Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

The Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

These twelve young men – likely all in their teens and twenties – had followed their controversial teacher throughout the Roman provinces of Galilee and Judea.
They had been present for his sermons,
present for his miracles,
present for his clashes with the religious and secular authorities of the land.
They were with him when he walked into the temple,
the center of the worship of the Most High God
– but also the center of collaboration
between the ruling class of Judea
and the occupying Roman Empire,
and turned over the tables and drove out the money changers
– the ones who changed Roman money for local,
the ones who enabled the Roman extraction of wealth,
the ones who extended the oppression of empire into the house of God.

The apostles were present when Jesus was arrested,
and watched from afar when he was given a sham trial,
and then publicly tortured to death,
unable to breathe upon the cross.
They watched their leader die, and they were afraid, going into hiding,
that the evil against which Jesus bore witness,
the evil that had him arrested and killed
– that evil would likely come after them too if they spoke out publicly.
So they stayed quiet.

And in their quiet, they heard the Good News:
Jesus is risen from the dead.
The evil forces of human cruelty and greed and lust for power that brought about his death had no power over him;
the power of sin is death
and death has been swallowed up in victory.
And still they stayed quiet.

They touched his hands and side
and heard and knew the Good News,
and yet they dared not venture out
to proclaim in public the Good News of God's liberation
for it had led to their master's death.

And then Jesus ascended into heaven,
and these scared youngsters once again found themselves in the safety of the upper room.
They prayed, to be sure, but they dared not preach in public;
they dared not confront the forces that killed Jesus.
Surely it would lead to their own deaths if they did.
So they stayed quiet.

And the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

The fire of God is nothing to trifle with.
The fire of God is the light of God's glory.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness,
fleeing from slavery under Pharaoh in the Land of Egypt,
the Psalmist reminds us that God led them with a cloud by day,
and all the night through with a glow of fire.

The fire of God can also be a purifying fire:
the words of the Lord are pure words,
like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire.

And finally the Psalmist reminds us that the fire of God can be utter destruction:
Upon the wicked he shall rain coals of fire and burning sulphur;
a scorching wind shall be their lot.

And the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

This fire of God is not three separate blazes:
a fire of glory,
and fire of purification,
and a fire of wrath.

This fire of God, with which God shall judge the world is all at once
the light of heaven by which we see,
the refiner's flame, consuming all our impurities,
and the fire of hell that destroys all wickedness.
This Holy Spirit is all of these fires at the same time,
for they are all the same holy fire.

This is no trivial thing to receive the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier of the Faithful.
This is no light matter to be set ablaze with the fire of God.
The fire of heaven can enlighten,
and can purify,
and can utterly destroy.

The light of heaven and the fire of hell are the same flame,
the same Spirit of God, renewing the world.
Brimstone and burning bush are one.

The apostles were afraid in the upper room.
And the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

They were not wrong in their fears.
Going out and proclaiming the Good News got every single one of the apostles arrested and convicted.
Going out and proclaiming the Good News led to the execution of all but one of them: John, the beloved disciple, died imprisoned on the isle Patmos.
All the others were killed for proclaiming the Good News.
They hid because they were afraid
that proclaiming the Good News would lead to their death,
as indeed it did.

And the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

And they were no longer quiet.
And they were no longer afraid.
Now they were aflame.
Now the fire of God burned within them.
Now they could not keep themselves from going forth into the public places
and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

They were sent,
compelled to go forth and spread the fire that burned within each of them.

And no sooner did they go forth but they started to run into trouble with the authorities:
drunk and disorderly, they were called.
Peter, likely the oldest among them, tried to calm the authorities about his compatriots' enthusiasm:
surely they are not drunk, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.
But the pattern was set:
the fire that set them ablaze gave them the courage of their convictions,
and each was indeed convicted
of proclaiming the Kingdom of God
in defiance of the Kingdom of Caesar,
and each was punished for spreading the Good News.
The fire that was lit on Pentecost cost them their lives.

