English Whitsunday, or White Sunday, after the gowns worn by church school children being Christened or Confirmed on the day of Pentecost. It’s appropriate. They receive the Holy Spirit by Baptism and Confirmation. But following the logic that fire is red, as is the blood of the martyrs, and the Holy Spirit was given by a sign of “cloven tongues like as of fire,” then the day is appropriately red, as is the entire week.
A well-furnished church, then, gets the red set of vestments to adorn its altar and ministers at Pentecost and on saints’ red-letter days. As a younger priest, I would leaf through the catalogs selling these things, admiring the traditional patterns cut from damask and brocade, big stripes of deep red velvet, gold borders, and embroidered images. There was, however, always a more modern design offered on their glossy pages with fanciful crimson flames leaping up the priest’s chasuble and stole. If you really were daring, it was flame vestments you’d get to show your zeal and complete devotion to the gifts of the Holy Ghost who comes, after all, in flames.
Flames and doves have been used as images of the invisible Spirit who comes like the wind, like water, like fire: sensed but unseen. If we get caught up in the imagery, or talk of new fire, and fire falling once more, I’m not sure what we are expecting of God, but any exhilaration may just do it for us. I’ve heard a televangelist scream that his holy hands are on fire. Frankly, I don’t want that man to touch me.
I’m not about to become a fire extinguisher. If God’s divine presence is coming to any of us, let Him come, let Him fill, let Him transform our lives and produce in us a new character. Let Him fulfill those words of Jesus at the close of the supper when He made it clear to His apostles that He must depart and Another come. Introducing the subject of God’s Holy Trinity, Jesus told them of the Third, the Holy Comforter, who had been with them, but now would be inside of them, empowering them, bringing them all truth, guiding them in what to say and where to go. On the day that happened, 1,990 years ago, such excitement was caused that 3,000 Jews came to the waters of Baptism and received Him inside.
Flame vestments won’t provide such grace. Christ had risen to the skies and His new Church returned to the city nearby with joy and expectation, gathering for hours a day in prayer for that day Christ promised them.
The Holy Ghost was no stranger to the children of Israel. Scripture’s earliest writer spoke of the Spirit that flowed out over the deep as the Word was spoken, ‘Let there be light,’ and would later breathe into the earth-man and give Him a soul. He came upon leaders and prophets, and prepared the Jews for the future revelation of the Trinity. But, as Jesus told His Apostles, never had the Spirit been inside people: He had been with them, upon them, inspiring them, speaking to them and through them producing the very Word of God, the Holy Scriptures.
At His own Baptism, Jesus stood in the Jordan waters under the full sun of the Father’s loving adoration and praise, and something much like a dove in appearance descended from on high to rest upon Jesus, and in Him as well. The Baptist saw it and proclaimed Him, “The lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world!”
The signs given on Pentecost were two: lights dancing on the heads of the disciples, which today we call a halo or paint it in golden discs and entitle it the nimbus. And also the sign of tongues, foreign languages unknown to the speakers, but recognized by the many coming to Jerusalem from distant lands. The miracle of this caused a stir and brought great crowds around Peter and the others who had received the Spirit. Everyone heard the good news in their native tongue. The sign had a purpose. Signs should do something meaningful. But hot hands, Nehru jackets and flame vestments are only a pretense that the Holy One is anywhere near.
T. S. Eliot, the 20th century American-English poet, a Christian writer of new kinds of poetic works, produced an epic poem called The Four Quartets. The fourth quartet, in its fourth section depicts our Pentecost in Jerusalem, and the coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives…
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.
Truly Eliot sees a great irony. Hell’s flames are described as unquenched, burning forever, scorching and tormenting its prisoners, but never consuming them, never ending their torment. Now comes God’s Spirit and, to our surprise, He arrives in the guise of flames. These flames also never consume, but purify. They bring no glory or fame to the enlightened subjects, but illuminate their minds, burn out the old flesh, give power to do things never dared before, and provide life eternal beyond the grave, beyond the centuries. God is scary. He ought to be. He has a power that blows all opposition to cinders. A dove, a flame are placid images when depicted in cloth appliques. But in reality: incandescent terror, pyre, fire, and the intolerable shirt of flame. I am not worthy to wear such a robe. But still I seek to.
At Baptism, as a child, or as adults, we are first washed clean of the stain of former sin, and the sin nature’s hold on us is broken. Into such a pure vessel is poured out God’s Third Person, the Comforter, Deacon Faith last week named Him rightly, the Strengthener. His holy presence in our beings causes our own spiritual nature to rise to new life and interact with Him. Finally, we are ingrafted into the Church of Christ, members of a great Body, of which Christ is the head.
More is then brought by God’s Spirit, which benefits not so much the bearer of His presence, but more so for the entire community of faith: an abundance of holy wisdom; spiritual knowledge; exemplary faith; miraculous healing; and other workings of miracles; prophecy; discerning of spirits; divers kinds of tongues; and the interpretation of tongues – to name a few major ones that were noticed early on. We don’t really ask for specific gifts, and certainly not ones that will set us up for special notice, but we ought to ask for God’s Holy Spirit to be given to us in abundance, and make room for Him to enter in. Then look out. No flame vestments or Italian silk suits need set apart God’s holy ones. They will show it. God’s better signs will show us who they are, where He’s working, who to go to.
Jesus commanded us to make disciples for Him, followers of His life, doing the things He did, patterning their lives on His, and setting a watch over His commandments to insure we never forget what He said. We did forget. We have not made disciples. Instead, we’ve made members, built enrollments, counted heads, incorporated denominations, and worn our flame vestments, as it were, to stand for the Holy Spirit, who at one time showed His confirmation of disciples’ actions by giving them miraculous languages. Later, in the 2nd century, He gave them another sign. It was called the Baptism of tears. Every new convert that claimed Christ as Lord was baptized after being trained, and when the Spirit entered them, their tears flowed out like rivers of water. Not flames, not tongues, but very wet tears.
My prayer today is that God’s Holy Spirit be given to us, to each one here who wants Him. He is good. He is life-giving. He is holy. And He doesn’t do parlor tricks. He doesn’t wear flame vestments, but He does in fact come, as Jesus promised. Anyone that asks, receives. If our sons or daughters ask for bread, don’t we slice a piece and feed them? “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Ask, and ye shall receive.
LORD FATHER, I ask that you give to all of us that portion of your Spirit that we need to be truly faithful disciples of your Son Jesus Christ. We unbar the door, unlock the closets, open wide the windows of our souls, and ask for that incandescent terror, the fire that can save us from hellfire by purifying us now. We ask it, through the merits and promises of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.