Light the Fire Again
I want us this morning to begin by recalling a time in our lives when we were placed way outside of our comfort zones.
It can be any time in your lives.
But try to remember a time in which you were surrounded by new people — people you didn’t know very well, and they seemed very different to you.
And you were forced to be among them and interact with them.
I imagine there are a few of you who did some time in boot camp in one of our military branches.
Remember what it felt like getting on that bus and stepping foot behind that white line surrounded by recruits from all walks of life?
Or for others, it was that college experience.
Stepping foot on campus and hearing some very strange accents: Southern drawls, those New England flat As, and, heavens to mercy, those Long Island accents…
For others, maybe you experienced this at summer camp.
Getting off that bus or hugging parents goodbye heading into a group of kids who would be your family for the next week or two…
Everyone seems so … different.
Can you remember a time like this?
How foreign it felt.
Maybe how insecure you felt?
I have more than a few of those experiences.
You all know so much of my life after nearly four years of preaching to you every Sunday.
The Indian reservation in South Dakota was like that.
Being the only white folks at an authentic Pow-Wow.
Standing in the food line with all these folks looking curiously at my group.
Wondering “What are THEY doing here?”
That really is sacred space…
And same with my seminary experiences — people from all over the world and most claiming to be Christians, but with very different doctrines and traditions.
I remember one of my first experiences on campus was entering a classroom, and the guy who held the door open for me was wearing a shirt that said:
“I’ve met God before, and She’s Black.”
And I remember being assigned to a construction crew down in Florida, and besides the foreman, all the guys were Puerto Rican and 90 percent of the time, they spoke Spanish.
A language I knew only a little — un poco.
But in all these experiences, and probably yours, too, we try to look for some common denominator — some common place that will connect us.
That’s what humans do relationally.
On the reservation, it was to help.
In Seminary, it was God.
With my construction crew, it was to work.
It was the common ground, even amid tremendous diversity, that brought us together.
Still, our diverse backgrounds weren’t removed from us, nor did we remove them.
But instead, we embraced and even celebrated that diversity because the common denominator didn’t overpower that diversity;
it enhanced it.
I learned more about my own culture by understanding the culture of others.
I learned more about my faith tradition, by understanding the faith traditions of others.
And I learned more about who I am, by understanding who others are.
This is why diversity is so important in our lives.
Because there really are only two ways to go here:
The first is to fear those who are different.
When that happens, we create public policy to keep them away or oppressed, or we construct borders and walls to do the same.
And we end up calling 911 on our cell phones out of irrational fear,
like the woman in Oakland who called emergency dispatch last week because some black people were having a barbecue in a park.
On a large scale, we have things like war and genocide, like in Syria now and Rwanda back in the mid-‘90s.
The second way to go is to try to understand where the others are from and what they believe.
Who they are, as fellow humans and as fellow children of God.
In all those scenarios above — whether it was your experiences or the ones I noted — we were thrust into whatever venue it was and, one way or another, we would find that common ground.
And some of the best people we’ve ever known and maybe are still friends with are the ones who we thought were so very different than ourselves.
You see, when we live in this peaceful, open and loving way, we share the same spirit.
Kind of like when we all cheer for the same team.
We have, what? Team Spirit.
When we work together in our communities, we have Community Spirit.
We are united, together in whatever we are doing.
When that happens, the world gets wider for us, not narrower.
And when we do that in God’s love, the kingdom — God’s world — get’s wider for us, not narrower.
And so in our reading today in Acts 2, we see how the kingdom becomes wider for those who receive God’s Spirit…
They are ignited in their love for God,
and that is what we will discuss today on this Pentecost Sunday.
Now in our reading in Acts, Luke tells us that Jews from every nation were gathered for Pentecost.
Pentecost simple means “50 days.”
It’s 50 days since the second day of Passover.
We remember that Jesus was making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem — and to the cross — during Passover, and that all happened before Easter Sunday, which is in the springtime.
The springtime is the planting season.
Fifty days later, came the first harvest of wheat.
Thus, the Jews celebrated the Feast of Weeks. Or Pentecost, 50 days.
And on this day, the Jews also gave thanks to God for the Law — the 10 Commandments, etc.
That’s all significant because just like at Passover, Jews from all over would come to Jerusalem to celebrate.
Luke gives a list of all these countries from which these Jews came from.
And proselytes, too.
They are simply Gentiles — non-Jews — who converted to Judaism.
And they come from far, far away — sometimes a month’s journey.
And it is there, where they are all gathered together and speaking the common language of the day that they all would be expected to know to some extent.
And that language was Greek.
The official language of the Roman Empire.
And it’s here, at this festival, when the population has swelled significantly, that God decides to drop the Holy Spirit on them.
And the disciples are among all these foreigners, and a rush of “fierce wind” blows in and what appears to be these individual flames alight on each of them.
What do we see here?
Do you remember that awesome Hebrew word that we talked about a few weeks ago?
Ruach. Remember? Ruach. The breath of God.
We see Ruach in the Creation account: God breathes life into humans.
And we see Ruach parting the Red Sea for the Hebrews to escape Egypt.
And here is Ruach again…
Ruach is God’s Spirit: An equal person of the Trinity — Father, Son, Spirit.
We’ll talk a little more about the Trinity next Sunday, which is Trinity Sunday…
…but for now, it’s God’s Spirit who alights upon them.
