Catherine Thiel Lee
May 27, 2012
Joe asked me what I was preaching about this week. “Pentecost,” I told him. “Do you remember what happens at Pentecost?” His eyes got wide and he grinned and nodded. “There’s fire! And Jesus sends it on their heads.”
If I may brag on my child, it’s not a bad summary of our story in Acts. “There’s fire. Jesus sends it on their heads.” And his answer made me feel like maybe I was on an OK track with my sermon. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about fire.
Fire is scary stuff. For all our knowledge and technology, for all the apps we invent to tweak and perfect and modernize our daily lives, we deal with fire at a pretty basic level. Our strategy hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Sure, there are some fire suppressants we’ve come up with, like the stuff in fire extinguishers, to deal with the kind of fires resulting from chemicals we’ve invented. But for the most part, modern civilization has just reorganized the way people have always done it. We run large amounts of water under the street with access points at hydrants. We pay people to be on-call 24 hours a day to respond to fire. We have developed a quick and efficient…water delivery system. But it’s not fancy. Firefighters just drive fast and use big hoses. We still do the same old thing: we dump water on fire as fast as possible.
We try to keep it from spreading. Wildfires remind us starkly that we are actually fairly helpless in the face of fire. Once a fire is out of control, and it can get out of control quickly, there’s not much we can do but wait for it to burn itself out.
Before we came up with our quick and efficient water delivery system, fire was even scarier. One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve come across in literature is a description in Little House on the Prairie of a wildfire spreading across the land, rolling toward the Ingalls’ house and fields. They run around with smoke in their eyes and throats, barely able to breath, trying to dig a trench as a fire break, trying desperately to do anything to avert the flames. Fire can take out an entire city. Bill Bryson writes about the history of urban fires, those like fires in London which took out 13,200 houses after a small bakery fire spread, or another fire which claimed 12,000 lives. He says rather offhandedly that most cities suffered from devastating fires from time to time. I wonder if there was anything in daily life as terrifying as the ever-present possibility of a spreading fire.
Now fire isn’t all bad. It is also a wonderful, essential part of our lives. We can’t, and wouldn’t want to, live without fire. Fire keeps us warm. It gives us light. It makes us able to cook, which makes a whole lot of things available to us to eat which wouldn’t be otherwise. It also makes a lot of food tasty. Onions and pecans are great, but the ability to caramelize onions and pecans—that is a gift from a gracious and loving God. That’s the thing: fire is a gift. But it is a gift when it is contained, when it is controlled. When it gets out of control, there’s often trouble.
Fire is essential. It is beautiful. It is mesmerizing. But it is also burns things up. It’s consuming. It’s dangerous. And we are pretty helpless before it.
I’ve been trying to imagine this scene in Acts, and the more I try to imagine it, the more I keep thinking about one little word buried in the story. “Separating.” The “tongues like flames of fire” that rest on the apostles’ heads? The people see them “separating,” spreading out. The fire in Acts spreads.
There’s good reason to think that there were more than twelve tongues of fire. The word “all” gets strewn around the beginning of Acts a fair amount. Chapter one is careful to point out that the group of believers gathered in Jerusalem to wait on the Holy Spirit included 120 people. On the day of Pentecost “they were all gathered together in one place” (2:1). “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:5). The prophesy Peter quotes from the book of Joel says the Spirit will be poured out on “all people,” sons and daughters, young and old, men and women, slaves and free (2:17-18). “All,” “all,” “all.” Fire came to rest on them all. Not just on the heads of twelve apostles, but on all the followers of Jesus who were gathered together. All 120 of them.
So here’s the scene, here’s what people saw: 120 flames spreading out. 120 flames spreading out during a festival packed with people. 120 flames spreading out in a crowded first century city. A city with no, shall we say, quick and efficient water delivery system.
To say it must have been a “striking image” is to engage in understatement. It must have been terrifying. It must be the kind of thing that haunted everyone who saw it, the kind of image that seared itself into their brains, the kind of experience that they could never, ever forget. Flames spreading through a crowd, 120 people who look like they are on fire: how could you ever get that picture out of your head?
