Text: Acts 2:1-21
If you read the Bible very much, you have to wonder about fire. Throughout scripture, fire is the one sure sign of the presence of God. God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush; a pillar of fire guides the people of Israel through the wilderness after their escape from Egypt; when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to get the ten commandments from God, it looks to those down below as if the mountain itself is being devoured by fire. And in this Pentecost story we have read this morning, we encounter fire once again as God’s presence coming to rest upon the people gathered.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Biblical fire, “This is not safe fire; it can still burn and kill. But it is God’s own fire, the fire of God’s presence, fire that wants to speak to us, guide us, instruct us, save us. It is the fire of a potter who wants to make useful vessels out of damp clay. It is the fire of a jeweler who wants to refine pure gold from rough ore. It does not have to be the fire of destruction, in other words. It may also be the fire of transformation, a fire that both lights us up and changes us, melting us down and reforming us more nearly to the image of God.” As I read the Pentecost story, I wonder if it is this kind of fire—a fire of transformation—that rested upon God’s people that very first Pentecost.
To fully understand what was happening when the day of Pentecost came, you have to take a few steps back in time. Although described as a great surprise, the coming of the rushing wind, fire, and Holy Spirit of God is actually a culmination—the end of much preparation. The Pentecost story actually begins as Jesus breaks bread with the disciples for the last time, and then as he enters with them into the dark garden of Gethsemene, experiences betrayal, suffering, and ultimately death. Following his death, on the third day, he appears to his disciples and communicates a sense of presence despite death. And then in the first chapter of Acts he departs—he ascends to heaven as the disciples stand with their eyes cast upward. Rather than scatter as they had done at his death, following his ascension, the disciples instead return to that “upstairs room” in Jerusalem where it all had begun. We are told that gathered together, they speak of Jesus’ final days and Judas’ kiss of death. They cast lots and elect Matthias to take the place of Judas. In their bewilderment and uncertainty this time, they choose to stay together and they begin to reorganize.
What happens next, though, is what changes their lives. The story tells us that God’s Spirit came into the room where they were gathered and rested upon them. And they found within themselves the Spirit of God they had first met and known in Jesus. On the Jewish festival called Pentecost what had happened to Jesus at the Jordan happens to all those who had gathered in that upper room. With mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire, the Spirit of God enters into them as it had into Jesus. And when it happened, the story tells us that those who spoke different languages all began to speak the same language as the Spirit gave them. On the day of Pentecost, despite their differences they became one—at one enough to go forth from that place and turn the world upside down.
It is, with that backdrop that we come to the central question that the story of Pentecost itself asks, “What does it mean?” What does it mean to be a people touched by God’s Spirit? How do we find and how do we live into the oneness of God’s Spirit, even and especially in the midst of our differences? And how do we allow God’s Spirit to empower us to go forth and continue to turn the world upside down by sharing the gospel of love and compassion; of truth and justice?
The question of what it means to be a Spirit-filled people is a powerful and profound question, especially at a place like Pullen where it is our differences that we most value and honor as a place of learning and growing and of challenging each other. For us, to answer the question, “What does this mean to be a Spirit-filled people?” is to ask, “How is the Pentecost story happening in our lives now?” It asks us to consider if God might not still be doing such mighty works—filling us with spirit that is holy—which is, in the end, what determines if it is a true story or not.
Two events come to mind when I think about how I have experienced the Pentecost story. I remember the first times I worshiped with our sister churches in Matanzas, Cuba and the Republic of Georgia. I sat in those worship experiences not understanding one word that was being said. Literally, I didn’t understand a word. However, I knew exactly what was happening. The rituals, the movements, the singing, everything that took place pointed to the worship of God. I didn’t have to understand the words because there was a deeper message being communicated—a message of love and hope; of justice and truth; of grace and compassion. The worship of God and the Spirit of God transcended the actual words and I felt a oneness with those around me.
The second event that came to my mind in reading this Pentecost story was 9/11. As the violent winds rushed and the fires continued to burn, literally, I felt a presence of Spirit holding our country and our world together. For a brief time, and sadly for only a brief time, differences faded and a common oneness pervaded. The global human community responded with compassion to the devastation of that day. It seemed as though God’s Spirit was being poured out on all flesh and for a moment our world’s sons and daughters, young and old alike, dreamed of a different world. The truth is that in the immediate days following 9/11 it wasn’t our differences that disappeared. Rather, it was our oneness as a human family that bound us together; and in that oneness we transcended our differences. That is what it means to be a Spirit-filled people—to be a people who honor and value our differences while allowing our oneness as a human family to transcend those differences.
“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” God’s Spirit is the fire of transformation. Sometimes in the liberal, ecumenical, inclusive church we so badly want to create and to feel this transcendent Spirit; we want it so badly that we skip the work and the pain—the fire—that is inevitable in this kind of transcendence. We rest in the “kumbya” moments, and we call that spirit. And in doing that we miss the Pentecost—the place where differences are not erased but transformed into meaning that underscores the truth of our real connection, the oneness to and through God.
There is an old story about a saint named Abbot Joseph, one of the spiritual masters of the fourth century who were known as the desert fathers. Abbot Joseph was in charge of a large community of monks living in the desert, and his main job was to instruct the young monks who came to him for spiritual guidance. One day one of those monks came to see him, clearly forlorn. He had followed all the rules, done everything right, but still he felt there was something missing. “Father,” he said to Abbot Joseph, “according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thought. Now what more should I do?” Abbot Joseph 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 totally changed into fire?” That is the meaning of Pentecost!