“What Will We Make of the Fire?”

Message Manuscript for Pentecost Sunday, 2020
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, May 31, 2020 (first time to resume in person Worship since March 8)

I was recently awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a siren on my street and red and blue lights flashing through the blinds of my bedroom window. As I got up and walked to the window, I was disoriented and yet curious about what was going on. As soon as I pulled the blinds open, I was taken aback to see flames leaping upward from the house across the street. My heart sank at the sight of it and at the long line of fire engines filling my street. The fire was daunting and I feared for those inside. I threw on some clothes and walked outside to learn more and was relieved to find out my neighbors were safe and that the detached garage was on fire and not the house. Still, though, it was hard to know what to make of the fire and to go back to sleep. The fire was disrupting.  

This morning, we heard about another fire, one that was out of control and quite disruptive. As usual on Pentecost Sunday, we hear about it in Acts and wonder what to make of the fire that fell upon the disciples of Jesus, as the Holy Spirit was given to them and created the church.  

One thing we can make of it is of how it arrived to the disciples. They were gathered together in one place like other pilgrims for the day of Pentecost, staying together in much the same way they had been when with Jesus. We can imagine how they must have felt, still dealing with the violent loss of Jesus, hopeful from the resurrection but still fearful for what could happen to them and what would be next in their lives. Any discussion among them about how Jesus promised to send them a helper to guide and comfort them must have been out of their growing awareness of how empty and desperate they were, feeling the absence of what Jesus provided them so fully as their teacher. Grief and sorrow have a way of creating a void that longs to be filled.

I’m pretty sure we can all understand what that feels like, as the pain of loss has a way of finding us all. Maybe we also know what it feels like to wait for the Spirit of God to arrive, especially in the darkness and chaos of our times right now. It’s not hard to be desperate for the Spirit as we live in this time of an uncontrollable disease and in a world exploding with violence, racism, political division, and unemployment. If ever we felt empty, it is now. If ever we needed the Holy Spirit, it’s now. The good news is that we don’t have to be empty and we don’t have to wait for God’s Spirit.  God has already given it to fill the emptiness within us, to light us up with the warmth of God’s presence.

The fire of Pentecost also brought unity to the disciples. Based on what we know of the personality of many of the disciples, they were going to need a unifying force to go with them into the world. As we overheard in Jesus’ prayer for them in John’s gospel last Sunday, he asked God to make them one, even with all of their diversity. We see how the Spirit did this with them, as they would hold all things of their lives in common. We also see how the Spirit would do this with the diversity of Jerusalem at that time, unifying people of all nations and languages together as a reversal of the divisions created at Babel.

What we can make of the fire of Pentecost for us today is the same thing–unity. How can we be the church of Jesus in our world today if we are not united by him and his purpose for us? We can’t and maybe that explains the impotence of the universal church in our world at this time. People can’t see Jesus in us if we are full of division. They won’t hear our message if we don’t have the Spirit uniting us and enabling us to speak it in a way they can understand. Without allowing the Spirit to unite us, we will remain in Babel, and no one will benefit from the chaos it produces. We must allow the fire of Pentecost to ignite us in such a way that we come together around the one who binds us together.

In addition to filling and uniting the disciples, the fire of Pentecost enabled their breathing. It gave breath to the disciples and created them to be the church. Like the breath of God that brought creation and life for all things in Genesis, so it was life-giving power for the disappointed and dejected disciples. We see that the first thing Jesus did after his resurrection was to breathe the Spirit onto his disciples as they were hiding away in a locked room. When the Spirit came upon them, it animated and empowered them to be who Jesus had called them to be; to continue the work he did while with them in the world. 

Aren’t we in need of some power these days? The breath of Jesus is still available for us today, even as we are locked down with our fears and uncertainties about the future. We must allow it to give breath to us. Without breath, we have no life. We cannot exist as a church without it. 

And we must allow it to give breath to others by allowing it to empower us to breath life onto and into them. We continue to hear those words that came from George Floyd as a police officer’s knee choked the life out of him as he gasped for his life, “I can’t breathe.” Maybe he could have if the church had done more in our nation to speak up and out against racism and its life crushing effect on the lives of black people and others affected by it. Breathing the Spirit onto and into people must happen if we are ever going to destroy this sin of our nation. As followers of Jesus, especially for those of us who are white and have knowingly or unknowingly perpetuated the problems of race within our systems and communities, we must exhale Jesus’s life, his love, his passion, his power, his justice in a way that brings life not death to the people in our community. To not do so is to be complicit in their inability to breathe. We are to hear those words Jesus gave to his disciples as he breathed on them, “As the Father has sent me, I send you.”

So, what will we do with the fire of Pentecost today? The people across the street from my house who had the fire almost immediately began to build where it had been, not just staring at where it had been or in awe of what it had done. The sounds of diesel engines and sirens of fire trucks have been replaced with sounds of hammers. They are wasting no time in building something new after the fire. They let it empower them to move forward. We must let the fire of Pentecost do the same.

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