“Where’s the Fire?”


May 15, 2016


Text:  Acts 2:1-21


    I observe that there are two major visible symbols of the Holy Spirit that Christians use, both coming from the Bible.  One is the dove, as you will note in the stained glass window up above us.  That image comes from the accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’ baptism, when we are told the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove.  

    The other is fire.  One of the reasons we have candles burning during our worship services is fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  This image, of course, comes from today’s lesson from Acts, where the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus’ disciples, appearing as tongues of fire resting on each of them.

    Fire is the result of a chemical reaction.  Fire is heat and light from rapid combination of oxygen and other materials. The flame, which gives the light, is composed of glowing particles of burning material and luminous gases. For fire to exist, a combustible substance must be present, the temperature must be high enough to cause combustion, and enough oxygen must be present to sustain rapid combustion.

Fire is a transforming agent.  It significantly changes anything with which it comes in contact.  This can be seen either in a positive or a negative light.  On the one hand, many of us like what happens to meat when it has been subjected to the fire of a barbecue grill.  On the other, most of us also have seen fire’s destructive power in reducing a building from a sturdy structure to unusable ruins.  

The Holy Spirit is a transforming agent in our lives.  At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples, and they were transformed from being frightened people hiding from the authorities to being bold witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They were “on fire” with God’s Spirit, and they couldn’t keep the good news to themselves.  They shared it, not only with that first gathered crowd in Jerusalem, but all over the ancient world.  As a result, many came to believe and became followers of Jesus Christ.

Fire is also a purifying agent.  In ancient times, fire was used in the refining of gold and silver to purify it, to burn away the impurities, leaving only the pure metal.  In the book of Malachi, God is described as being like a refiner’s fire who would purify the priests so that they would offer God right offerings.

The Holy Spirit purifies us.  The Spirit, after all, continues the work of Jesus in our lives that he accomplished in his death and resurrection, forgiving our sins and putting us in right relationship with God.  The Spirit purifies us so we can make a right offering to God--our true selves.  What does God seek to do with these selves?  In explaining what happened at Pentecost to the amazed crowds who witnessed the strange spectacle of all these unlettered Galileans suddenly being able to tell the mighty acts of God in every language represented in the crowd, Peter told them it was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God would pour his Spirit on all flesh--men and women, young and old, slave and free, and they would speak for God.  The Spirit’s fire would purify them to offer themselves worthily to speak on God’s behalf.  Through the Spirit God purifies us for that same purpose.

There is another way we use the word “fire”.  We sometimes say someone is “on fire” or “fired up” if they are really enthusiastic.  Cheerleaders have the job of trying to “fire up” the crowd and encouraging them to cheer for their team.  

After the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples, there was no shortage of enthusiasm in them.  They were eager to share the Good News of Jesus Christ everywhere they went, no matter how much others ridiculed them or tried to stop them.  

Surely the Holy Spirit also helps us to be enthusiastic, “on fire” for God and God’s work.  Now there was a time when “enthusiasm” was considered a bad thing by church leaders.  Back in the 1700’s when the Methodist movement was still in its infancy, one of the charges disapproving leaders in the Church of England leveled against the movement was “enthusiasm”.  This is really ironic when you think about it, for the origin of the word “enthusiasm” is the Greek phrase en theos, which means “in God”.  In other words, some church leaders of the time thought being “in God” was a bad thing.  Something was definitely wrong with that picture.  Make no mistake about it--John Wesley and the early Methodists were enthusiastic about the power of Jesus Christ to change lives and change the world.

So what happened?  I confess that I find it hard to be enthusiastic.  I also see a decided lack of enthusiasm in many parts of the church.  Is this what inevitably happens when a movement turns into an institution?  It’s certainly a danger, but I am not persuaded it is inevitable.  I find that the things that tend to sap enthusiasm the most are rigidity, unhealthy conflict, and discouragement.  

Rigidity is not the work of the Holy Spirit.  In observing the work of the Holy Spirit in the Bible and throughout Christian history, I observe that the Holy Spirit repeatedly breaks out of established human forms, does new things, and causes change.  Rigidity resists innovation and change.  It resists any notion that God might be doing a new thing.  

I say this recognizing that sometimes I am rigid and inflexible.  Indeed, we humans tend to resist change.  But change is inevitable.  We change as we age and as we experience life.  And the world we live in is changing ever more rapidly.  If I am rigid in the face of change, I am fighting a losing battle, and I don’t know anyone who is enthusiastic about doing that.

Unhealthy conflict is also not the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit’s work is to draw people together in Christ, not to drive them apart.  So much of Christianity today is wracked by destructive conflict, political posturing, desire to win at all cost, and nastiness toward those disagreed with.  These things are not godly!  They do not result in godly enthusiasm.  They tend instead to produce bitterness and division.  It is hard to be enthusiastic about the church when all it seems to do is fight.  Of course, we tend to hear more about the fighting and conflict than we do about the good that is done in the name of Jesus Christ, and the positive relationships that are being built between people with very different perspectives on a variety of issues.  We need to get past the old news media mantra “If it bleeds, it leads” and learn to recognize the good things God is doing even in the midst of the brokenness.

It is also hard to be enthusiastic when one is feeling discouraged.  Discouragement can come from overfocusing on the negative.  It also can come from being constantly criticized or complained about, even when one is doing the best one can under the circumstances.  I also find it discouraging when I do the best I can, and the results turn out to be disappointing.

I often find myself feeling discouraged.  I also see a lot of discouragement in the church, not just here, but a lot of places.  A lot of churches do the best they can, but don’t see much in the way of results.  A lot of pastors are discouraged by constant criticism, much of it about petty stuff.  A lot of Christians are discouraged, frustrated by living in a world that shows less respect for Christianity and the church, and sometimes even regards it with contempt.

Let’s remember that those first Christians who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the ones who came to believe as a result of their ministry, lived in a world that gave them no respect.  Mainstream Judaism thought they were badly misguided in claiming that Jesus is Messiah and risen from the dead.  The establishment in the Roman Empire called them “atheists” because they rejected the gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon.  They were often arrested, mistreated, pressured to recant, and killed because they proclaimed Christ crucified and risen.  Yet in that horrible environment, where there was so much reason to become discouraged, the church flourished.  The Holy Spirit was active.  The Christians brought an ethic to that society of love and care for one’s neighbors that was sorely lacking in Roman society, and that many people found inviting.  Instead of discouraging the early Christians and dampening their enthusiasm, hardship seems to have only increased their enthusiasm.  The Holy Spirit was at work, and no trial that could be thrown at them was about to stop that.

Can we trust that?  Do we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is at work today in this messy world?  Do we trust that God is capable of doing great things in us and through us if we allow the Holy Spirit to do the work?  Do we believe the world still needs Jesus, the new life he offers, and the ethic of love and care he taught?

That said, I find we often go about sharing the news the wrong way. I ran across this quote that I believe offers us a better way. It comes from Madeleine L’Engle: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want  with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

I pray that the Holy Spirit will come into our lives and our churches afresh.  May the Spirit’s fire transform us into the people God wants us to be, purify us for God’s use, and renew our enthusiasm for showing God’s light and sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ with our community and the world.  Amen.

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