Too Hot to Handle: Filled With Fire, Acts 2:1-21
First United Methodist Church, June 9, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
This was the day they’d been waiting for.
They hadn’t known what to expect and they couldn’t have been able to imagine what would happen if they’d tried. This was so completely new…so unexpected…so amazing. Nothing like it had ever happened before.
As I read about what happened in the book of Acts with the violent wind and the tongues of fire, I can’t help but think of a Cecil B. DeMille or Stephen Spielberg kind of epic production. Makes me wonder if anyone has attempted to recreate, dramatize, choreograph and script the event. But I think that watching it on screen would be disappointing and fall far short of the reality. Like when you read a book and wait for it to appear in the theater, it never quite compares to what you’ve created in your head as you’ve read. And the thing about Pentecost is it’s real. It happened.
It was the birth of the Church.
It was a promise fulfilled.
It is the foundation upon which we do our work in the church.
It is the confirmation of our mission.
It is the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church so that even today, we can do God’s work in the world.
It happened in Jerusalem. It was a feast day for Jews and Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all around the known world. They had come to give thanks to God for the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, but the disciples were there for another reason. Now numbering about 120, they had been instructed by Jesus to remain in Jerusalem until they received power from on high.
The disciples weren’t sure what that meant, exactly, but Jesus had always spoken truthfully to them and they trusted him. Surely, they would understand when the time came.
They were all gathered together in one place, hunkered down, hiding—fearful that perhaps what had happened to Jesus might also happen to them—but quite likely, they were worshipping together as well, because they realized they had much for which to be thankful. Their worship would be different from the pilgrims who were worshipping around them; their prayers and thanksgiving wouldn’t be so much about the law being given, but for Jesus who had lived, died, resurrected and had now ascended…and for the promised Holy Spirit who would come to fill and empower them.
And then suddenly it happened. There was a sound like the blowing of a violent wind that came from heaven and filled the whole house. They saw something they described as similar to tongues of fire that separated and then came to rest on each of them. Then, all the Christ-followers began speaking in other languages…languages they hadn’t been taught and hadn’t known before.
They’re no longer in the house, the disciples are now out on the street and people from all over are listening to what they’re saying. The visitors to Jerusalem are confused and amazed because these men and women are speaking to them in their own languages. What is this about? They’re speaking with a Galilean accent, but Galileans don’t speak other languages. How is this happening? What is this?
The simple answer that some offer is that they’re drunk, which is no answer at all, because #1 they hadn’t been drinking, and #2 drinking too much wine doesn’t teach a soul much more than one ought not drink too much wine! Peter says no, that isn’t it, and he begins to preach—with power—to all who are present, interpreting what is happening through the words of the Prophet Joel, telling them that God has, God is, and God will work in mysterious and wonderful ways that defy literal description…and all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
On that day the Christian church was born. The disciples were empowered in ways that remain beyond our understanding and reason.
Pentecost has much to teach us. We see how the disciples spoke in every known language of the world, which tells us that all people are invited to come and be a part of what God is doing. All are invited. The church is for everyone, in every place, in every time.
Through the experience of Pentecost, we can also see that the church is not a fixed resting place for an anxious culture, but it is a moving, dynamic entity that takes us out into the streets and into the world. Annie Dillard wrote that the church is a place where we should all be wearing crash helmets. Where ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us into our pews because the power that is available to us through God’s Holy Spirit is awesome and amazing. There are times when the church does need to be a sanctuary for rest, healing and restoration, but it’s not to stay that way. Disciples are not to be passive and inactive.
With the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have been given all that we need to accomplish our mission and purpose—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the TRANSFORMATION of the WORLD!
But it seems that—all these years later—we don’t believe it.
We don’t trust it.
We don’t like to change, even if the old ways aren’t life-giving.
We don’t like disruption.
We’re afraid we’ll be misunderstood.
We tend to depend on our own strength, our own will and our own way.
So how has that been working for us?
