Fired Up! ~ PentecostA 06/04/17

Fired Up
Texts: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
June 4, 2017 ~ Pentecost ~
Sacrament of Holy Communion

Jews from all over the region had gathered in Jerusalem for the holiday Pentecost. Also called Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, this holiday eventually became associated with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but that was a later development. In the first century, as our story unfolds, Shavuot was an agricultural festival when the people offered the first fruits of the wheat harvest back to God. Greek-speaking Jews gave Shavuot the name Pentecost, which means fiftieth, because it came on the fiftieth day after the first day of Passover. For Christians, Pentecost would come to refer to this day in our Scriptures: the fiftieth day after the first day of Passover – specifically, the Passover when Jesus was raised from the dead; fifty days after that blessed Easter morning; the day when the Holy Spirit came like wind and fire.

But not yet. For now, in today’s text, it is still Shavuot, the Jewish Feast of Weeks, the Jewish Passover. The disciples – Luke tells us there were 120 of them – were gathered together to celebrate the feast. Their friend and leader and teacher Jesus had left them – he had died and then been resurrected, and had now ascended to heaven. Thinking him gone for good, they were dispirited. They were waiting…

Waiting for direction. Waiting for confirmation. Waiting for something that would empower them and inspire them and get them going. [1]

And then it happened: divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:3)

I try to imagine it, that fire, hanging over the heads of the disciples.

Was it somehow comforting, like a fire in the fireplace on a cold winter morning? Or was it too hot, uncomfortable, like when you sit too close to the fireplace for too long?

Was it the promise of soothing tea heralded by the blue flames on the stove? Or was it the threat of terrible burns when the cook forgets to put on a potholder when taking the cast iron skillet out of the 400-degree oven?

Was it soft and flickering, like the candles on Christmas Eve in the darkened sanctuary as the congregation sings Silent Night? Or was it scary and adrenaline-inducing, as is the smell of burning hair when one of those candles gets too close to someone in that crowded sanctuary?

What did those tongues of fire look like? If we were to peek in the windows of that house, would the disciples seem to have halos, glowing and bright? Or would it look like all of those disciples were caught in the fiery furnace of hell?

Of course, it wasn’t just fire that swept into the house that Pentecost morning some two thousand years ago. The author of Luke-Acts tells us that “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2)

I try to picture that, feel that.

This was no comforting breeze on a hot summer day. It was “violent”; it must have sounded something like today’s freight trains. Or a tornado. Did objects fly around the room? Were the disciples unable to walk or even stand? If there had been trees in the house, would they have bent over, maybe even to the point of snapping?

A wind like that could blow out candles, or a stove’s flame, or even a small fire. But it didn’t blow out the fires hanging over the disciples’ heads. No, I imagine it was more like the wind that takes hold of a wildfire; the wind that doesn’t extinguish the flames but instead provides the fire with more fuel in the form of oxygen and which blows sparks out into the surrounding area, spreading the fire fast and furious. I imagine it was that wind that blew the words of the disciples out to the crowd gathered for the festival, allowing them to hear in their own languages the words of the followers of Jesus, being touched and changed even as the Breath of God blew through them, bestowing the Spirit upon all who were open to its touch.

That Pentecost Day was the beginning of something new: a life filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul was not there that day, as far as we know, but he is instrumental in our understanding of what it means to have the Holy Spirit within and among us. Once one of Christianity’s earliest foes and most ardent persecutors of Jesus-people, Paul’s conversion turned him into one of Christianity’s most powerful missionaries. He traveled all around the region, making new disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God, founding churches and guiding them in their growing faith and communal life. His prolific letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, earlier even than the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark.

One of the churches Paul founded was found in the city of Corinth. By all accounts, the Corinthians had a full measure of the Spirit’s power. Prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, knowledge: the Corinthians had them all and more. Yet they also had conflict, immorality, and thoughtless disregard for one another. How could they know something was a gift of the Spirit and not merely self-indulgence? Throughout the twelfth chapter, from which we just read, as well as the next, Paul teaches on the topic of how to discern God’s work in the activation of various gifts and how to value one’s brothers and sisters in Christ across that variety. [2]

There are many characteristics of Spirit-gifts. Today I’d like to briefly mention three of those characteristics. First is the quality of speech that accompanies the gift. Immediately following the fire and the wind, Peter goes out and preaches. But he doesn’t speak in vague terms, general spiritual principles. He tells of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, Savior and Lord.

Second, there must be diversity within the community, and that diversity must be unified. So it is that Paul speaks of the one body made up of many parts, all of which are necessary and which perform different functions. The church is the same: when we begin to create hierarchies of gifts, we begin to limit the Spirit’s work among us. When we find ourselves valuing certain gifts to the exclusion of others, we deny the Spirit important avenues for God’s activity.

Finally, these gifts are not for personal satisfaction, individual actualization, or private piety. The Spirit wasn’t given to us for our own comfort in times of distress, our own source of strength in hard times, our own pain or challenges. The Spirit might do those things, it’s true; but the Spirit is never working just for our own personal benefit. Our empowerment, our comfort, our sense of direction, our renewed hope and faith are given to us by God’s Grace for the common good – for the good of God’s whole world.

