Grace Episcopal Church
The Feast of Pentecost (A)
1 Corinthians 12.3b-13
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2.2—3). When we imagine Pentecost we tend to focus on people speaking ecstatically, in many languages. But, today, let’s focus more closely on violent wind and fire.
A rush of a violent wind. Near the lake, here, we’ve all certainly been taken aback being hit by a sudden wind. I was once thrown to the ground from a bicycle by a wind, albeit not here. A real gust can awaken you, and when it does, your first thought might be one of fear—practical fear, as in “Will the roof be OK?”, and more personal fear, as in “Will I be OK?” Those of us who have ever been near a wild fire or a forest fire, or a building fire, know that perhaps the most startling and threatening thing about a large fire is how loud it is, how much air is moved violently.
A gentle breeze is fine, and we certainly strive to move air about inside our dwellings. Like the breezes we can control, fire is a blessing when we can control it. We heat our homes, cook our meals, enjoy light and warmth. When fire is not subject to our control it is, however, frightening indeed. Fire assumes a life of its own; it becomes a personal thing that must be defeated or will consume us. Which is why the Holy Spirit is so scary. In any encounter with God’s Spirit the first thing that happens is that we know that we are not in control, and so what do most people do? We seek to assert control, or to control the situation by getting away, by escaping.
What does it look like, however, to run toward the fire? Consider, for a moment, that there are people in this world for whom you would run into a building on fire, to try to save them: your child; your spouse; a dear friend; an innocent otherwise unknown to you. If I run into a burning building, seeking to save my loved one, this would not be, really, bravery. If I run into a burning house for my child, this is not the act of a brave man, but an act resulting from my identity as a father. Call it instinct, if you like, but the reality is that at the core of each one of us is an identity—an image and likeness—which is oriented to the other; which is oriented not just to the self, and in extreme emergencies this identity can emerge and act.
And what happens if I run into a burning building (something which I have never done and pray never to do)? I am terrified but not focused on the fear. I am crying out—the name of my loved one and the Name of Jesus—praying to save my loved one and praying that I, myself, might be saved. By God’s grace I have so come out of myself as to lose myself, and to rely, utterly, on God. Which is, actually, what Jesus calls us to, to so lay down our own lives that we may take up eternal life in Him.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus did run into a burning building to save us. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Jesus came into this fallen world, and descended, in fact, into hell itself after He had laid down His own life. He ran into a burning building, and by His Spirit we are each now called through the fire, this same fire described in our lesson as “among them, and [resting] on each of them”.
At Pentecost we celebrate the birth of the Church, the explosion of the Spirit who Jesus breathed upon the disciples in the upper room to the rest of us, to all of us. In celebrating this new reality, let’s celebrate what it means to live with fire among us and upon each of us. Churchgoers have, by definition, been converted to the reality that to have a real relationship with God we must do this together; we must gather as commanded by God. As we mature in faith—as we begin to experience more and more the calling and identity of discipleship—we each become more and more committed in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus becomes, ultimately, the most real and most intimate person in the life of each disciple, as each disciple lays down his or her life to take up new life in Christ; to obey Jesus when He says, “Follow me.” But there is yet a third level of conversion. This is the experience of the Holy Spirit, and in speaking of the Spirit, let’s explore another kind of fire. This is a fire that also burns, and that we can be burned by. It is the fire of love.
If you have ever fallen in love you know that the experience involves a radical; transformation of who you are. You came to know who you love differently, certainly, but you also came to know yourself differently. You were changed by love, by being in love. It changed your reality, and what you did, so that the one you loved was not just another “priority” but a focus of your life, of your identity. If we consider, then, the reality that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4.8), what slaps us in the face like a violent wind is the reality that in order to be a disciple I must fall in love with God. Conversion of heart precedes mental assent in faith. I must first know the Person of God, trust in Him, and fall in love before I’ll ever believe and act upon anything I might think about God and faith.
I have to run through the fire. The fire is scary, for I know that I will be changed, that I am not in control of the fire, of the change. But on the other side of the fire is real renewal, new life, restoration to the image and likeness in which I have been created; restoration to the image and likeness in which God sees me—through all the dirt of my own fallenness—sees me, and calls me to through the burning and burnishing process of the Holy Spirit burning upon me and among us. In this restoration I am, as well, reconciled. Despite all of the ways in which I have made myself a stranger to God through my own sin, I now enter into the new life which is in God. I become a member of His incarnate Body, the Church, and through the Church I begin to reclaim the rest of the world for God. I declare victory over fallenness, because I experience this victory myself.
The sixteenth century mystic, St. Teresa of Ávila, wrote the following about the reality of new life in this gathering, this Body, upon which and among whom now rests the fire of the Holy Spirit:
Christ has no body now, but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.
Look around at each other and recognize the body, the hands and feet, the eyes, the hands of blessing of God. Look upon each other, and yourself, and recognize that this Body is animated by the most powerful fire in all Creation. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12.13). Forget the fear; press through it in following Jesus. On the other side of fear you will find new life as men and women on fire, on fire together to reclaim this world for the kingdom. Let the alarm bells start ringing.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,
And of the Holy Spirit. Amen.