Tongues of Fire

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Pentecost.

Acts 2:1-21 

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

***

There’s something magical about campfires. 

I have several friends who work in camp ministry. They talk about how much fun it is—the games and silly songs, crafts and skills. They talk about introducing city kids to lakes and forests and overscheduled surburbanites to the joy of free time. “Camp is good for the soul,” my friend James says. “There’s a reason we still send our kids to camp, even in the 21st century. They need God’s creation now more than ever.”

But for all the fun and joy of long summer camp days, it’s the campfire nights that my counselor friends say bring the real magic. There’s just something about a campfire that draws the kids in. 

“We have this gong,” my friend Kelly said. “We ring it for chapel, we ring it for art class, we even have to ring it for meals. We still have to chase down stragglers. But we never have to ring it for vespers around the campfire. They come on their own. They all want to be there.”

It’s not just the s’mores, she says. They don’t do that every night. It’s something about the fire itself that compels them to join in. 

“Rainy nights are miserable,” she said. “The kids need those campfire nights. It’s where the magic happens.”

Most of my camp ministry friends have stories about kids coming to claim their faith around the campfire, in quiet vespers service, singing Sanctuary and Light the Fire. “We have them gather up pinecones,” James said. “And we talk about how prickly they are, to protect the seeds within. And we say that sometimes, especially as teenagers, we do that too—we put out all these prickles to protect who we really are inside. We push away our parents, our friends. And sometimes we even push away Jesus. The kids don’t tend to say much, but they nod. Then we tell them, when they’re ready, to toss the pinecones into the fire. They don’t need all that armor, all those hackles. Jesus loves them just the way they are.”

The pinecones make a great popping sound, and for a minute the fire flares way up.

“Some kids hold onto their pinecones all week,” James continued. “They’re not ready. That’s okay. We’re not here to coerce them or convert them or manipulate them. We just want them to know Jesus is ready for them, whenever they’re ready for him.”

James has seen kids wait till the last night to throw in their pinecones, with visible relief, even tears. One kid, he said, particularly shy and suspicious of friendly overtures, even took his pinecone home with him. He brought it back the next year, and James said he was like a different kid. 

“I kept the pinecone in my room all year. I liked what you said, about the armor protecting the seeds. I wanted to have armor, like soldiers do. I’d go to school and think about how no one could hurt me because of my armor, and I got more confident. And then, funny enough, I started to make friends. This year was a lot better than last year. So I hope we do campfire nights again. Because I don’t think I need the armor any more. I want to throw my pinecone in. I want to see it burn all up.”

James reassured him that the fire would be there, every night, whenever he was ready. “It’s those sorts of stories that make it all worth it,” he told me. “It’s like the Holy Spirit is right in your face. So much easier to see out here.”

The Holy Spirit is God’s wild side. Unpredictable, surprising, mischievous. Sometimes the Spirit is impossible to ignore, like at Pentecost, when she came as gale winds and headdresses of fire. Sometimes you can only catch a glimpse of her if you’re not looking directly, or only in hindsight. 

Most often, in scripture, the Spirit can only be seen by how she changes the people she falls upon. Suddenly, they are more courageous or powerful or stronger than they were, they have more knowledge and wisdom, they speak in different languages or they have a direct conduit to God. The Spirit can be a possessing force, infusing us with all she is.

But sometimes, the Spirit shows up on her own.  As breath, and wind, as comforter and advocate and foster parent, as dove and, of course, as fire.  

If you’ve ever noticed that I often refer to the Holy Spirit as she, it’s both because the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is feminine, and also because that pronoun wakes me up, and surprises me, and opens my faith a crack wider. And the Spirit is all about blowing open the doors we’ve closed, sparking new thoughts and ideas and dreams. The Spirit is all about disrupting us, even as she gives us courage. 

I don’t know if the disciples were surprised that the Spirit showed up as fire on Pentecost day. They don’t seem to be—they’re surprisingly chill about fire on their heads. They were waiting for a sign, even for the spirit—Jesus had promised them that much. And God had showed up as fire before—as the burning bush that spoke to Moses, and the pillar of fire that led their ancestors through the dark desert. 

The disciples may not have known how the Spirit would show up, but they trusted that she would, because Jesus had promised them. So they wait, and when the Spirit comes—it’s magnificent. 

Pentecost is one of the great stories of the Bible, the day the church was born. It’s full of holy chaos, wind and flames and babble and shock. And like a campfire, this Spirit draws all the people in, to watch the flames and listen to the stories. The Bible says that the disciples “declared the mighty works of God”—the great campfire stories of God’s power, mercy, and love. And even though the Jews in Jerusalem come from every country of the ancient world, and speak a baffling variety of languages, they all hear the disciples as if they are speaking directly to them, in their language—the mark of a great storyteller. It’s a brief paragraph in our Bible, but I wonder sometimes how long it took—how long the crowds thronged round the disciples, each of them a living campfire with a flame burning on their heads, to hear all the things that God had done in Jesus Christ, and could yet do. 

It should have been frightening—this sudden storm, these indoor flames, these babbling disciples. It should have made people run. And yet the Spirit draws them in, and transforms their lives. 

Not everyone is ready. Not everyone sees the beauty in the chaos. A few hang back, scoffing that the disciples are just drunk. But Peter reminds them of their own faith, the words of their prophet Joel, who proclaimed that in the last days their would be signs of fire, and that the spirit would fall upon everyone—old and young, men and women, enslaved and free people—and all of them would have direct access to the Lord. 

Fire is a paradox. It nourishes and destroys, it keeps us safe and it’s dangerous, it’s unpredictable and everyday. Fire is raw and primal, and we make a place for it in our homes. It draws us in and pushes us away. It warms us and burns us. 

Too much fire, and we die. Too little fire, and we die. We cannot hold it, touch it directly. And yet it fuels every part of our lives, even in ways we don’t see. 

So I think it’s no surprise that the third person of the Trinity, God’s wild side, shows up as fire. As paradox. As the thing that nourishes and destroys, sends us into danger and keeps us safe, is wildly unpredictable and with us every moment. The Spirit is raw and primal, and we make a place for her in our hearts. She draws us in and is still a stranger. She warms us, and sometimes… if we’re not paying attention, the Spirit can leave a burn mark on our souls. 

Too much Spirit, and life becomes unbearable; we are mere mortals after all. But too little Spirit, and life becomes dry and brittle. We cannot touch the Spirit, cannot hold it, trap it, put in under glass to analyze or preserve. And yet it fuels every part of our faith, even in ways we do not see. 

The church was born in wind and fire, by the joyful chaos of the Spirit at play. And so we do well to open ourselves to the fire of the Spirit, to a bit of chaos, to a bit of wonder.

“I’m always trying to figure out what it is about the fire that’s so amazing,” my friend Kelly said. “And I think the magic of campfire nights is that it lets the kids be who they are. Lets them be a little more free. With the dark, and the firelight, they’re not worried about whether or not their acne is showing, or whether they winning at dodgeball, or whether their friendship bracelet is as pretty or fast as the kid next to them. They’re just… themselves. It’s what brings them there. It’s where the best relationships form. With each other, with the counselors, and with God.”

This is the work of the Spirit, burning in all her glory. She draws us in, wiggles under our guard, burns away our prickles and hackles, surprises us with delight. The Spirit makes friends of strangers and congregations out of crowds. She fills us with courage. She drenches us the very light of God. 

May the Spirit find you this week, and when she does, may you linger by the fire. 

Amen. 

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