The divisions among the Corinthians indicated that they were perhaps not quite as gifted Spiritually as they thought. So it was that Paul had to say to them, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

To really be filled with Pentecost fire, to really receive the gifts of the Spirit, we must be willing to share those gifts generously and unreservedly and not hoard them for ourselves alone. Gifts from the Spirit will always prompt us to talk with love, conviction, and passion about Jesus; they will prompt us to live the Gospel with our very lives – out in public, not just in our private prayers and in the safety of this sanctuary.

And that can be, of course, hard and scary work. To allow the fire to fill us feels dangerous; after all, fire can destroy. What would it mean for us to really be fired up for Jesus? And the wind – to be blown by the Spirit out into the world can feel frightening. What if the Spirit blows too hard, sends us out into scary territory, asks us to do things we feel unable or ill-equipped to do? After all, wind can flatten.

Fire and wind of the Spirit: not necessarily the Comforter we think of when we call the Holy Spirit to mind! But it must be that God determined that fire and wind are necessary.

Those tongues of fire? Yes, wildfires can destroy huge swaths of forest and fields, not to mention the homes and buildings in its path. But fire is also necessary.

NASA’s Earth Observatory website tells us that

Fires play an important role in the natural changes that occur in Earth’s ecosystems. The diversity of plant and animal life in the world’s forests, prairies, and wetlands is (partly) dependent on the effects of fire; in fact, some plants cannot reproduce without fire (fire breaks open the outside coating of some seeds and stimulates germination). What may at first look like total devastation soon becomes a panorama of new life. Fire initiates critical natural processes by breaking down organic matter into soil nutrients. Rain then moves these nutrients back into the soil providing a rejuvenated fertile seedbed for plants. With less competition and more sunlight, seedlings grow more quickly. [3]

Fires: dangerous, but necessary. And what about that rush of violent wind?

Do you remember Biosphere 2? We haven’t heard about it lately – or at least I haven’t. The massive glass structure was built in Arizona in ‘80s and ‘90s, and was a scientific endeavor intended to study how earth’s ecological systems actually work, and to see if we can develop closed ecological systems in order eventually to support human life in space.

There were a number of challenges throughout the years of experiments, but one that caught my attention had to do with trees. There were countless kinds and numbers of trees growing in Biosphere 2, but trees of all species kept dying. Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels were fine; the soil had the proper nutrients; there was enough sun and water. It puzzled the scientists for a long time until they figured out what was missing in their closed ecosystem: wind.

When plants and trees grow in the wild, the wind keeps them constantly moving. When a tree has to withstand that wind, it grows reaction wood, sometimes called stress wood. That reaction wood strengthens the tree so that it can withstand its own weight. More than that, the reaction wood, which has a different structure from the rest of the tree, is able to position the tree where it will get the best access to resources, particularly sunlight. “This is the reason why trees are able to contort towards the best light and still survive loads in even awkward shapes….If there’s no wind, like in Biosphere 2, the trees [don’t develop the reaction wood and they] end up being much weaker and aren’t able to survive for long.” [4]

So back to our Pentecost morning some two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. It must be that those flames – frightening though they may have been – were necessary. They must have been critical in the ongoing story of Jesus and his followers. As soon as the flames appeared, the disciples had “fire in their bellies,” they were driven to embark on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus to the world, and to do it without Jesus walking beside them in the flesh. And that was going to be a hard, long, scary journey. But that fire gave them what they needed: guidance. Empowerment. Confirmation. Direction. It gave them fiery, powerful courage.

The wind, too, gave them the strength they needed for all that faced them. As the Biosphere 2 scientists discovered, stress is what makes a tree strong enough to sustain the wear and tear that it will face later in life.

To go where the Spirit blows us can be scary, can feel stressful. We humans don’t tend to like uncertainty or the feeling of not being in control. We like to determine our own conditions and our own path, but that’s not how life works. And as the Spirit blows us where it will, our own spirits grow stronger. We find that the things that stress us spiritually may actually be the very things that make us grow, if we let them. And more importantly, as the Spirit blows us out into the world, the spirits of others are strengthened too.

The story we heard today assures us that those same flames that rested on the disciples took hold in the hearts of all who heard Peter preach that day. That same wind blew through the gathered community and changed their hearts. And it takes hold in the hearts of all who believe today, for we all are Jesus’ disciples, and we all have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And so, beloved, the question for us this day may be: are we allowing that fire, that wind, to really enter us and give us direction, empower us, lead us, prod us into action? Are we fired up to share the Gospel in word and deed? Do we feel the Spirit burning within us? Are we ready to allow the wind of the Spirit to strengthen us for the common good?

Now, we will soon be taking our summer hiatus, enjoying the summer and hopefully finding God among family, friends, nature, and summer adventures. But Pentecost isn’t just one day. It’s a whole season, a season we typically call “Ordinary Time.” The Season of Pentecost lasts for all of summer and most of autumn. It may include as many as 28 Sundays, depending on the date of Easter.

That’s a lot of time for us to open to the fires and wind of the Spirit. It’s a lot of time for us to explore our own gifts. It’s a lot of time for us to figure out how to use those gifts for the common good, how to go out into the world, empowered by the Spirit, who isn’t, after all, just for our comfort, but for the salvation of the world.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Scripture Echo. Year A: Pentecost Sunday. 2017.

[2] Scripture Echo. Year A: Pentecost Sunday. 2017.

[3] “Global Fire Monitoring: Why Are Fires Important?”

[4] Anupum Pant, “The Role of Wind in a Tree’s Life.”

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