I hope you like the fiery pew ends we made at Messy Church last week. We finger painted the red and yellow paint onto them and I can tell you, we really managed put the “mess” into Messy Church in the process! It’s not just accident that we made fiery decorations for today, of course. It is because fire is one of the symbols of the Holy Spirit, who we think about especially on this feast of Pentecost.
The association of fire with the Holy Spirit comes from that first reading we heard today, from the book of Acts. As the disciples gather in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension, they seem paralysed, unsure what to do next. Jesus told them to wait for power from on high, but for how long, and what is this power they are waiting for? Their minds are full of questions. How can they possibly hope to fulfil the task he gave them? Go into all the world… Proclaim the good news… These are fishermen from Galilee, not famous preachers, or great philosophers, or international statesmen. And they can’t forget what happened to Jesus when he preached that same Good News. He was put to death on a cross. The Resurrection may have changed the way they understood that, but it didn’t cancel out the memory of the pain and humiliation.
Who wouldn’t feel daunted by this?
But then, according to the story, they experience something which they can’t really describe – the rushing wind and those tongues of flame. It’s a familiar story, but as we splodged about in the red and yellow paint last week, making our own flames for today I started to wonder– why fire? Why this symbol? What does this tell us about the Holy Spirit? What might all this have meant to those first disciples? On one level it seems obvious. Fire is exciting, it’s powerful – we talk about being all fired up, and those first disciples certainly were after their Pentecost experience. But I suspect there’s a deeper message here too, one which we might easily miss.
In the ancient world fire wasn’t just about excitement – bonfires and campfires and fireworks. It wasn’t just a useful thing either, something you needed for cooking and heating. It also spoke of mystery, because it was a mystery, beyond the comprehension of the people who used it. According to the ancient Greeks, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity as a gift. The gods punished him severely for it, because they didn’t want humans getting hold of something so special. Other cultures tell similar stories, emphasizing how precious fire is. To make it yourself takes skill and effort, however easy Ray Mears makes it look. Before people found out how to rub two sticks together or strike a spark from a flint, they’d have only experienced fire when lightning struck or a volcano erupted. That’s why people thought it was the property of the gods. It wasn’t like water, earth or air, there around you all the time. It came apparently out of nowhere and vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived.
The people of the Old Testament shared this belief in fire’s mystery. In fact they went further. For them fire was in some sense part of God’s essence. When God turns up there’s nearly always fire around too – for good or for ill. God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush. He guides the people of Israel across the desert to the Promised Land in a pillar of fire. He descends on Mount Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments in clouds of smoke and fire. The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God seated in a chariot of fire, looking “like glowing amber, something like fire enclosed all around” he says. (Ezek 1.27) Fire said “God” to ancient people.
Fire was divine not just because it was powerful but also because it could change things in ways that people knew they couldn’t. A forest could be reduced to a pile of silvery-grey ash and blackened stumps by fire. How did that happen? Where had all that wood gone? Early metal workers discovered that fire could make precious metal flow out of solid rock. Even now when we understand the science far better it is still pretty amazing what fire can do. My father was a scientific glassblower. He made all those mysterious looking tubes and bottles which you see full of bubbling liquids in laboratories. Sometimes I watched him at work, taking a tube of cool clear, apparently totally solid glass and holding it over a flame until it glowed red hot and melted into whatever shape he wanted to make it into. And if that wasn’t magical enough, I knew that the glass he was working with had originally been made by heating sand until it melted. Sand – the stuff we played with on the seashore. How could that be? Sand doesn’t look like glass at all. It’s easy to see how ancient people would have regarded fire as miraculous, a sign of God at work.
So, to go back to the question I started with, what would those first disciples have been thinking when they saw flames dancing on each other’s heads?
I’d like to suggest two things.
Firstly, the flames of Pentecost wouldn’t just have been a sign that they were excited or empowered. Those flames told them that they were being changed by God’s presence in them, transformed just as fire transforms what it touches; from rock to precious metal, from sand to glass. Perhaps the story also hints that there are some things in their lives which will be reduced to ashes too, burnt away as they walked in the way Jesus had shown them.
When Luke wrote his account of the Day of Pentecost, he was writing for people who knew about change from personal, sometimes painful, experience. The early Church wasn’t perfect – far from it – but the decision those early Christians made to follow Christ made a radical difference to their lives. Many of them left their native lands and their old occupations, the communities they had grown up in. As they did so, people they might once have regarded as enemies became friends, family even. This meant that they had to change inwardly too. They had to confront and conquer old prejudices, learn to love where once they had hated and discover courage they didn’t know they had. This led to genuine and deep transformation in their thinking and in their behaviour. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” said St Paul (2 Cor 5.17)
The second thing which the flames of Pentecost would have told them was that this transformation wasn’t wholly or even mainly their work, though; it was the work of God in them. Fire, as I’ve said, was something which people saw as a divine gift. The disciples had a part to play. Wait, watch, pray, expect, Jesus had said. But they didn’t have to earn it or deserve God’s presence. Their new found confidence came from realising that God was with them through his choice, not their effort. That meant that there was nothing fragile, uncertain or provisional about it.
So where does that leave us? Perhaps it depends on where we feel we are starting from today.
This story can be a wonderful encouragement to us as it was to the first Christians. “The Lord is here/ His Spirit is with us” we say every time we come together, and it is true. We may not see flames dancing through our midst, but if we open our eyes we can see God at work around us and in us too. As I look around this church I see people loving one another, and loving those around them, caring for each other, supporting each other. I see people growing in faith, asking questions, struggling to live what they believe. I see people getting angry at the injustices of the world, and finding the strength to do something about it. Some of you traipsed the streets collecting for Christian Aid the other week, for example. Some of you turned out to the recent meeting in Sevenoaks to discuss ways we can respond to the need for a local refuge for those suffering domestic abuse. St Paul described the fruits of the Spirit as “Love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.” I see all those fruits here in our midst – not perfectly of course, but present nonetheless. “The Lord is here/ his Spirit is with us”.
But of course this story also reminds us of the changes that still need to happen in our lives and in our church. It calls us to continue to be open to that transforming fire of God, to allow ourselves to be touched and changed. To live is to change. If we are alive in God, close to him, then we can’t expect to stay the same. Sometimes we might look to faith to provide a comforting glow of warmth, sometimes we might look to it to bring us moments of excitement, a diversion from the mundane realities of their day to day existence, but if that is as far as it goes, if we go out from worship the same as we came in, then we are missing something. Faith is meant to be a fire that changes us and keeps on changing us throughout our lives.
So the challenge for us this Pentecost is to open our eyes – to see and honour the work that God is already doing, the flames of love that already dance around us and in us, but also to see and acknowledge those places which still need to be touched by God’s fire. Places where there is sin that needs to be turned to ash, silver hidden in the rock, sand that waits to be melted into pure glass through which others can see God’s love.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.