ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 15, 2016
JUST SAY THE WORD
Acts 2: 1 – 24; John 14: 8 – 17
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Over the past week, we’ve watched as wild fire engulfed the city of Fort McMurray. Our hearts go out to the people there who have been through a traumatic nightmare, lost loved ones, had their homes and belongings razed to the ground, were unable to save pets and are now in temporary shelters uncertain of when they’ll return to their homes and anxious for what they’ll find. While we observe, others live this ordeal; the two experiences can’t be compared. We couldn’t feel the heat and didn’t inhale the smoke; others drove through thick clouds of ash and smog uncertain of when a flame might reach out and engulf them. While the Fort McMurray fire is nothing but terror and tragedy, it has allowed us to witness the awesome, ferocious power of an inferno. That force has forever changed our reverence for the element of fire. Fire is the potent energy that is the essence of Pentecost.
When Jesus spoke with his disciples before his death they were a group of lost, uncertain, fearful people. They were like children whose parent is going away and leaving them behind. They asked, Where are you going? Can we come too? How do we get there? Who will take care of us; can’t you show us the Father? When will you come back? After Jesus ascension, these same people were locked together in a room – unsure, anxious, praying and waiting. They heard a loud whooshing noise – the gathering of energy; something was coming. Then, suddenly, fire! Bursting, flaming, ferocious fire. The power of the Holy Spirit was over and around them. A Spirit so vigorous, so strong, so potent, it could come as nothing less than fire. A fire that burnt in the disciples, exploded from their mouths in surprising words and spread so rapidly that 3000 people are abruptly caught in it flames. The Fire of Almighty God. The fire of the risen Christ. Holy Spirit fire sweeping down on the disciples to inflame their hearts. A fire that burnt away their fear and timidity making them brazenly bold.
I recently heard three quotes that fan the flames of Pentecost. They are “Nothing kindles fire, like fire. (Brook) If you want to set someone on fire, you need a spark within your spirit. (Fosdick) A burning heart creates a flaming tongue. (Spurgeon)” And because Pentecost is the birth of the Church – of you; of us together; of all Christians everywhere and forever – we’re going to have an interactive message today. So when I say the first part of the sentence, you can join in finishing it. Let’s try that.
“Nothing kindles fire, like fire.” Terry and I heat our home with wood. One of the things we’ve learned is “fire kindles fire”. You cannot start a fire from nothing. A fire won’t take if there’s only one piece of wood – you need at least two. If we consider the disciples – nervous, timid, scared – in the Upper Room, it’s plain to see they’re not about to spontaneously combust. Left to themselves, the Church would have sizzled out. Their fire had to come from somewhere. It had to originate in the Godhead who spoke everything into being from nothing. There is nowhere else for it to begin. God just said the word and like a lightning strike, there was Holy Spirit fire. When the disciples caught fire and went onto the streets speaking in tongues, their fellow Jews thought they were drunk. In our tradition, when we encounter people who are bursting with Holy Spirit we often roll our eyes and dismiss them as fanatics. We’d rather relegate Pentecost to the realm of religious hysteria than open ourselves to its fire. Fire is powerful. Fire is frightening. Fire is uncontrollable. So we don’t give wild expression to the Spirit; we keep a lid on it. You know what happens to fire when you keep a lid on it? It smothers and dies. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shoved the disciples from the safety of locked doors and the comfort of their small circle of friends into a world that was mocking and hostile, but also as dried out as tinder wood. A world ready to catch fire. And the good news spread and the small circle extended until it included billions of people. The Church struggles today because we insist on doing it on our own. We feel tremendous pressure to succeed because we think it’s all up to us. We stay locked within the safety of our buildings, with our little circle of friends because we’re fearful of what lies outside. Pentecost declares: that’s an illusion. If only we’d let the Spirit burn and become ourselves, the fuel it feeds on, we too would catch fire, rise up, reach out and spread because “Nothing kindles fire, like fire.”
“If you want to set someone on fire, you need a spark within your spirit”. Every year we read Luke’s account of the Spirit’s coming. We know the panoramic, pyrotechnic, sound and light show that was the first Pentecost. There is also an internal Pentecost that involves audience participation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just come upon us, it lives within the believer’s heart. It is birthed there at our baptism – a tiny spark of new life and possibility. This spark gets oxygen when the community of Christ comes together to feed and encourage one another, as we live loving God and learning to love each other, as we use our gifts and as we build each other up. As we do these things for one another we fan that small baptismal flame; through worship, prayer, learning and loving, the Holy Spirit burns hot within us. Pentecost is nothing less than the life and power of God present in our spirits. Because “Nothing kindles fire like fire”that spark of the Spirit in our spirits has the potential to set someone else’s spirit on fire. We see this flame flare up when Christians come together and when we “go public”. Pentecost means a new wind of mission work is let loose on earth by regular Christian people like you and me. A minister in Minnesota tells of visiting Tanzania. Two chieftains from the Serengeti Plain had travelled to speak with a missionary. They’d given their lives to Christ and went back to their villages. By the time the missionary caught up with them, there were 3,140 people waiting to be baptized. In Sao Paulo, Brazil there are 80,000 home churches led by laity. A century ago, South Korea was 99% Buddhist. Today it is 25% Christian. The largest Christian congregation in the world is found in Seoul; it has ½ a million members. Contrast this with the Church in the West which is closing congregations at an alarming rate. We know why this is – too many Christians here have lost the fire in our belly which is the Spirit of Christ and “If you want to set someone on fire, you need a spark within your spirit”.
“A burning heart creates a flaming tongue.” In the book of Acts, it’s amazing how quickly the Spirit’s “tongues of fire” turn into fiery tongues. The first effect of Pentecost was that the disciples spoke “in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2: 4) They weren’t talking about the weather. The people gathered in Jerusalem from all over the Middle East heard them in their own languages “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (vs. 11) Peter went on to explain what was happening. His story started with an ancient promise and prediction and evolved into the good news of Jesus who died and rose to offer all people salvation. He invited them to believe in Christ. The result was that “those who welcomed Peter’s message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” (vs. 41) The women’s Bible Study is studying the book of Acts and as a preacher I’m struck by how, without any fancy words or interesting angles, Peter simply told the story of Jesus. He told it often and he told it boldly. Peter had a burning heart. In other parts of Acts Peter heals people, shows tremendous organizational skills, feeds the hungry, but his burning heart is first and foremost expressed in what he says. He preaches the gospel and he uses words. He: just says the Word. That’s what happens when “A burning heart creates a flaming tongue.”
Before Jesus died he made an amazing promise to his disciples, “the one who believes in me will do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14: 12 – 14) “Just say the Word”. People take this statement in many ways. We sum up all our prayers with the words, “in Jesus name” as if that is a magic incantation that will summon whatever we want. We’ve told people to put their hand on the radio or TV to be healed, as if Jesus is a circus performer about to give us the greatest show on earth. Even those who never pray or think about Jesus have called for ministers to pray for a dying loved one because the doctors can’t do anything more, as if Jesus were a magic genie ready to grant our wishes when all else fails. When we read these words in context we see they refer to the work of Jesus, the work of redemption, which he invites his followers to continue. The active presence of the Lord is needed for us to continue Christ’s work. That is the purpose of the Spirit’s fiery appearance at Pentecost. We fulfill that purpose when Holy Spirit fire burns in us. When the Spirit blazes in our hearts and in Christ’s Church. When Spirit is a wild fire that nothing can stop “we will do greater works” than Jesus – “Just say the word” – because, “Nothing kindles fire, like fire. If you want to set someone on fire, you need a spark within your spirit. A burning heart creates a flaming tongue.