Sunday, May 8, 2016

About the Fire

The story of the Christian Pentecost (don't forget that the reason everyone was in Jerusalem was to observe Pentecost - or Shavu'ot - as established in Leviticus 21:15ff.) is pretty straightforward, if you can call a sermon that yields thousands of baptisms "straightforward." The disciples are gathered together when the Holy Spirit comes upon them in ways they can see and hear (wind and tongues of fire) and then in ways that ultimately lead them to speak (Acts 2:1-21). For today's celebrations of Pentecost, worshipers are encouraged to wear red, and it isn't uncommon to see streamers or balloons or kites or other objects that can catch a breeze as part of a processional. It is a celebratory day.

The part of the story usually handled most abstractly is the fire. Candles may be lit, but the ability to capture actual tongues of fire on the head of each worshiper is a logistical challenge unless your church is CGI-equipped. So those tongues of fire become streamers or ribbon halos or crowns. But what if you think a strip of red or orange crepe paper doesn't tell the story of the Holy Spirit as fire? That's a problem. Some contemporary painters broaden the presence of the Spirit by showing human figures swept up in swoops of the reds, yellows and oranges of active flame. But another problem can come when the extent of the flame makes the human figures look like they are sinners writhing in Hell rather than Galilean fishermen witnessing to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

How do you think of the Holy Spirit as fire? It is a fire that burns to ash? Is that what will happen to the disciples and their Pentecost fervor? The day is a flashover that will eventually burn itself (and them) out? Perhaps you perceive the Holy Spirit as a carefully portioned tongue of fire, given in reasonable measure to each disciple.

Maybe it helps to borrow the characteristics of another scriptural fire. What if Pentecost's tongues of fire are like the flames of the bush where Moses received his own commission from God? What if the fire of Pentecost is fire that burns but does not consume?
(Top left) Moses by Elden Tefft. 1982. Smith Hall, University of Kansas  (Top right) Charles L. Marshall. Burning Bush, University of Kansas. http://www2.ku.edu/~build/cgi-bin/moses (Bottom) Chagall. Moses and the Burning Bush. 1966. Musee national Marc Chagall, Nice, France. http://en.musees-nationaux-alpesmaritimes.fr/chagall/
Seeing the Pentecost fire in that way might help us prepare for a season of Pentecost rather than a day of Pentecost. The fire does not go out but neither does it consume us until there is nothing left of us.

And yet the fires of the bush and Pentecost are not exactly the same. Or perhaps the fire is the same but the relationship between God and humans is not. Moses stood at a distance, warned from coming closer, watching this miracle of fire as he heard the voice of God. In the Pentecost story, this fire rests on each disciple individually. They are no longer spectators, they are partakers, sharers of the fire. The fire is not a spectacle to be observed but a part of who they now are.

In both events, the fire is associated with God's promise to "be with". To be with Moses as he goes back to Egypt to free God's people. To be with the disciples as they dream dreams and see visions and make disciples of all nations. Fire that burns but does not consume ensures that disciples will not, on their first Spirit-filled day, go out in a blaze of glory. Rather it sparks a witness that against all cultural and societal odds will grow Christ's church. Come, Holy Spirit.

And here's your connection for flame and wind on Pentecost...when laying a fire, light the upwind side so the wind blows the flame into the "fuel".

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