We are a Trinitarian church. We believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We proclaim that belief in our creeds. But our tendency is to focus on God as Father (or Creator) and on God the Son (or Redeemer), while we marginalize God the Holy Spirit (or Sustainer), keeping the Spirit in the more interior regions of our individual devotions. We may pray for power and presence, but so often I don’t think we truly expect it.
A further complication to life with the Spirit is that sometimes “Holy Spirit” gets translated into a particular tempo of worship…being “filled with the Spirit” is only evidenced when someone speaks in tongues, or experiences a spiritual high, we may think. But the Holy Spirit is so much more than that…the Spirit can move in big and amazing ways, and the Spirit can move much more quietly and subtly, changing, re-creating, transforming us, making us into a new people with greater vision, with greater courage than we could ever do on our own.
I wonder what might happen in our church when we claim the Spirit, when we trust the Spirit’s work among us, and pray that God will fill us, renew us, and empower us to do whatever God wants us to do in this place?
Are we willing to consider the possibilities?
It seems that the Spirit may be speaking to us as we consider where we are in our efforts to Rebuild First Church. The response has been amazing. I’ve been told repeatedly over the past 6 months how 20 years ago when First Church took on a capital campaign, you raised $200K over your goal. That was always followed up with, “But we had a lot more people then.” Have I mentioned recently what we’ve received commitments for somewhere around $190K over our goal? It seems to me that God is offering us a new thing. But it’s not just about building. What else might God be offering us? Are we willing to explore the possibilities? Or is that a frightening thing? When the Holy Spirit comes, it can be disruptive and chaotic. Not everyone will understand what we’re trying to do. And maybe we’ll even be challenged to do something that we’re not so sure we want to do…to go somewhere we don’t want to go. Maybe we’ll be asked to stand up when we’d rather just stay seated.
A United Methodist clergywoman was appointed to a 4 point charge, which means that she was appointed to serve 4 different churches at the same time. I’ve preached in a previous appointment in 3 locations on a Sunday morning, but they weren’t 3 completely different congregations. Something about 4 different churches seems challenging.
This pastor was the first woman to serve in that 13-county area of Tennessee-Alabama. People were not receptive to her arrival. Kids boycotted the youth group, other churches marched in protest around United Methodist churches in the area. At school, her children were treated in a way that you don’t want your children to be treated because of the kind of work you do.
Just because a pastor is convinced God has called them to the work of ministry doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
But there were good moments, too. There were people who prayed for her, who went out of their way to do special things for she and her family to lighten the burden, to show they were loved, even in the midst of the challenges.
The pastor decided that one of the first things she would do to get to know folks and to try to settle in was to lead a Bible study. The text she chose for the first week was from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Luke about the woman who was bent over and crippled for 18 years. When Jesus saw the woman in the synagogue, he called out to her and said, “Woman, you are healed of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Because he had healed on the Sabbath, Jesus was confronted by the ruler of the synagogue. Jesus responded that if one might bind or unbind an animal on the Sabbath in order to lead it to water, why then would it not be right to unbind this woman, a daughter of Abraham, from that which had bound her for these 18 years?
Those who attended the Bible study shared good conversation about the text as they talked about ways Jesus offers healing to those who are “bent over”, and how they as a community might “stand up” for others who are “bent over” by life.
After the 3rd session, a woman in her 30’s shared with the pastor that her husband sometimes abused her. She said that his family was prominent in the community and in the church and that she felt helpless.
It wasn’t long after that when the pastor was called to the hospital. The woman had been beaten by her husband. He had knocked her to the ground and proceeded to kick her with steel-toed boots. The doctor overheard the physician ask the woman, “now what did you do to get him going this time?”
The following Sunday, with the abuser and his family sitting in the congregation, the pastor struggled over what she might say, what words would be appropriate. After the service began, the young woman appeared at the back of the church, stepping just inside the door…not sure if she was welcome, not sure what she should do, but needing to be there, in her church home. Her own home wasn’t safe. Was God’s house? Her face was swollen and bruised; she had stitches in her neck from the beating. But there she was, standing at the back of the church.