That's the story the world would tell.
That's the story the empire would tell.
If you catch the spark of this Gospel of Christ's liberation, your life is ruined.
You'll never amount to anything in this world.
You'll be condemned as an enemy of the state
and you will die, poor and in pain.
That's where the fire of the Gospel will lead you.

And all of that is true.

That is indeed where the Gospel leads us.
If we are set ablaze with the flame of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, our respectability is ruined.
If we are set ablaze with the flame of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, our prosperity is ruined.
If we are set ablaze with the flame of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, our place in the Empire is ruined.

The followers of the Caesars of the world aren't wrong about any of this.
And yet they are *so* wrong, because there is so so much more to the story.

The apostles who were set ablaze with the fire of the Spirit indeed went forth to die for proclaiming the Good News.
 But they had eternal life; what could death do to them?

The Great Litany calls God the Holy Ghost, the "Sanctifier of the faithful."
Jesus, God the Son, is the Redeemer of the world.
Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
At that moment, we were indeed redeemed:
the guilt of our sin was washed away, once for all.

We no longer stand condemned for our manifold sins and wickedness,
neither individual nor social,
neither what we have done, nor what we have failed to do.

And yet we are still enslaved to sin.
The action of Jesus on the cross justified us.
We are welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven because the charges against us have been dropped:
we no longer stand convicted of our sins.

But that alone does not make us *fit* for the Kingdom of Heaven.
As long as we are captive to the power of sin, we may be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven but we cannot yet enter in.
The disciples learned of Jesus' resurrection
and victory over sin and death,
but they were still afraid.
They still were afraid to live in the fullness of life that Jesus' victory won for them.
They were still held captive to fear and doubt and selfishness.
They still feared to defy the powers and principalities of the world and proclaim the Good News of the resurrection.
Without being set ablaze with the Holy Spirit, they were not yet sanctified,
not yet fit to live in God's Kingdom.

And then…

The Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

And that fire burned.
That fire consumed their fear.
That fire consumed their respectability.
That fire consumed their social standing.
That fire consumed their careers and their wealth and their freedom and their bodies.
They were ablaze with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit sanctified them.
And when they died,
confessing the Good News even with their dying breath,
bearing witness that none other than Jesus Christ is Lord,
they died as saints:
the Holy Spirit's blaze, the refiner's fire
had burned up in their lifetime all the sin that remained in them,
and all that was left was holy.
Like the burning bush, like the column of fire in the wilderness,
they shine to this day with God's holy light
and the fire does not consume them.
The saints have been completely sanctified by the Holy Spirit,
and shine in God's presence,
lighting the way on our path to God.

We too need to be lit ablaze with the Holy Spirit.
We cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven without being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
It can set us ablaze in this lifetime,
a terrifying fire that sweeps through our lives
and destroys so much that we think is treasure
– only for us to realize afterward
that it was no treasure at all.
We can let the Holy Spirit light us ablaze and burn up all that is sinful,
all that serves the mighty at the expense of the poor,
all that oppresses God's beloved downtrodden.

If the process of sanctification is not complete in our lifetime,
we have to wait until God sets us ablaze with the refiner's fire in the world to come.
God longs to welcome us to the heavenly banquet,
but first we must be transformed by this terrifying fire of the Holy Spirit.
First the Holy Spirit must descend upon us as tongues of fire.

Let us pray.

Come, Holy Spirit!
Fill the hearts of your faithful,
kindle within us the fire of love,
that by its cleansing flame we may be purged of all our sins.
Let your purifying fire blaze,
and renew the face of the earth.
Wipe away all oppression,
all exploitation,
all trace of sin.
Tear down every power and principality rooted in fear and death.
And bring forth your heavenly kingdom,
that new Jerusalem of peace rooted in justice and mercy,
where you eagerly long for your sanctified people to join in the heavenly banquet for all eternity.

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