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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hearts on Fire - Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sum shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


I was taking a class in seminary on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The professor was a fire-anointed African-American Pentecostal pastor. As often happened, one day we were discussing the ways different denominational groups express themselves in worship, and being at a Methodist seminary, he began to pick on the Methodists. He wondered aloud, if the Methodists even had the Holy Spirit anymore. Oliver Box, a good friend of mine from Mississippi, put up his hand and said, “Dr. Turner, the Holy Spirit still shows up at the Methodist Church. He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”

For so long, we’ve put up with this good-natured taunting from our Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters that, perhaps we’ve started to wonder if they’re right. Is it possible, as they suggest, that the Holy Spirit missed us? Have we lost Him? These are questions I’ve wondered from time to time, and I imagine many of you have as well.

Before we proceed any further, let me share where I’m coming from on this issue. My roommate in college was a tongue-talking, pew-jumping Pentecostal. During those years, I attended two different churches many Sunday mornings. At 8:30, I went to the high, formal service at the Duke Chapel-esque United Methodist Church in downtown Rochester. At 11, I went to the non-denominational Charismatic Community Church near campus. The experiences in these two communities could not have been more opposite from each other, but I loved them both. Since then, whenever people ask about my preferred worship style, I tell them I am a “high-church-charismatic.” May we pray.

Comfortable, settled, and fat
William Buckley once said, “You may be able to bring up the subject of religion at a fancy dinner party once, but if you bring it up twice during the evening, you won’t be invited back.” Our society has no problem with religion, so long as its personal and private, decent and in good order. Don’t be too exuberant, don’t talk about it too much, lest someone accuse you of being a fanatic. Everyone knows that religious fanaticism is the worst kind of fanaticism.

The situation was not much different during that Pentecost celebration. Now, some of you are asking yourself what this strange word might mean. You suspect it might have something to do with five, as in a Pentagon, and you’d be correct. Multiply that five times ten, and the number fifty tells you something about this day. It occurred fifty days after Passover, and was the Jewish celebration to mark the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Beautiful liturgies and music had been written to help the people remember and celebrate.

In an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers – probably about 120 of them – gathered. The room was decorated with flowers, because according to tradition, the desert burst into bloom when the Law was given. As good Jews,they began to proceed through the familiar prayers. Candles were lit, and someone began to pray: Barukh Ata Adonai: Blessed Are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, and enabled us to reach this season. Though the liturgy was predictable, it was also familiar and comfortable.

But suddenly, into a routine that was comfortable, predictable, safe, tied-down, neat and under control, God showed up in a surprising way. A mighty rushing wind, heads anointed with fire, the good news proclaimed in new and unfamiliar languages. God was doing a new thing, and it made people a little uncomfortable.

A friend of mine was talking about the church in which she grew up – a large, downtown, First Baptist Church in a midsize Southern city. It was a fashionable place, a stately colonial brick building on the town square – a place to see and be seen. It was a proper place, where everyone followed the rules, where decent, polite order was the name of the game. One day, the Spirit moved on a woman in the congregation, and she raised her hand quietly in her seat. My friend, around 8 at the time, asked her mother if that lady had a question for the preacher.

It made everyone uncomfortable to have the Spirit show up off script. The religious establishment has a way of being uncomfortable when the Spirit shows up like that. On that Pentecost so long ago, some of the onlookers heard the disciples speaking in strange languages, and they made fun. “They’ve been drinking – they’re filled with new wine,” they said. During his earthly life Jesus was accused by many of being a drunkard and a glutton. It would only make sense that his followers would do the same thing. After all, hadn’t Jesus himself taught that a disciple is not above his teacher (Mat 10:24)?

Outward sign of an inward grace
In Christian circles, a lot of ink has been spilled over the significance of what people saw on that day – mighty wind, tongues of fire, the sound of foreign languages. In reality, these things are signs that point to something greater. I’d like us to think of these things sacramentally – that is, I’d like us to think of them as outward signs of an inward and spiritual reality.