The Holy Spirit comes with fire. Fire is a terrifying, wild, consuming representation of the Holy Spirit. It’s the one a six year old remembers with wonder and light and amazement in his eyes. And it leaves me with a question: Why fire?
The rest of the descriptions of the Holy Spirit in the Bible aren’t much help to me in answering this question. There are lots of references to God’s Spirit, names for the Spirit, and descriptions of what the Spirit does. Most of them have more to do with air than with fire. This fire business is fairly unique to Pentecost for describing the Holy Spirit. The word spirit means “breath” or “wind.” In the Old Testament the Spirit does a lot of hovering and breathing. The Spirit hovers over the waters and chaos of Creation. The Spirit breathes life into the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. In the New Testament the Spirit does a lot of speaking in one way or another. Paul tells us the Spirit groans with Creation and with God’s people and helps them to pray. John calls the Spirit the “Advocate,” a legal representative who speaks on someone’s behalf, advises and gives knowledge, supplies words. All through the Bible, Spirit blows. Spirit moans. Spirit talks.
We call the Spirit the Counselor, the Sustainer, the Comforter, the Helper, the One who comes alongside. All of these names and images and actions show the Spirit bringing life and breath and speech.
But what does any of that have to do with fire? Doesn’t fire take breath away and consume the air necessary for speech? Doesn’t fire kill and destroy?
I like the Holy Spirit. I’m a big fan. I like a Holy Spirit who comforts and sustains me. Lord knows I need someone to help and counsel me through my daily life. I appreciate someone who will speak for me when I can’t speak for myself. I desperately need someone who breathes life into me.
But the Holy Spirit is a Comforter who sets heads on fire. Or at least it seems that way. And that’s more than a little disconcerting when I really think about it.
I guess God is like that, disconcerting. The Holy Spirit is, after all, part of the Godhead, and God always seems to be coming with fire. The Lord appears to Moses in a burning bush, the Lord leads the Israelites through the desert with a pillar of fire (Ex 3; 13). John the Baptist tell us that Jesus comes “with a winnowing fork…burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12; Luke 3:17). Jesus says he came to “bring fire on the earth” and longs to kindle it (Luke 12:49). Revelation pictures the glorified Jesus with “eyes like blazing fire” (1:14; 2:18; 19:12). So the fact that the third person of the Trinity also comes with flames like fire shouldn’t be too surprising.
The Bible makes it pretty clear: God is fire. Deuteronomy and Hebrews both say it flat out, “God is a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). God has to come like fire, because there’s no other way.
God’s fire is essential. It is beautiful. It is mesmerizing. But God’s fire also burns things up. It’s consuming. It’s dangerous. And we are pretty helpless before it.
Disconcerting as that is, it sounds like the rest of the gospel. If fire has some association with death, well, God is always bringing life from death. God breathes life into dust. The Spirit completely refashions life from dead, dry bones. We receive life in and through Jesus’ death on the cross. Creation itself screams up to us from the composting, decaying ground under our feet, “life comes from death.”
Maybe that’s why the image of the Spirit coming to rest on and filling God’s people is so dramatic, so striking—it’s unforgettable. Alongside all the other names and actions associated with the Spirit of God, the story of Pentecost makes sure that the people of God cannot ever forget that the Spirit comes with fire. The image is just too strong. Our Psalm tonight says, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (104:30). Ecologists believe that some grasses and forests need to burn on occasion to remain healthy and vital. Fire actually does renew the face of the ground, even though it seems like something to be avoided. We can’t avoid fire anymore than we can avoid death. Fire is the birthplace of the Church. We, our gathered body here at CHMF, MCUSA, the holy (little “c”) catholic and apostolic church—we are born in fire.
So this Pentecost I invite you to pray with me that we, individually and together as Christ’s body, would continue to receive the Holy Spirit. But be warned: “there can be no Pentecost, no baptism with the Holy Ghost, unless one receives [the Spirit] ‘as of fire.’”