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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tongues of 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.’

Today is Pentecost. Today is the third-greatest festival in the church’s calendar. Today is a day to celebrate, because on this day, God poured out the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus. All over the world today, Christians are celebrating in various ways – some are having grand processions with trumpets and drums that mimic the sound of a mighty wind, others are serving cake and ice cream to commemorate the birthday of the Church, and I know of one crazy church that is having a chili cookoff following worship so that everyone will leave church today with “tongues of fire.” I encourage everyone to stay after worship today – we’ve got lots of chili, cornbread, and mac-n-cheese for everyone. I don’t even care if you made anything, just stay and have a good time!

Today, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus and the variety of gifts the Holy Spirit bestows upon us. But, I don’t want any of us to think that today we are simply commemorating a historical event that occurred once upon a time. Today, we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out not only on St. Paul United Methodist Church, but upon every church, of every denomination, around the world. May we pray.

Just before this passage, Jesus has commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The disciples return to Jerusalem, and they wait for the Holy Spirit Jesus has promised them. While they are waiting, they select Matthias to replace Judas as one the apostles. In Jewish tradition, the number “12” represented an authentic gathering of God’s people. According to Luke’s Gospel, the 12 would judge over the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30). When they were selecting this “new” apostle, there were very special and explicit criteria for which they were looking. This new apostle, this new leader, would have to have been a witness to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this new leader would need to embrace Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in the world. Likewise, when the church is selecting leadership today, we need to be just as choosy. We don’t choose people for leadership because they work hard, because they give a lot of money, or they think they’re important. The most defining criterion for leadership in this church is embracing Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in the world.

Pentecost – sort of a funny name isn’t it? Let’s break the word down. Pente – does that sound familiar? Like Pentagon? So, the number 5 has something to do with the name. Multiply 5 times 10 to get 50, and you’re at your answer. The Greek word Πεντηκοστή (pentecoste) literally means “50 Days.” It was sometimes referred to as the Festival of Weeks, starting after seven weeks of Passover and was the Jewish celebration to mark the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It was a festival for which pilgrims from all over the known world would have travelled to Jerusalem – the city would have been packed with people from different cultures and speaking different languages, which helps us understand the scene in which this story takes place.

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 more than a little bit uncomfortable.

A friend of mine was talking about the church in which she grew up – a large, downtown, First 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.

In seminary, I took a class on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, taught by Dr. William Turner, an ordained pastor in the United Pentecostal Holiness denomination. One day, he was talking about the ways that various denominations respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, and being at a Methodist seminary, of course he started to give us a hard time, wondering aloud the last time the Holy Spirit had even shown up at a Methodist church. My friend, Oliver Box, a high-church Methodist from Aberdeen, Mississippi, said, “Excuse me, Dr. Turner – The Holy Spirit does, indeed, show up at the Methodist church. He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”

Take a look at our denominational logo, our trademark “cross and flame.” That red thing beside the cross is supposed to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit. Even on our logo, it looks like a pretty controlled burn, doesn’t it? Not getting out of control, burning quietly, never really flaring up to much – always there, steady, controlled – sort of like the pilot light on your water heater. But friends, that is only partially accurate. Yes, sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up as a controlled burn – decent, orderly, respectable. But more often than not, the Holy Spirit shows up as wildfire. I wonder if we’re willing to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit sweeping through this church not as a controlled, respectable burn, but as wildfire?

In our polite, respectable, controlled society, it makes people uncomfortable when the Holy Spirit shows up like wildfire. The religious establishment, in particular, 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. During his earthly life, Jesus had been accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, and critics made the same accusation against his disciples: “They’ve been drinking – they’re filled with new wine,” they said.

It’s a common attack we make when God shows up off script, or when we realize that God is doing something we are not in control of. “Well, those people are drunk. Well, those people are crazy. Well, that church must be a cult. When God starts to do something and God has the audacity to do it God’s way and not our way, we can offer all sorts of excuses, explanations, and attacks as to why it’s not right because it’s not the way we would have done it. The only problem with that is that God doesn’t care about what we think is proper – the Spirit shows up as the Spirit wants to, the wind blows where it wants, fire burns where and what it will, and we can sit around and mope that God didn’t seek our permission to do things God’s way, or we can join the celebration, get caught up in the windstorm, and let the fire burn within us, even when we don’t understand where God is going to take us.

When Peter preaches about the miracle that people have observed (trying to defend his friends against the accusation that they have been drinking too much) what he talks about is not the splendor of the congregation but the majesty of God. It is God’s Spirit that makes this day possible. The day is not the church’s day; it is, as Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” The purpose of the day is not to congratulate each other, not to pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done, not to brag about how our work made this all possible, it’s a day to repent and believe, because this is God’s great and glorious day.

Fire, wind, and humble uneducated Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. These humble Galileans, now speaking with power and authority in different languages, let us not forget that these are the same people who back on Good Friday, when Jesus was just hanging around, scattered in fear. It’s such a dramatic reversal that can only be explained by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit as wildfire, but even so, the critics wanted to explain it away by complaining, making fun, and blaming the whole thing on too much wine. A controlled burn we can understand. But the Holy Spirit sweeping through a community like wildfire? That’s a little much for too many of us. But if we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us just as it was on the first disciples, that’s exactly what we’re praying for.

