Where's the Fire?

May 11th, 2014

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a day we remember and celebrate when the Holy Spirit was first given to Jesus’ disciples. For the past few years, every time Pentecost Sunday has rolled around, a particular memory has come to my mind.

It’s something that happened years ago when I was a young, naïve associate pastor. It was Pentecost Sunday, and I was offering the pastoral prayer in worship. It went something like this: “We thank you today, O God, for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We thank you for sending it among us.”

After the service the senior pastor I was working with at the time pulled me aside and said, “The Holy Spirit is not an ‘it.’ The Spirit is a person of the Trinity to whom we relate. We pray to the Spirit; we love the Spirit; we commune with the Spirit. You can say ‘he’ or ‘she,’ I don’t care, but don’t say ‘it.’” I’d never thought about that before. His words caused me to reflect a long time on my relationship with the Holy Spirit.

To be honest, the fact that I called the Spirit “it” showed the distance I felt from the Spirit. I never prayed to the Spirit. I never thought about loving the Spirit. And I certainly didn’t think of her or him as being as important as God the Father and God the Son. In fact, I rarely thought about the Spirit at all.

The truth is many of us in the church today are baffled by the Holy Spirit. We gather on Sunday mornings and recite the creed together, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” But how often do we really talk about the Spirit?

Sure, we have our vague notions about how the Spirit works. When we think of the Spirit, we think of the comforter. We think of divine nudges, soft whispers, gentle presence. And all of that is true. The Holy Spirit is our Comforter and our Advocate.

In fact, this morning I was going to preach a sermon about that very thing: how the Holy Spirit is not just loud and fiery, like she was on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit is often quiet, gentle and subtle, easy to miss. We don’t all have to be fiery to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And that’s all true.

But then I went back to the second chapter of Acts and realized there’s no getting around it in this story. The Holy Spirit is loud, fiery, and earthshattering. Listen to how Luke recounts the story of Pentecost: “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house . . . 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.” Did you hear Luke’s words? “Suddenly,” “rush,” “violent wind,” “fire.”

There’s nothing subtle here. The Holy Spirit arrives loudly and dramatically. And she sets the disciples on fire. They were never the same after that. And neither was the world.

The Spirit brought about radical change. In that moment on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit transformed a ragtag gathering of Jesus’ disciples into the body of Christ, the church. Peter the impulsive, James and John the competitive, Mary the meek, Thomas the doubtful—everyone in that room that day was changed. Some became prophets, some healers, some preachers, some caregivers—some would travel the world preaching, others would stay behind-the-scenes caring for the poor—but all of them were set on fire. With the power of the Holy Spirit, they changed the world.

Now, here we are today—the church of the twenty-first century. Up and down our street this morning there are churches celebrating Pentecost. Some will have birthday cake to celebrate the birth of the church. Some will have red and white balloons. Some will ask their members to wear red. Some will have liturgical dancers waving red banners. We know very well how to celebrate Pentecost.

But, the story of Pentecost raises to us the question: “Where’s the fire?” When we invited the Holy Spirit into our worship this morning, did we really know what we were asking for? Yes, we want the Comforter. We want the Advocate. We want to come here and feel the gentle presence of the Spirit. We wouldn’t even mind a little nudge or two.

But do we really want the fire? We like the Holy Spirit to be warm . . . but hot? Do we really want to be changed? Would we call upon the Spirit if we knew it meant that we’d have to live and love differently? Do we realize what we’re doing when we call upon the Holy Spirit?

When those first disciples were anointed with the Holy Spirit, it was a pretty wild scene. People on the street thought the disciples were drunk. The disciples were so excited, so fired up, so full of the Spirit that people thought they were crazy.

Do people on the street ever look at us Christians and think we’re crazy? Do we look different enough from the world that people notice us at all? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re necessarily called to be “shoutin’ Christians.” We don’t all have to be fiery and loud. I’m not talking about that kind of heat.

What I want to know is, are our hearts really on fire? Is God really at the center of our lives? Do we love in a way that is radical? Are we extravagantly generous? Do we forgive the unforgivable? Do we reach out to the least and the lost? Are we so loving, so compassionate, so giving, so humble, that the world thinks we’re crazy?

This morning is Confirmation Sunday in our church. When someone is baptized among us, we all pray for the Holy Spirit to work within that person. Do we take that prayer seriously? Do we really want the Holy Spirit to fill these young people?

To those of you who are being baptized and confirmed, I could say nicely and warmly, “Welcome to the church. I hope you get involved in the youth group. I hope you have fun. I hope you grow up to be nice and well rounded. I hope your activities at church are as enriching to you as band camp, as a soccer season, or as your many other activities.”

But I feel led to say something else this morning. What I really want to say to you is—Watch out! If you really want to take this step, if you really want to take this journey with Christ, if you really want the Holy Spirit to work within you, then put on your crash helmets. Get ready because the Spirit can set a fire in your hearts.

Your relationship with God in the Spirit is not just another good activity to keep you busy. It is the most important thing in this life. It is everything. And if you really want to say yes to God, then be ready. The Spirit will make you do crazy things like loving your enemies. The Spirit will make you reach out to people who are outcast. The Spirit will make you spend your money differently. The Spirit will make you cry for the suffering of others. The Spirit will make you want to change the world.

Now . . . for all of us who welcome these confirmands today, we as a church must let the Spirit do the Spirit’s work. As these confirmands join us on the journey, we dare not try to quench their fire. We dare not cool down the message of the gospel.

Let us not teach them to be sensible and moderate. Let’s not teach them how to fit in. Let’s teach them instead to be drunk with love for God, crazy in their compassion for others, unreasonable in their faith, extravagant in their kindness, and radical in their commitment to God and God’s people. And let’s do more than that. Let’s teach them how to stir up a little trouble in the world.

May we teach them not so much with our words as with our lives.

comments powered by Disqus