This week, I attended the 30th annual Delaware-Maryland Synod Assembly along with delegates from our church. In addition to the plenary sessions where between two and three hundred of our sisters and brothers in Christ from throughout the synod met, where we shared in bible study and heard from dynamic speakers and where the business of the church was conducted, we also gathered at least once each day for worship in the auditorium of the Convention Center in Ocean City.
As you can imagine in a facility like that, an effort was taken to set up a space conducive for worship. So, at the front of the auditorium, upon the large stage that took up most of the width of the room, a large altar was created from several tables drawn together. This altar was then covered with white tablecloths and bunting. Next to the altar stood a large banner with a matching, smaller piece of fabric draped over the white clothes covering the constructed altar, serving as the frontal, much like these red paraments here do today.
When we see these colors in use in the church, we are in fact celebrating the fire of the Holy Spirit of God alive and work in the church. Here in the Lutheran church the standard occasions when we pull out and put our red tend to be Pentecost Sunday, Reformation Sunday, and for ordinations and consecrations in the church. That’s pretty much it. Really? Really!
And yet, it is our understanding, as a church, that the Holy Spirit gives life to the church, inspires, blesses, and makes holy the work of the church. The Holy Spirit is responsible for giving us faith; grants a variety of gifts for the good of the church, like the ones listed in the passage from Corinthians today – gifts like wisdom, and knowledge, and healing, and prophecy, and discernment, and so on. Like I said, the Holy Spirit, in fact, gives LIFE to the church. And fortunately, God is color-blind, because God sends the Holy Spirit to abide with us constantly, and not just when we are wearing our red.
But as I sat in the final worship service of the synod assembly yesterday, it was these pieces of fabric that caught my attention and my imagination; Because, in keeping with the theme that underlies any such gathering of the church, and in light of the upcoming Pentecost Sunday, the silk-screened pieces of cloth that made up the banner and frontal were covered with images of huge flames – the interplay of large tongues of bright yellow, and shades of orange and red blended together conjuring a fiery scene.
As I gazed at these images of fire and flame, I thought about our relationship with fire, and how the image of flame is used to evoke our relationship with the Holy Spirit. Just look at our own paraments and banners and at the images upon the stole I wear today. What do you see? The red of fire, the shape of flame.
How many of us have ever been mesmerized, staring into the flames of a fire? Perhaps you’ve found yourself staring in a hypnotic trance at the flames in a fireplace, fire pit or even a bonfire. Flames draw us in – hopefully not too close, or your hypnotic trance may be rudely interrupted by the odor of singed hair or burning clothing.
Fire, of course, has been an essential element in the lives of human beings from the dawn of time. Once, in the history of the human race, we discovered how to make fire, the flames of fire were harnessed to provide light and heat, to cook food, to create tools, to clear land, to shape communications, and for so many other essential uses.
Place a flame under a pot of water and before long that water is moving, then bubbling, then boiling over. Flames under the frypan will have your meat or vegetables soon popping and sizzling nicely. Build a big fire in a cold room and before long, you’ll find yourself cozy and warm.
Fire contains what is a sometimes overwhelming power. It inspires both fear and awe. If you’ve ever experienced the uncontrollable, unquenchable hunger of a house, grass or forest fire, or suffered even a minor burn, you probably understand the fear part.
What does it mean, then, that a major symbol for the Holy Spirit is the image of flame and fire? What message does the text from the Acts of the Apostles today tell us about our relationship with this advocate, the Holy Spirit, who was promised by Jesus and who powerfully enters the place where the apostles were gathered on that Pentecost day? Why does Luke, the author of this text, include in the telling of this story of the early church the detail about tongues of fire not consuming, but dancing over the heads of the apostles, and finally, resting on them?
The story we have in our first reading today occurs on the fiftieth day of Easter – the fiftieth day after Jesus rose from the grave. In the intervening forty-nine days, Jesus has met many times with his fearful, hesitant, doubting disciples.
When they weren’t doubting Jesus, these vulnerable, very human disciples often doubted themselves – doubted that they were good enough – doubted that they had the right words or that people would listen to them if they told them about Jesus. They perhaps doubted that they could ever go out and do the ministry Jesus was sending them out to do. Perhaps they doubted they could withstand the danger.