A woman in the congregation, who had been a part of the Bible study was the first to respond. She stood up, faced the young woman and said, “You are a daughter of Abraham.” Another woman stood up, too: “You are a daughter of Abraham.” And then a man stood up and said, “You are a daughter of Abraham.”
The Holy Spirit filled the room, empowering Christ’s disciples to do something disruptive, uncomfortable, but of vital importance in the young woman’s life and spirit.
The Holy Spirit is available for us. For us. To strengthen and empower us to do God’s work. Whether it impacts a whole community or one single life. One single, blessed life.
In the centuries after the old Roman Empire fell and before Europe established itself, we have what is known historically as the Middle Ages. We often think of it as a time of cold weather, bad food and nonexistent plumbing. We call this time the Dark Ages.
One of the bright spots during these dark times was at the local cathedral. Medieval men and women would come from miles around for comfort, care, and discipleship training. The printing press hadn’t been invented, Bibles weren’t available, but most people couldn’t read anyway, so the cathedral was their Bible. The paintings, murals, sculptures, icons, stained glass windows, painted domes, the drama and the pageantry and the service of communion, all told stories of the faith.
Cathedrals were centers of community life, they were the courthouses for local lawmakers and peace-keepers, they were a place where travelers could find a safe place to stay and meal to eat. The cathedral was the main support system in the lives of the struggling, frightened, powerless men and women. The cathedral offered comfort, beauty, and security for all who entered.
In her book, Encountering God, Diana Eck describes some things in the medieval church that seem surprising, considering the times. In those dark ages, the liturgical calendar with its different seasons of the year, different colors and special days shaped the daily lives of the people in the villages. Festivals, saint’s days, holy days were all lived and breathed in their world. Pentecost was one of the most unique and creatively celebrated days.
In 10th century Rome, Pentecost involved architecture…not just anthems or liturgy, or even drama…
The custom of painting heavenly scenes of the great domes served not only to inspire devotion but also to disguise some discreet trap doors. These small openings were drilled through the roof and during the Pentecost worship service, some daring person would climb up on the roof and at the appropriate moment during the liturgy would release live doves through these holes.
Can you imagine looking up at the beautifully painted dome and all of a sudden seeing these swooping, diving symbols of a vitally present Holy Spirit descending toward you below? At the same time, the choir would break into the whooshing and drumming sound of a holy windstorm.
Finally, as the doves were flying and the winds rushing, the ceiling holes would once again be opened as bushels of rose petals were showered down on the congregation. These red, flickering bits of flowers symbolized tongues of flame falling upon all who waited below in faith.
These openings to the sky in medieval churches were called “Holy Spirit holes.”
Diane Eck writes that perhaps we need Holy Spirit holes today. Perhaps our churches need these skyward openings to the wind-rush of God, reminding us that our knowledge and understanding of God is incomplete. Reminding us that we don’t know everything God has in mind for our lives or for our church, and that we need to remain open to the possibilities and the movement of the Spirit. The symbolic images of Pentecost, like the dove and the wildfire, are images of movement, of surprise, of freedom.
We might want to ask ourselves: Have we created around ourselves a spiritual vacuum that doesn’t allow the wind to blow, instead of experiencing doves and flames swooping out from Holy Spirit holes? Have we insulated ourselves from any surprise visitation?
Pentecost calls us to open ourselves to the wind. To allow the wind-like quality of the Spirit to surprise us…to take us to where we may not necessarily want to go, or think to go! To a place that is unpredictable…that can drive us toward stillness…toward wholeness…
Are there any Holy Spirit holes in our ceiling here? In your home? In your workplace? Your car? Your school? Are you willing this morning to become a Holy Spirit hole to those around you?
Blow Holy Spirit, where you will. Fill the earth. Let the breath of the Spirit blow in you and in me. Blow Holy Spirit, blow, through us, through our church… Amen