ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 9, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram PENTECOST SUNDAY
A BURNING FIRE
Exodus 3: 1 – 6; Acts 2: 1 – 4 & 22 – 24; Luke 12: 8 – 12
As we’re aware, lots of people in our society choose not to participate in the life and mission of the Church. Many say they’re suspicious of ‘organized’ or ‘institutional’ religion. Often this is expressed by the catch phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious. They prefer a sort of ungrounded, ethereally vague sense of spirituality to one that’s structured, established and rooted in history. For some, being spiritual is the fad of the day. If asked what Spirit they’re following, they’d look blankly at you. If asked what “being spiritual” means to them, they will criticize and judge organized religion, but it’s unlikely they’d be able to express their spirituality theologically. Others like the aura of being spiritual, especially if their spirituality ask nothing of them. Many want a quick psychic fix. Some of these people have a church background, so it’s sad to hear the Church has let them down or been more of a burden than a blessing. It’s distressing to discover people do not always experience the Spirit in the Church. They want to be connected to “spirit” but find “religion” disconnects them. They find the church to be “dead”. If they’re right, then “the church” is out of step with Jesus’ mission of bringing new life to the world; life that’s free from the rules, judgements and rites of a dead, oppressive religious institution. Summing up Jesus’ purpose, Paul wrote, “A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death” (Romans 8:2) Yet it appears that for many, the church is a source of “a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death”. How is it that so many people view the Christian Church as a stuffy institution without ‘Spirit’? That’s the opposite of what Christ intends his Church to be.
The Christian life begins with the baptism of God’s Spirit and unfolds by the presence and work of the Spirit living within us. The Spirit is central to our identity as Christians, yet many Christians don’t have any sense of who the Holy Spirit is. It reminds me of a comment some new converts made to Paul when he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, ‘No, we haven’t even heard there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). Equally as problematic as not knowing the Spirit exists is not knowing who the Holy Spirit is or what she does (in Hebrew and Greek, “Spirit” is a feminine word).
The Bible reveals the Holy Spirit in many ways. One strong metaphor is fire. Throughout scripture fire represents the presence of God. We see it in the Shekinah glory leading the wandering Israelites as a cloud by day and a fire by night. In Leviticus 10, fire consumed those who defiled the altar. In Exodus 3, God speaks to Moses from the burning bush. In Deuteronomy and Hebrews, God is described as “a consuming fire.” On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ followers in “tongues of fire”. Those tongues of fire demonstrate God’s living presence in and with his people. As God was with us in Jesus Christ, God is now with us through the Spirit.
Fire is a terrible, potent force. It can destroy 125 acres of forest in an hour. It can be set off by something as small as a cigarette or a fire-cracker. Fire can heat a house or burn it down. Fire can cook a meal, boil water, treat hypothermia, sterilize instruments, incinerate trash, melt snow, and thwart critters. It can create weapons like fire arrows and bombs, and it can create art as it melts glass or burns wood. Whether it’s a campfire or a house fire, fire brings people together. Fire is incredibly powerful – yet it’s a pale reflection of our God. As fierce as fire can be, it can be quenched with water or smothered with sand. Holy fire cannot be extinguished. Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, illustrates God’s power and mystery. The bush burned but wasn’t burned up. It wasn’t consumed. The fire of the Spirit is an awesome thing; it needs no spark to get it burning and it takes no fuel to keep it lit. The fire of the Spirit is unquenchable, unstoppable, unconquerable, undefeated! As fire, the Holy Spirit can fill people with boldness, melt hardened hearts, incinerate sin, convict minds, thwart the powers of evil, save souls, heal bodies, open doors, turn a Galilean fisherman into a stirring preacher and bring people together into one body. Fire changes whatever it touches.