Many of you have asked why my haircut suddenly became much shorter a week and a half ago. I was preparing to cook steaks on the grill, and in my condo community, we can’t have individuals grills on our balconies, so we have several community grills at the pool area. These are big, grand-daddy industrial grills. I turned on the gas to the burners and hit the electric starter, and the gas didn’t light. A second push, and nothing, a third push, and still nothing. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the matches. The first one didn’t light. The second one didn’t light. The third one didn’t light. The gas is still running from when I first turned it on. I lit the fourth match, held it upside down for a few seconds so it could really catch, and threw it into the grill, and who knows how many cubic feet of propane lying in the bottom of the grill lit a fireball that burned off my eyelashes, the hair on the back of my knuckles, and half the hair on top of my head.

Yes, I realize I’m fortunate that I wasn’t burned any more severely, but that’s really not the point of the story. When we think about Pentecost, I’ve seen images that have a little, controlled, candle-flame dancing on top of the heads of the believers. But I have to think it was more severe than that. No little candle flame would have pushed them out into the world to proclaim God’s goods with boldness and power. It had to be a full-blown, out-of-control, scary, frightening, fireball of the Holy Spirit – the sort of burn that we don’t control, but that controls us.

There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God’s Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and fire and amazing special effects. But those events were reserved for only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders. Not so on Pentecost. Here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread like wildfire to the ends of the earth, the display is for all. Not just the disciples, gathered in the upper room, getting themselves organized again. Not just the holiest, or the most faithful of the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road of witnesses to his resurrection. No, in this case, at this moment, all flesh, male and female, old and young, slave and free, insider and outsider, are invited and included.

And just to drive that point home, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind and an uplifting Spirit that drives those disciples out, out into the world beyond their walls, beyond the theoretical but fragile safety those walls provide.

Pentecost signals a breakdown in the divides we humans like to construct between ourselves. The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other. The apostles speak a variety of languages so a variety of people can hear. It is a mistake to read this text as God binding us together in unity despite our diversity. God’s promise for the church is that in our diversity, through our diversity, celebrating our diversity, the Holy Spirit still leads us forward in understanding.

Pentecost is not about what we can do by our cleverness and ingenuity. The Holy Spirit is not a strategy, The Holy Spirit isn’t something we discuss and vote on and enter into the minutes of the meeting. Pentecost reminds us that it’s about what God can do in and through us. It’s about what happens when God pours the Holy Spirit into our lives - God working a complete reversal of the pain & suffering we humans are so quick to inflict upon each other.

Though humans crucify, God resurrects. Though humans divide and dominate, God unites. God has the last word, and the word is wild. It changes everything. It rebuilds broken community. It breaks boundaries and enlarges the house. It makes possible understanding where before there was not understanding.

The fire of the Holy Spirit comes and burns all that pain and suffering away so that the process of transformation can begin within each of us. Those things have to be burned away for the new things of God to be born.

Perhaps that’s why Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church. The wildfire of the Holy Spirit burning away negative attitudes and too much self-reliance on our own human abilities in order that something that is truly of God can be born. But remember, births are rarely neat, tidy, or quiet, even when something beautiful and of God is struggling to be born. In this case, fire and wind do not bring destruction, but new life. As with birth, it may not be quiet or peaceful, but it is exhilarating and good.

With rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostles experienced the presence of God. In power and in intimacy, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to heal aching souls, to bear witness to divine, incomparable love. People responded – thousands of people responded. In one day, the church grew from a group of about 120 believers to a mega-church of over 3000.

As the prophet Joel foretold, old men began to dream dreams, and young men begin to see visions. Justice prevails, the mountains drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk. It is the “glorious day of the Lord” and it fills the disciples with euphoric hope. They go on to live out what the Spirit has revealed within them – they break bread from house to house, they share their goods and possessions, they hold all things in common, the display signs and wonders, and new members were added to their number daily.

The Holy Spirit had come in power. The fearful had found power. A new community was born. It was a good beginning. It was a realization of the prayer we continue to pray: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”

But you know what? Pentecost didn’t happen just once. It wasn’t just a day on the church’s calendar. We don’t remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with nostalgic hearts and say, “Wasn’t that nice.” The good news of Pentecost is that it still happens – it still can, and it still does – among us today.

Like those early disciples of Jesus, we can come together in one place – surrendering our individual wills, our egos, our pride, our need for control, our self-importance, our agendas – laying all these things aside, coming together in one place called the will of God and praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us for the sole purpose of being the witnesses of Jesus in the world. And that’s what happens – catch on fire with the Holy Spirit, and people will come from miles around to watch you burn.

My hope is that we will each experience Pentecost fresh and new today – that something of the Holy Spirit will be born within each of us – perhaps not neat and tidy, but exhilarating and good, all the same. May fresh wind and fresh fire fall in this place, and may we be utterly consumed by the glory of it all.

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