Sunday, June 9, 2019

Phil Kniss: Setting the world on fire

Pentecost: Spirit & Word
Acts 2:1-21

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I need a more substantial flame here beside me today
for this sermon about setting the world on fire.

Every Pentecost Sunday
we have an abundance of biblical symbols to choose from—
symbols that represent the Holy Spirit—
dove, fire, wind, breath, river, light, oil.
This time, we focus on fire.

I love fire.  And I’m terrified by it.

Fire has calmed and healed my spirits.
Since I was old enough to remember anything,
our family would go camping every summer.
Sitting around a campfire is about
the most soothing and peaceful activity I can think of.
And to me, a wood-burning stove on a winter morning,
makes the most rustic, remote and crude mountain cabin,
into a sanctuary of beauty and warmth and welcome.
And every month, first Wednesday, when we have Taizé services,
I relish the moment in that service
when I can hold a couple of burning tea candles on my hand,
contemplate the presence of Christ,
and place them on the cross with a silent prayer.

Fire has also taken me to the edges of fear and desperation.
I still vividly recall my 12-year-old self in Sarasota, Florida,
standing on top of our shingled roof,
watching a wildfire in the scrub pines next to our house,
seeing the flames get closer and closer.
At my parents’ instructions, I held a garden hose in my hand
to keep the roof wet,
so the falling embers wouldn’t catch it on fire.
In much more recent memory, a month or so ago,
I had the opportunity, for the first time,
to use the fire extinguisher I keep mounted on the wall,
close to where I roast coffee in our basement.
I had gotten distracted and stepped away from the roaster,
so the green coffee beans went
from my preferred medium brown roast,
past the dark Italian Roast,
to the very rare Spontaneous Combustion Roast,
which is hard to find in a coffee shop.
Thankfully, I had the foresight
to have a smoke alarm and fire extinguisher at the ready,
but even so, it was a high-adrenaline experience
I don’t wish to repeat.

Fire is just that way—
sometimes welcomed and sought,
sometimes feared and fought.

Fire is life . . . fire is death.
Fire is explosive . . . fire is gentle.
Fire is all-consuming . . . fire is barely noticed.
Fire is full of passion . . . fire is full of peace.

Fire is the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came, Luke writes in Acts 2:3,
“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them,
and a tongue rested on each of them.”
And ever since, we have associated the Holy Spirit with fire.
That’s why, on Pentecost, like many other churches,
we often decorate in red, or wear red.
As I think of fire, in all its contrast and complexity,
I appreciate even more how appropriate it is
as a symbol of the Spirit.

We know that personal spiritual experience varies widely.
It varies by personality.
by emotional make-up,
by theological assumptions,
by social context and circumstances,
It varies according to all kinds of factors.

The Christian church over its long history,
has unfortunately suffered intense conflict and painful schisms,
over disagreements about how the Holy Spirit works.
The tendency has always been to lock in on one modus operandi,
where the Spirit worked in a way that was
meaningful or transformative for me at a given moment in time,
and then make it normative.

Normative for myself, which is sad enough,
because I might miss out
when the Spirit shows up later in my life,
in a form I don’t recognize,
because it doesn’t fit the pattern I established.
Or, even worse, normative for others,
so I pass judgement on followers of Jesus
who have a different way of connecting with the presence of God,
rather than rejoicing with them in their joy,
even if it’s beyond my understanding or comfort level.

We may one time experience the Holy Spirit
as lightning bolt, explosive, exhilarating, all-consuming,
and then sadly overlook it when the Spirit shows up
in a whisper, in candlelight.

Or we may experience the fire of the Holy Spirit
as quiet warmth,
like the quilts we wrapped around the seniors the other Sunday,
and we try to make that experience permanent.
So we ignore the Holy Spirit when it comes
wanting to throw off our quilts and turn our lives upside down.

In Acts 2, the coming of the Spirit was of the lightning bolt variety,
the throwing-off-the-quilt variety,
the knocking-us-off-guard variety.
It’s precisely what the disciples needed, at that moment in time,
while they were wrapped in their quilts, so to speak,
huddling for warmth and protection behind closed doors,
in the upper room.

When the Spirit exploded into their world,
Luke called it “the rush of a violent wind,” v. 2.
The presence was so powerful that
“it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
It was a visible and audible phenomenon so huge
that a crowd gathered from all over Jerusalem,
bewildered, amazed, astonished.
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was a wildfire,
a fire that enabled these frightened, sheltering disciples
to break out boldly into the world
and lead a new people movement.

But that’s not the only story of the Spirit and the disciples.
The Gospel of John tells about a time
Jesus stood before them, in that same room, post-resurrection,
and just breathed on them, wwhhooooo . . .
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
That’s all.
No earthquake.
No house-rattling wind . . . just wwhhooooo . . .

That is the way of the Holy Spirit.
That is the way of fire.
Sometimes it burns like an inferno.
And leaves in its wake, a changed landscape.
Sometimes it burns like a candle.
Slowly, but surely, bringing light and warmth.
But it’s the same Spirit. And the same fire.

The question for us, in this time, this space, this historical moment,
is what will it look like,
if we open ourselves to the fire of the Holy Spirit here and now?
will it feel like a warm quilt and a tea light?
or like a conflagration that changes everything?
or parts of both?
And how will we know,
when Christians acting in the name of Jesus,
and claiming to follow the Holy Spirit,
do all manner of things,
that make us scratch our head.
So what sort of Spirit is really at work in them?
Do we embrace or reject
this spiritual expression?
How can we be discerning?

