Sunday, May 15, 2016

Praying with Wildfire (Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Today, we are celebrating Pentecost.  Pentecost is the conclusion of the great Easter season, and it occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday.  Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church, because on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus, and the Church began.  Every year, the Church continues to celebrate Pentecost, and pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us, just as it was on the first followers of Jesus.

A young man visited a prominent church in his town.  Let’s just say he didn’t fit in.  He was “different” than the majority of people who attended that church.  After worship, he greeted the pastor on his way back outside, and said, “Pastor, I really enjoyed worship today.  I think I’d like to join this church!”   The pastor was visibly agitated by this – anyone could see that this young man was “different,” and the pastor didn’t need the headache of what people might say if someone like this young man joined the church.  But, trying to be diplomatic and pastoral, he said, “Well, joining a church is very serious business.  Why don’t you go home this week and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance about this very important decision?”

The young man walked away, and the pastor was surprised to see him sitting in the congregation the next week.  As he left worship, the pastor said, “Did you pray about what we talked about last week?”  The young man said, “I sure did, and I’ve decided not to join your church.”  The pastor was visually relieved that this undesirable person would not join his church.  The young man continued, “I did what you said, and the Holy Spirit told me I shouldn’t bother; she’s been trying to get into this church for the last ten years!”

I’ve known plenty of folks who speculate about whether or not the Holy Spirit shows up in Methodist churches.  My friend, Oliver Box, says, “The Holy Spirit does, indeed, show up at the Methodist church.  He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”  And, perhaps that’s the problem.

The United Methodist "cross and flame"
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 too much.

We are good with God the Father, whom we have experienced as a loving parent, whose creation we see and are struck with awe and wonder.  We are good with God the Son, because we can see and understand the life, teaching, and example of Jesus Christ.  When it comes to God the Holy Spirit, we aren’t quite sure what to do there.

We’ve seen that the Spirit can be wild and unruly and unpredictable, and we’re not sure we want the wind and fire of God’s presence blowing through our tidy and neatly-ordered lives.  We’ve worked hard for this, we’ve put everything where we want it, we like it how it is – and the last thing we need is the Holy Spirit getting loose and going wild and messing everything up.  And so, we invite the Holy Spirit in, but with a list of conditions: “Sit in the corner.  Don’t make too much noise.  Don’t draw attention to yourself.  And don’t mess with our stuff.”

We want to experience the Holy Spirit as a controlled burn, as tame as the pilot light on your water heater, as contained as candle flame on the altar table, as easily-extinguished as a cheap pocket lighter.  We want a Holy Spirit we can control.

But friends, the Holy Spirit is not a controlled burn.  The Holy Spirit is wildfire.  When we pray for and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, we are praying with wildfire!  We are praying for fire to fall from heaven upon us and ignite something within us we would never light for ourselves.  We are praying to be blown out of our comfort zone, out of our control zone, swept up in a holy consuming fire we did not start and can never hope to extinguish.  Who in the world would want something like that?

The followers of Jesus, that’s who.

In the Scripture we’ve read, when the first followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit, they found themselves getting into all sorts of things they never would have on their own.  They were speaking in languages they’d never learned, prophesying about things they didn’t know anything about, not bound by a spirit of fear and timidity but boldness and courage – all because they received the Holy Spirit.

The same is true for us.  Having the Holy Spirit in our lives means giving up control and opening ourselves up to things and people and experiences we would never seek on our own.  It means getting out of the drivers’ seat and letting the Holy Spirit set the course.  It means getting caught up in the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.

The power and presence of the Holy Spirit is the difference between going to church and being the church – the living, breathing, body of Christ, the real hands and feet of Jesus in the world – if we’re going to do all that we have been called to be, we need the Holy Spirit.

We’ve got to get fired up.  The first car I bought was a 1986 Honda Prelude, and it was everything you would expect from a first car a high schooler bought for himself with what he had saved over a couple years of a part-time job.  On cold mornings in upstate New York, it had trouble getting fired up.  You had to turn the ignition and then mash your foot down on the accelerator, hoping it wouldn’t die right away.  The goal was to increase the RPMs on the engine and let it run long enough that it would warm up enough to not stall out when you let it idle.  There were some mornings I had to turn the ignition 20 times just to finally crank it up enough that it would continue to run.

With that car, if it didn’t get fired up in the morning, do you know what happened?  It didn’t go anywhere.  Likewise, when the church fails to get fired up with the Holy Spirit, we don’t go anywhere, either.

Or, to put it another way, we need fire in our belly.  When we see someone with passion for something, we say they have fire in their belly.  We need passion for the things Jesus was passionate about. 

We need to get fired up.  We need some fire in our belly.  We need passion for the things God would have us be passionate about.  We need the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.  Without that wildfire, without that passion, without that fire in our belly, we just sit on the curb like my first car on a cold morning; all we do is sit there and occupy space, but we’re not taking anyone anywhere.

Friends, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the difference between just going to church and being the church. 

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist.  But I am afraid they should only exist as a dead church, having the form of religion without its power.”  “My fear is that our people will become content to live without the fire, the power, the excitement, the supernatural element that makes us great.”

Too often and too easily, we settle for a faith experience devoid of the Holy Spirit.  Tidy, neat, predictable, under control – and completely powerless to change our lives, let alone change the world.

The worst thing is not that we would cease to exist.  No, the worst thing would be to lose our vitality, to have the outward form of religion without its power.

Every weekend – sometimes on Saturday, sometimes on Sunday morning – I walk through the sanctuary and fellowship hall, and I touch every seat, and I pray for the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of the people who will sit there and kindle in them the fire of God’s love.  I do the same thing for every outside door, up and down every hallway, pausing at the door of each room, praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon each person who walks through them, down these halls, and into each room.

So, when you show up on Sunday morning, I have prayed for you.  As you sit in these seats and walk through these doors, I pray you feel the power of those prayers and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit upon you and full within you.

But remember, that’s just the beginning.  I want you to remember what those first followers of Jesus did as soon as they received the Holy Spirit.  They unlocked the door and boldly went out to share God’s good news with the world.  The first thing they did was take a mission trip.  They didn’t build a building, they didn’t have a worship service, they didn’t create a budget, they didn’t have a stewardship campaign, they didn’t create any programs, and they most certainly didn’t form any committees.  They boldly went out in mission.  The very first thing the Church did was to leave the building, because their passion for the Gospel was greater than their personal preference, comfort, and control.

If you keep reading the book of Acts, you’ll see that those winds of the Holy Spirit kept right on blowing.  The wind that first blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, beyond their locked door and into the street with God’s good news kept blowing.

Today, I’m praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon us just as it was poured upon the first followers of Jesus so many years ago.  Our faith is not just the story about what God did once upon a time, to some people we don’t know, in a land far, far, away.  God’s story is still being written, and it continues in us, so long as our hearts are open and receptive to the warm winds of the Holy Spirit.

There are times when the work of the Spirit is imperceptible, but there are other times when you can see it, hear it, and feel it. To this day, every time I see the color red or a fire burning, when I feel the wind stir or hear the flap of a dove’s wings, I think, “Holy Spirit!  I wonder what wild and unpredictable and wonderful thing God is up to today.”

I don’t know when or in which direction the Spirit might blow.  I only know that it will.  Let’s be open enough to get caught up in the fiery wind when it comes by.

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