Sermon preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 12, 2011
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Tongues of fire. It sounds like the cover of a Rolling Stones album. Or maybe a Star Trek episode in which Spock and Captain Kirk are surrounded by molten, carnivorous life-forms that their cheesy ray-guns are no match against. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit is not just an idea or a warm and fuzzy feeling in your heart but a fiery cloud that causes the disciples to speak in languages they had never learned. It isn’t like the world that we live in. Rosetta Stone might be a baptism of fire in its own way, but it’s no match for the linguistic blitzkrieg of the tongues of fire in Acts 2. How do we experience the Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire in our world today? Is there a way we need to sit differently so that the Holy Spirit can light us up?
One of my favorite things to do is to build a fire. This spring after Easter, I took a personal retreat at Camp Highroad and got to engage in my favorite pastime. There had been a lot of rain so the wood was quite soggy. I usually cheat and use newspaper but none was available so I had to crumple up some old church bulletins from the floor of my car. For those of you who don’t know about fire-building, it’s an art of balance. You have to patiently build from the smallest of twigs to bigger branches and eventually to logs. The paper you use to start the fire burns quickly so you need to quickly move enough twigs on top to catch the blaze. On the other hand, they have to be spaced out enough that the air can get in. The wind is your enemy until the fire is set, after which the wind becomes your friend.
There’s a way in which what we do as a church is like building a fire. It’s a slow process that rookie pastors often lose our patience with. Some newcomers flare up quickly and just as quickly burn out; other people take a long time to catch on but once they catch, they’re in for the long haul. But the essential ingredient of our spiritual fire is not the activities that we organize, no matter how big a draw they are or how much they help needy people; it’s the breath of God that makes those activities meaningful. That’s what the Holy Spirit is: God’s breath. In the Bible’s original languages, breath, wind, and spirit are all the same word – ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek.
Without God’s holy wind, a fire cannot start. You can dump a bonfire’s worth of logs on a stack of fifty newspapers, but it ain’t gonna burn because the fire has no way to breathe. Often times, we do this in the church, piling on program after program to try to get people involved in doing stuff, but doing stuff doesn’t build God’s fire unless our hearts are open to the breath of God while we’re doing it. The opposite problem is to have all wind but no wood. We can have a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit but nothing to do with it if we don’t have any Biblical knowledge or spiritual training to process what we’ve seen God do. The only way for life-changing mission trips to be life-changing is if they are part of an ongoing life of discipleship. Otherwise, we get really fired up while we’re in Winchester, Virginia or western North Carolina or the Dominican Republic, but when we return home, it’s back to the same old routine, and the fire goes out.
It’s important to recognize that the apostles in Acts 2 who were touched by the tongues of fire had already been disciples of Jesus Christ for three years. It was only after having their hearts significantly reshaped by Jesus that they could receive the Holy Spirit’s power. This isn’t to say that we have to wait to do mission work until after we’ve completed four years of Disciple Bible study. God is ready to use any act of mercy we engage in as a means of drawing us closer to Him. It doesn’t matter where we are in our faith journey. But we need to be on a faith journey for mission work to transform us. That’s the only way to get a real fire going. We need a steady supply of wood, not just a busy schedule of “do-gooding” but a set of weekly and even daily spiritual practices that help us trace the breath of God in the acts of mercy where we find Him. Only disciples of Jesus Christ get the fire from the Holy Spirit that keeps on burning.
Everyone open up your bulletins for a minute. Look at the top left hand corner of the first page. What are the two icons that you see? A cross and a flame. Who do they stand for? Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is the symbol United Methodists use everywhere, on our church signs, bulletins, and websites. There’s a lot that’s been written about the relationship between the cross and the flame. One sentence that sums it up is the United Methodist mission statement: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Here’s the connection: it’s through the discipleship of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, our desire to know Him more perfectly and give our lives to His kingdom, that we become apostles whom the Holy Spirit can light up with tongues of fire to go out and transform the world.
Now just to reiterate, being a disciple does not mean there’s a ton of knowledge that we have to acquire before we can go on a mission trip. What it does mean is that we trust Jesus Christ enough to give our lives to Him as disciples. God will do the good that God intends to do through us even if we’re clueless about what He’s doing, but the more we trust in God, the hotter He can make us burn with His holy breath. Discipleship and missions feed off of each other if we engage in both with an attitude of trust. Mission work actually helps us learn how to trust God more because it often involves doing things we thought we couldn’t do and seeing God work in ways we never thought possible. But this only has lasting benefit if we engage in mission work as part of a life of discipleship.
So how do we build a fire here at Burke United Methodist Church? We come here each Sunday like wet kindling, soaked by a week full of commitments and responsibilities, good and important things that nonetheless make it hard for us to let the Holy Spirit breathe some fire into our hearts. One of the ways God builds His fire is through the testimony of His disciples. I’d like to invite Maureen Glaser to come up and share how the Holy Spirit got her fire burning in the Dominican Republic. Please open your hearts to the word that God has to share so that His holy fire can spread.