Well, fire, you know, is fundamentally a rearrangement of molecules;
it is radical chemical change.
The physical matter that is burning doesn’t cease to exist.
But its molecules break apart and reattach in different ways,
and take on new forms—
carbon, water, oxygen, hydrogen.
That’s what happens when a wax candle burns down.
That’s what happens when a whole mountainside forest burns down.

And, I would argue,
that’s what happens when the Holy Spirit burns in us,
and in the church.
Our basic matter doesn’t cease to exist,
but we get rearranged.
We get re-shaped into the likeness of Christ.
Remember, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus
living on in this world.
The Spirit’s role, as I said in this pulpit recently,
is to advocate for the Jesus way,
when we’re getting pushed in opposite directions.
So when the fire of the Spirit burns in us,
we should come out looking more like Jesus.

That’s the best way to evaluate and discern Holy Spirit fire.
Does it make us more loving?
Do we live with more joy?
Do we find a deeper peace in life?
Does it make us more patient with others?
Are we more generous?
Are we less focused on self, and more focused on others?

The mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost,
was not just a fireworks show
for the sake of bringing excitement.
Yes, it was a stunning display.
It drew crowds.

But the actual miracle that happened that day
was not the sound of the violent wind,
it was not tongues of fire resting on their heads,
it was not the ability
to speak and understand different languages.
The real miracle of Pentecost was that
the fire of the Holy Spirit rearranged the molecules
in the lives of these terrified followers of Jesus.

They became more loving.
Acts 2:42 says “they devoted themselves to fellowship.”
They became more joyful.
Acts 2:46,47. They “praised God . . . with glad hearts.”
They were more generous with the needy.
Acts 2:45. With “generous hearts”
they distributed their possessions to those in need.
They moved from being self-centered to being other-centered.
Acts 2:47. They “had the goodwill of all the people.”
So much so, that without having to institute any
mass evangelism program to try to convince people to join,
they became a winsome community.
Acts 2:47. “Day by day the Lord added to their number
those who were being saved.”
The fire of the Spirit rearranged the lives of the people,
and the life of their community.
It transformed them
from bickering, competitive, confused, and fearful disciples,
to a sharing, loving, vibrant, and growing Christian community.

Most significantly,
it moved them out into the world—
the same world they had just been hiding from.

That should be the same tell-tale sign for us today.
The wind and flame of the Holy Spirit
does not show up so we can be happy and joyful and prosperous.
It shows up so we can set the world on fire.
And I mean that in the way I’ve just been talking about fire.
I don’t mean burn everything down by force.
I mean helping it look a little more like Jesus.
I mean to extend the real presence and work of Christ
into a world that needs it.

As you know,
there are lots of people these days trying to set the world on fire.
Seems that way especially when election seasons roll around,
because everyone claims to know what the world needs—
which is . . . them in a political office,
so that everything we don’t like will change for the better.

But it feels like I’ve been tracking this sentiment in our culture
for a long time now.
There is so much over-the-top braggadocio about how right I am,
and over-the-top vitriol about how wrong you are.
No one is happy with the world the way it is,
so lots of people are trying to get the rest of us fired up,
they’re trying to set the world on fire,
trying to get the world to change,
to finally be on the right side, at almost any cost.

Now . . . is Holy Spirit fire in some of that?
I’m sure of it.
With all the movements for change afoot,
there must be some inspired by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
How do we figure out which ones?

Same criteria.
Does it look like Jesus?

Look around for a change-movement you are drawn to—
whether a religious, political, or social movement.
Observe the driving forces behind it,
the content of the message,
and the character of the messengers.

If the fire is one of sacrificial love for the whole world,
if it is speaking hard truth to the powers,
if it is drawing near to the poor and the outcast,
if it is bringing healing
to the most deeply wounded and forgotten in our society,
if it is willing to suffer if need be,
or be despised by the public,
in order to be true to a higher moral calling,
if it is all about lifting up the downtrodden,
and opening the doors to those standing out in the cold,
if it is making us better human beings
who are known for our love and compassion,
if it’s all that,
then let’s go all in,
it’s probably the fire of the Holy Spirit at work.

But if it demonizes opponents to win support for its cause,
if it draws attention to or worships its own leaders,
if it ignores people in need,
if it cozies up to the rich and powerful,
then let’s walk away, and fast.
This is not the fire of the Spirit.
This is a different kind of fire.
It’s a fire Jesus would not recognize.

Or to use language from Leviticus, in the King James Version,
it’s a “strange fire.”

Actually, that phrase appears in Lev. 10:1,
when the sons of Aaron the High Priest,
brought a “strange fire” into the sacred worship space,
and put this strange, external, unauthorized fire into the censer,
and worshipped God with it.
then, it says, a “fire from the Lord consumed them, and they died.”

Not saying this is the way God will work today.
But it at least gives me pause.
That maybe God takes it seriously, and is even angered,
when people who claim to worship God, and follow Jesus,
do so with a “strange fire” that has no resemblance
to the life and character and ministry of Jesus.

There’s a lot of that going around these days,
in the halls of the Christian powers that be.
Stay far away, I say.
And move, instead, toward the transformative, loving,
compassionate, humble fire of the Spirit,
that talks, acts, and lives like Jesus.

That is the way we as a church, might,
after all is said and done,
have set the world on fire.

—Phil Kniss, June 9, 2019

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