And even though they can all speak Greek and be understood, they instead begin speaking in other languages —
the languages of the countries from which this diverse group of Jews hails from.
So can you imagine this scene?
All these people together on this festival.
The common denominator is God.
It’s why they’re there!
And not just a breeze, but a fierce wind blows in, and the disciples have these personal flames.
And these disciples, we hear, are called Galileans.
That was a dig, because Galileans were believed to have been uneducated and simple people.
And there they are speaking all these languages.
And some say “They’re drunk.”
And it’s then when Peter stands up and defends them and himself.
And he does what any good Jew would do in that situation:
He quotes the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible, as we call it.
He quotes the great Jewish prophet Joel.
And reminds them that God tells the people through the prophet “I will pour out my Spirit on ALL people.”
Through Joel, God tells them what all people means:
Verse 17: “Sons and daughters.” That means gender is no issue for God.
“Young and old,” also Verse 17.
“Servants,” in Verse 18. There is no social order or economic class.
and agin, just in case they all miss it, God says again, “Men and women,” Verse 18.
God’s Spirit is available to all people.
And finally, in Verse 21:
“And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Hallelujah!
Role of Spirit
Earlier, when we were thinking back to those experiences in our lives when we were thrust into a different culture…
We said we sought some common denominator.
Peter’s speech reminds the Jews of that common denominator.
And isn’t it the Spirit that unites us?
The Spirit has many roles in the Trinity.
Traditionally we know them as wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
A little archaic…
But we understand God’s Spirit to be exactly that: The Spirit of God.
The One who unites us, brings us together,
The One who empowers and emboldens us,
and the One who brings us to reconciliation with God.
We tend to think of the Spirit as tertiary — once called the Third Person of the Trinity, as if there were an order.
But we know the Spirit is the same creator along with the Father and the Son.
There at creation.
And we know the Spirit to be our helper — our advocate.
Blowing a path across the Red Sea to freedom.
And we know the Spirit as the One who dwells within us: The Paraclete.
Our very helper in need.
Closer than our breath.
It is this Spirit of which Peter reminds those surrounding him.
It’s the common denominator, in a sense.
The Spirit brings us together.
So how is it then, that we’re so apart sometimes?
Apart — as in building walls and making those policies that oppress?
Wouldn’t it be better to be united?
What does that take?
Well, we know the answer.
We don’t practice it.
For Peter, it’s recalling the story and the prophecy.
About how the Spirt unites us.
Listen: The Spirit is the common denominator; not the language.
The Spirit is that which unites us; not the culture.
The Spirit is that which brings us together; not our way.
Do you see that?
That’s why the Spirit allows the disciples to speak in all languages.
The Spirit celebrates that diversity.
It’s the Spirit, and not the tradition, that makes us one in God.
We tragically do an awesome job at being broken apart.
Of being separated.
And of being centric to that which we believe is right.
That’s how we maintain control and power.
It’s always at the injury or expense of someone else.
We keep more, they get less.
God says No.
Remember, God just gave the Son on the Cross 50 days before.
The factions are staunch.
Jews, Gentiles, followers of Christ, others…
And God chooses this day, Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, the Harvest, to light upon them God’s Spirit.
Let this burn within your hearts!
That they don’t come to us, nor we to them, but we all come to God together!
That is the fire that is lit in their hearts!
And it’s the same flame that we so often try to squelch in our own hearts.
When we refuse to see that same Spirit in our sisters and our brothers.
When we mandate as the common denominator something we’ve created
— our countries, our churches, our traditions, our ways….
That substitutes that denominator.
That substitutes God’s Spirit — the only thing that keeps us together in God.
If we truly want a world of peace and love and harmony;
If we truly want a community of trust, and fostering and care;
And if we truly want to expand into the Kingdom now and the Kingdom come,
then we have to embrace the fire of the Spirit,
and love one another as Jesus loves us.
To rekindle that flame.
With the rush of the Ruach — the Holy Spirit.
The Big 5-0
We talk a lot about the birth of Christ’s Church.
This is that day.
Because when God’s Spirit was given to us, it united us.
And it continues to unite us as Christ’s body.
We are united — in communion — with one another here, and all around the world, and even those who have gone before us, and also with Jesus Christ.
And we do this through — and only through — the power of God’s Spirit.
It doesn’t matter what country we live in.
Our age, our gender, our social status.
Our denominations don’t even matter.
We come together just like those Jews from all over during that Pentecost account in Acts,
And we are united — not by anything except the Spirit.
This year, the United Methodist Church is celebrating 50 years.
While we can call it the birth of the Church, we can also call it the birth of our denomination,
when we brought together all those Methodist faiths into one house and began living united.
But know that while we’re united in our Wesleyan heritage,
we most importantly united in the Spirit.
We’re united in the Spirit with Pentecostals and Evangelists;
with Presbyterians and Lutherans.
With Orthodox and Catholic.
We are allowed to be like the Judeans, the Galileans, the Medes, the Asians, the Cappadocians, the Cretans and the Arabs and all the others that Luke speaks of — and more.
For it is when we acknowledge the power of God’s Spirit in our lives and all lives
that the Church flourishes.
That Christ is alive in all of us.
That God’s word is lived out in each of us.
That we live into the kingdom that is present here and now.
And that we speak the language of the Spirit — God’s love — for all people in all places and for all time.