Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as the wind and cleanse; come as the fire and burn; convict, convert and consecrate our lives until we are wholly yours… .
If you were at St. Paul’s when Roy Coulter was rector here, you probably heard him pray that prayer, unless he picked it up later. Come Holy Spirit, come as the fire and burn.
Pentecost is a feast of rich imagery: wind, fire, miraculous blurring of boundaries in the spoken word. You’ve probably been to services where the gospel or the reading from Acts was presented in many languages, turning the Word into a Holy Cacophony. Or maybe you’ve enjoyed a traditional Pentecost Cake served at coffee hour, with more flavors than you can imagine piled on top of one another. I once went to a service where the reading from Acts was preceded by members of the youth group running up and down the aisles in pairs, holding between them huge banners on sticks that barely cleared our heads; the banners created a rushing wind that ruffled our hair. It was cool. The parish that sponsored me for the priesthood served a “Tongues of Fire” Indian feast in place of coffee hour. But other than this curry blow-out, and the occasional construction paper cut-outs of flame, I’ve never seen fire enacted on Pentecost.
Fire is almost always a mixed metaphor. We talk about someone being “all fired up” as a gift of inspiration and engagement. Being fired from a job, on the other hand, is about disengagement, brokenness. We talk of someone being “on fire” metaphorically as being a good thing, when actually, to be literally on fire is a horrible and unimaginable thing. Fire is dangerous thing.
Unless, of course, you are a sequoia tree. Sequoia bark is almost impervious to forest fires. Their seed cones are sealed with a thick coating of resin that must be burned, melted, in order to open. At the same time that a forest fire heats the cones enough to melt the resin and set the seeds free, the fire clears the earth of debris so the seeds can germinate. Now there’s a metaphor.
The fact that fire can be both so dangerous and so life-giving makes it a perfect way to talk about the Christian ministry inaugurated by the first Pentecost. The power that comes with the descent of the Spirit is dangerous and life-giving.
Jesus was put to death because he was considered dangerous. His understanding of the work of God in the world, the work of healing, liberation, and justice, which Jesus was sent to proclaim, is dangerous work. And yet, it is life-giving work, Spirit-proclaiming work. It is the work for which we are commissioned on this baptismal Sunday and every Sunday.
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Theologian Richard Norris wrote that “the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is simply the other side of Jesus’ resurrection.” In other words, the in-breaking of the Spirit means it’s our turn to heal, liberate, and reframe justice so that it works for the poorest and most broken among us. The Pentecost event allows everyone to proclaim God’s mighty deeds of power. The image in the Acts story is of a bunch of people speaking different languages, talking about how they have glimpsed the kingdom of God. In our own languages we hear them speaking God’s deeds of power. What might they be saying?
- Did you hear? God raised Jesus from the dead!
- Let me tell you what happened: God raised up a physician to heal my brother!
- God gave words and a heart to an amazing poet whose work saved my life.
- I have been full of anger and despair, it’s shifting into hope because of some people God put in my path.
- I am afraid, and yet, I have courage.
- I prayed and God gave me strength and words for a difficult conversation with my neighbor.
- God must’ve been present at this crazy controversial meeting I attended because everyone was so kind to one another.
- I just did this incredibly hard thing I didn’t know I could do (fill in the blank). And I’m talking about it, which is even stranger!
The presence of the Spirit, on this side of the Resurrection, is the possibility of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is how we might experience the world, if a compassionate God was in charge, hands on, rather than leaving almost everything up to us, as God is wont to do. For me, the Kingdom is where all are welcome, all are fed, and all are moved to share their experiences of being welcomed and fed with others who most need to hear Good News.
This kingdom work is not without danger, in our psyches or in the social orders we orbit. But it is how seeds of new life and hope get planted.
When I think of the men and women who gathered in Jerusalem for the first Pentecost, I imagine them telling stories of being welcomed, being nourished in a hundred different ways, and experiencing that kingdom hospitality as a miracle worth sharing in any language.
They are on fire.
This is not something we need to enact in some symbolic, dramatic, extra-liturgical way. It is the power unleashed by Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and by the Spirit’s presence in us and among us.
When was the last time you were on fire?
Our parish administrator has a background in communications and event planning and several times over the past month or two suggested in her very gentle way that we really had too many events going on this weekend. I several times replied: “I know, but it’s Pentecost!” On Friday night, we had a wonderful open house showcasing work of the Karen Korn project. When you go downstairs after worship you’ll understand that the people who came to make art over the past six months were on fire, and the volunteers and interns who made it all possible are on fire, too. Dorothy Day was on fire with her vision of a world where all are welcome and all are fed. In her own way, she pulled back the veil to reveal the Kingdom of God. Our artist-in-residence Christine Brown was on fire to bring us Dorothy Day last night in a brilliant, Spirit-filled performance.
What will so move us next, that we might be on fire with our experience of the Spirit and our hope for the Kingdom of God?
Your assignment—and I do mean this—is to think about something that you witnessed or heard about that lets you know God is at work in the world. Tell someone. If you want to make my day, tell me. Even better, tell someone you don’t know, right after this service. Or tomorrow at school, at the office, at the grocery store. Pentecost means we no longer get to keep God’s deeds of power a secret.
I’d like to close with a story, familiar to some of you, I’m sure, about two desert fathers, that Thomas Merton was fond of telling:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, I do my best to keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts; what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be utterly changed into fire?”
Come Holy Spirit, come as the fire and burn.