One word sticks out in the Pentecost passage. Guess what it is. Not breath or wind. Not even leaping over barrier after barrier. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Gentiles, women, the uncircumcised and all those unlike us. That’s not what stands out in this passage. The prominent word here is fire. Tongues of fire came down upon each and every one of them. And so today, on the birthday of the church I am thinking of the spirit as fire. What is God trying to say to us through this symbol of fire?
Fire represents light. Before the days of electricity fire was the only light they had. Torches were lit to guide their ways. Some of us have heard grandmothers and grandfathers tell of sitting by an old oil lamp or reading by candlelight. It wasn't easy--but it was better than darkness.
When John Henry Newman went through a terrible time of depression he wrote this hymn, "Lead, Kindly Light." And we can be grateful today that God's light still illumines our way through the darkness of our lives.
Lyndon Johnson’s biographer tells the story that when Mr. Johnson was a young congressman he worked hard to bring electricity to the rural areas of Pedernales County in his home district. Many of the dirt farmers had never seen electric lights or appliances before; they weren’t even sure they wanted them and had to be persuaded that Johnson was not trying to inflict some invention of the devil on them. Besides that, this business would cost money. Eventually the poles were erected and the light wires strung along them, and then the wires were run from the poles to the little farmhouses, where, in most instances, they were connected to sockets with bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. No one was sure when the power would be turned on. Then one day without warning the electricity flowed through t lines and all the lights came on. One family was coming back home on the dirt road in their automobile. It was almost dark. As they approached their house and saw the lights they thought their house was on fire. Then, as they got closer, they saw it was on the miracle of the lights. Like children, they all got out and danced through the house. And life never would be the same again for old farmers that to get up and three and four to mile and then take it to town before it would spoil. Women who had to haul water from a stream or a well and wash clothes on a rub-board by hand and iron them on an iron heated on the old wood stove. Life would never be as it was before.
We say this about the coming of the spirit. That fire represented light that would change things forever. And we have yet to unpack this wonderful idea that when the spirit comes it transforms everything much more than electricity could ever do. Luke quotes Acts in that section about the spirit: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy.”(Acts 2. 17-18a) Sight brings in-sight. And my hope is that the Spirit will open eyes and hearts until we begin to dream dreams and see visions in ways we never, ever dreamed. And that’s what God always does for the faithful church. The fire that God brings is like the light. And in that light we can find the way.
Fire not only provides light but it also provides warmth. You can freeze to death without some kind of heat source. When the power went off in 1993 and our community was without heat for eight days--the first half-day was fun. Off from work. Building fires. Couldn't get out and go anywhere. But after a day or so the wood got low, and we got tired of smelling candle wax and damp wood smoked--but it was so cold at night. I remember well the day the electricity came on--I was outside on my front porch and a whoop went up all over the neighborhood. Warmth is a wonderful thing.
The ministry of hospitality is one of the most important ministries the church has. Not just to be cordial when people come in, but also to continue that hospitality after they have joined. They asked Jesus: "Lord, when did we see you?" And do remember what he said: "I was a stranger and you took me in." And when the church anywhere turns their back on those that come--they will not see the face of Jesus.
The spirit is like fire because it purifies. In those little house churches scattered across that part of the known world--they were as human as people in this room. People talk about getting back to the early church. I'm not to see we really want to go there? Remember Corinth? Laodecia? Sardis? Pergamum? They fussed and fought as if they were 21st century Christians.
And the spirit came on Pentecost Sunday and began to purify their motives and their behavior or at least made them a little more honest. It didn't happen all at once. It never does. Most growth that matters comes slowly and sometimes painfully.
Fire purifies. We are tested. Remember those words from the Messiah: "He shall be like a refiner's fire." Paul says to the Corinthians the fire will test you to see what kind of what you really do. (I Cor. 3.13) When Christians were dying at the hands of Rome and follower after follower had just fallen away. I Peter says that you will be tested by fire. (I Peter 1.7) The Spirit, then will use these painful, painful times to test us one and all. Now don't misunderstand me--God doesn't send the fire. But when it comes we find out what we are made of. And I have been moved terribly through the years by the courage and faith of men and women and sometimes young people who found themselves in terribly hard places and found the way. That's what the spirit does--it will lead us through whatever hard, hard things we face. In Exile, Isaiah wrote to his friends these comforting words: "When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall nor consume you." Why? Read the next verse: "For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."(Is. 43.2-3a) So whatever happens we need not fear--the fire may purify--but God's spirit will not let it consume us.
The spirit is like fire because it is passionate. Elton Trueblood wrote a book several years ago called The Incendiary Fellowship. It was about a people on fire for God.
What gave those early believers such passion? The spirit of God turned them inside out. And they were a passionate group of believers.
Where did we ever get the idea that Playboy has a monopoly on passion? Where did we get the idea that Playboy was passionate? Poor old Hugh Hefner, staggering around in his pajamas, three twenty-two year olds trailing behind him. He's had his face-lifts and I am sure tummy tucks--and in his pocket surely there must be a vial of viagara. Is that passion? No. It is pathetic.
Passion makes us believe that what God is doing in the world today is a wonderful thing. It takes little depressed lifeless disciples and gives them hearts that burn. And what every church needs are people who are passionate about the cause of Jesus. Not some program. Not some kind of worship—traditional or contemporary. Why you can find better entertainment on Saturday night. We are not in the entertainment business. The passion of God changes us and makes us believe when the water runs the wrong way. The passion of God keeps us giving and worshipping and loving one another even on the days when it is hardest.
One of the histories of the missionary movement told of a missionary's commentary on the work in a very hard place. This is the way she wrote it I hope it can be said of all of us someday: "Long before we came they gathered sticks and built a fire--we kept it burning." No wonder they chose the flame and fire as symbol for Pentecost. Someone else gathered sticks and built the fire here…and now it is our time on stage. Will we keep the fire burning? Will we keep the fire burning? I hope we will…oh, I hope we will. For the folks that open their hearts to the Spirit of God will always do just that.