On the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus were in the Upper Room, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, changing a small group of scared people, into Christ’s Church. The Spirit appeared as fire. We’re told that “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2: 3). The presence of God’s Spirit is so powerful, there is no way one individual could bear it alone – it had to be divided up and shared among a group. Yet, it spread “like wildfire” (The Msg) through them and beyond. However, something’s happened to that fire among us. Unlike the burning bush, the Church seems burnt out, dead, dull, life-less. We’ve become a structured, organized, institutional body, rather than the life-giving movement Jesus preached and for which he gave his life. A.W. Tozer said, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” There are followers of Christ today who have never experienced the Spirit, who are rarely moved by the Spirit and who would rather die than let the Spirit be expressed through them or burn wildly in them. We “quench” the Spirit. One New Year’s Day in the Tournament of Roses parade, a beautiful float suddenly ran out of gas, sputtered and quit. The parade was held up until someone could get a can of gasoline and refill the gas tank. The amusing thing was that this float represented the Standard Oil Company; with all its vast oil resources, they were out of gas. Isn’t that a metaphor for today’s church? There are also lots of Christians who are out of gas. They’ve been trying to live life under their own power instead of the power of God’s Spirit. Are you out of gas today? There are lots of congregations today who are out of gas. They’ve relied too long on what they can do in their flesh instead of relying on the Holy Spirit. Is St. Stephen’s running on empty?
John R.W. Stott wrote, “Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christlikeness of character apart from the Spirit’s fruit, and no effective witness without the Spirit’s power. As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead.” Perhaps the first things we need to ask and answer honestly is: do we want life? Do we want understanding? Do we want fellowship? Do we want to be like Christ? Do we want to witness effectively? The Holy Spirit is God’s power in action, in us. Do we want that gift? The Greek word for power refers to a force that is explosive and immediate. The word “dynamite” entered the English language when the Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel (1833-96) made the discovery that became his fortune. He discovered a power stronger than anything the world had known up to that time. He asked a scholar what the word for “explosive power” was in Greek. The man answered, “Dunamis.” Nobel said, “Well, I am going to call my discovery by that name.” Do we want to be charged with a power greater than dynamite? It’s an awesome gift and a scary responsibility, but we cannot fulfill God’s purposes for his Church without it.
We are warned in scripture not to “quench the Spirit” and not to “blaspheme the Spirit” by denying her power. The Spirit is God’s gift to the Church so we’ll be able to achieve God’s will in our world. Vance Havner said, “We are not going to move this world by criticism [or hatred] of it nor by conformity to it, but by the combustion within it of lives by the Spirit of God.” If we want to impact the world as the Early Church did, if we want to be the Church today, to be encouraged, pray in our weakness, witness in the face of ridicule, bear Christ-like fruit, change lives and be used by God to convict hearts and breed holiness, we can. All we need to do is open ourselves to the Spirit; ask the Spirit to take hold of our hearts and lives and give the Spirit free reign in our individual hearts, minds, souls and wills, and in our Church.
A Volkswagen commercial pictures a child dressed in a Darth Vader costume attempting to use “the force” around the house. The boy marches down the hallway and then raises his hands dramatically toward a dryer in the utility room—nothing happens. He points at the dog lying on the floor; the dog looks up and goes back to sleep. The boy tries his Jedi power on a toy – nothing. Then his father pulls into the driveway, and Darth runs out to the car as Dad walks into the house. One more time he raises his hands and points them dramatically at the auto. Suddenly the car lights up and the engine starts! The startled child stumbles backward. We see the playful father using a push-button ignition. In the same way, our heavenly Father offers us his power through the Holy Spirit.
When we allow the fire of the Spirit to burn in our lives, we’re transformed into the people God wants us to be. The Spirit’s fire burns out the sinful and unnecessary “stuff” in our lives; she purifies what Christ has saved making us grow in holiness; she makes us more palatable to others; she warms us when we’re in the cold grip of despair. When we allow the fire of the Spirit to burn brightly in our Church, she transforms us into the unstoppable body of Christ. We become a light and a beacon to others. We bring truth and life to people who need to be in a personal relationship with God. The Spirit can burn down the walls put up by problems, issues and circumstances. The Holy Spirit alone can bring unity to the people of God. Look around you at the people here – the Spirit has brought us together. Pentecost tells us, promises us, that as God’s people, we can have Holy Spirit power in our lives and in our congregation.