No wonder we hear the calming, comforting words from a loving Jesus so many times during this final training period, “Peace be with you.”
Then, at the right time, Jesus sends these believers the Holy Spirit with flourish and pizzazz. Perhaps those licks of fire mesmerized the apostles at first, but not for long. Infused by the Holy Spirit, they are now sent out, burning with energy, desire, and a sudden new ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Just like that, God gives the Holy Spirit to the church on the occasion of her birth.
On that day, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was illustrated in part through the sudden ability of the disciples to speak to people from many and different places, in the languages that spoke most clearly to their hearts. By speaking to so many people from so many places, the Holy Spirit invited diversity into the church from its inception.
The thing about fire is that it never stops moving. It can be neither contained, nor still. The other thing about fire as any student of science will tell you, is that it changes the substance and nature of the thing it affects: Water turns to steam, raw meat turns to edible food, structures in fruits and vegetables are altered changing their consistency and taste, in some cases making them more easily digestible. Wood turns to ash. And the fire of the apostles’ speech witness to the power of God to change the world through the diversity of the nations.
The thing about the this constantly stirring, moving, dancing Holy Spirit is that it, too, changes everything it touches. Jesus infuses the church by sending his Spirit to abide in, with and around his disciples, changing them forever.
The Spirit sends us out into the world to bring about the fiery change that Jesus calls us to in the ministry and mission
We are used to thinking about the Holy Spirit as the one who inspires heals, unites and guides us. We often speak of the Holy Spirit as the one who comforts. As your pastor I count on the Holy Spirit to guide not only my actions, but my words – so, when my preaching seems “off” – you can blame the Holy Spirit – maybe she was just too busy to inspire my preaching, or your hearing that week.
The thing is, that the Spirit is given to the church as this energizing, fiery, inspiring, constantly moving force for the gospel of Jesus Christ. While each of us is blessed with and by the Holy Spirit in our Baptism, this Holy Spirit is given not for our individual benefit, but for the sake of the world – God’s world – the place where we are sent out, from Baptismal font then nurtured and fed at the table, and sent out as the Spirit-driven firy breath of God’s justice, hope, healing, compassion, care, and love alive and active in the world; constantly moving, constantly agitating, constantly alive in faith in Jesus Christ.
God’s Holy Spirit, never idle in our lives is constantly moving us outward – like the disciples, no longer content to remain within the four walls of the upper room, nor even within the gates of Jerusalem, we shall not be content to remain within the four walls of this sanctuary.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a vital place for us, for it is here that we hear God’s Word read and the gospel good news proclaimed in community; it is here that we are reminded who God is and whose we are. It is in this place as we gather together in the name of Jesus Christ each week that we gather around the table, where we receive the body and blood of Our Lord, and where, blessed by the Holy Spirit we receive grace upon grace for our own dance of faith in mission and ministry for Jesus.
It is the Holy Spirit’s agitating that inspires us to care for God’s good creation, an important ministry now, perhaps more than ever before. It is the Holy Spirit’s bubbling energy that calls us to gather food each month to be delivered to the local food banks, and that this year alone has inspired us to give over $2400 dollars in coins, checks and cash to ELCA World Hunger alone. Thanks be to God!
It is at the Holy Spirit’s sending that members of Grace serve each month at the Talbot Interfaith Shelter, that Thanksgiving meals and Christmas projects are provided for the good of our neighbors right here in Easton; that several times each month lunches are provided for the homeless and for low income seniors in our area. The Holy Spirit inspires us and moves us to share this God-given building with two other groups - an AA group and a newly formed Hispanic congregation each week, so that every single day of the week, through the blessings we have received, we are blessing others in the name of Christ.
On this Pentecost Sunday, as on every day as we invoke the name of God’s Holy Spirit in our prayers and in our daily walk, let’s remember the dancing, moving, invigorating nature of God’s Spirit. Let’s remember how God reaches down into our world and into our lives and inspires movement and dance, speech we never thought ourselves capable of, and grants us gifts and abilities for the purpose of God’s mission and ministry lived out each day for the sake of the God’s kingdom here on earth.
So inspired, let us join the dance of the trinity, the movement to share God’s truth and love in the world.