The reality these signs pointed to was a changed heart – hearts touched by God, hearts that were on fire with his Holy Spirit.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost some of the heat out of this fire. Perhaps since the rise of Pentecostalism, those of us in the mainline have left the Holy Spirit up to them. That fits a little better with their culture and ethos. That’s their thing, and that’s okay, but let’s leave it to them, we tell ourselves. Once a year, as a sort of consolation prize, we pull out the red altar cloths and banners, the songs and prayers center around the Holy Spirit, but I wonder if our hearts are really on fire the way God intended for them to be.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten our roots. I’m not only talking about our early church roots on that day in Jerusalem, I’m also talking about our Methodist roots. John Wesley, attending a prayer meeting one evening on Aldersgate Street, records in his journal the feeling of his heart being strangely warmed. We Methodists already have language for this! John Wesley, a priest and son of one in the Anglican Church, Oxford-educated, privileged – had a run-in with the Holy Spirit that would forever leave its mark on the world. The comfortable, settled, familiar religious establishment – filled with the Spirit – it happened in Jerusalem, it happened on Aldersgate Street, and it happens today – around the corner and around the world.

What you or I might call exuberant, or unruly, or uncivilized, the rest of the world simply calls Christianity. Just take a look at Anglicans in Africa – Anglicans, you know, Episcopalians? Pallid, sallow-faced protectors of time-honored liturgy and tradition? Take a look at Anglicans in Africa, whose services typically last well into the afternoon, and whose membership is swelling by record numbers. Take a look at Presbyterians in South America – Presbyterians – you know, the frozen chosen? Watch as they dance and sway and offer themselves completely in praise and devotion. Take a look at Methodists in Korea – Methodists - you know, we who do all things in moderation? Spend four hours a day with them in prayer and see if God doesn’t start to do unexpected things on you, too.

Fire kindles fire
All this is happening, we see it everywhere, and we’ve been standing on the sidelines wondering when we’re going to get our chance. And maybe that’s just the problem. God has not called us to observe, God has called us to get in the game. We’re not standing on the promises, we’re simply sitting on the premises.

In a Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King commented on just this situation. “The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” He says that we have become like thermometers, who merely record the temperature, rather than thermostats, who set the temperature. This switch from thermostat to thermometer happened long ago, but it was so subtle we didn’t even notice. The church continued on, thinking it’s still consumed with Holy fire, when all that’s left is a tiny little ember surrounded by cold, dead, ash.
But the ember is still there. It’s not that we never received the fire, or that it went out – we just let it grow a little cold. The fire still burns, down in the pit of your soul and mine. The wind of the Holy Spirit can still fan it back into flame.

The Holy Spirit has done it before and will do it again, if you and I will provide a little help. Let’s give the Spirit some room to work. Let’s clear away those things which are already burned up and won’t burn anymore. Let’s release our tight control over our lives and admit that we need the Holy Spirit to fall fresh on us yet again, to stir up our hearts with wind from heaven, and to consume our lives with holy fire.

Our lives will never be the same, but that’s the good news. God did not send first his Son, and then his Spirit, because he wanted us to remain unchanged. Rather than serving as defenders of the status quo – the Church has the opportunity to return to its original God-given mission to be light in the darkness, to be fire in the wilderness, to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God, you ask? Romans 14:17 says it’s “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Friends, that’s exactly what the world is so desperately hungry for. They don’t need a church that is cold and empty, more interested in self-preservation than in making a positive difference in people’s lives. They need a church whose heart burns with the Holy Spirit.

There is a time in this church’s history when the building itself was consumed with fire. Sure enough, the whole town came out to watch the spectacle.

Imagine how much more spectacular it would be for this church to be consumed with holy fire. What the world needs is for the Church to burn once again, not literally, of course, but with the Holy Spirit - over our boundaries, leaping over our walls, throbbing, intruding, calling forth. And when that happens, one thing is for sure: catch on fire with the Holy Spirit, and people will come from miles around to watch you burn.