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. (Acts 2:1-21, Common English Bible).
When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day. (Acts 2:37-47, Common English Bible).
During a recent ecumenical gathering, a church secretary rushed into the meeting shouting, “The building’s on fire, the building’s on fire!”
The Methodists immediately gathered in the corner and prayed.
The Baptists cried out, “Where’s the water.”
The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings fire brings.
The Lutherans posted a notice on the door, declaring that fire was evil.
The Roman Catholics passed the plate to cover the damage caused by the fire.
The Congregationalists proclaimed, “Every man for himself.”
The Fundamentalists proclaimed, “It’s the vengeance of God!”
The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out of the burning building.
The Christian Scientists concluded that there was no fire.
The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to appoint a committee to
look into the matter and submit a written report.
While all this was going on the secretary grabbed a fire extinguisher and put the fire out before the whole building burned down.
I pray today that the church is on FIRE! No, not the building, the church! Because the church isn’t the building, its us. The church is You and me. And, no, I am not hoping we are literally on fire, but spiritually. I pray we are each on fire for God.
When we think of the phrase, “You’re on fire,” few of us would think the person speaking to us actually meant we were literally on fire. Unless they were to shout, “You’re on fire” in a worried tone of voice and we started smelling smoke and feeling a burning sensation, according to “phrasemix.com” it means the person speaking is saying we are having a string of successes. For example, “J.J. Watt is on fire tonight, sacking the quarterback four times” is a casual and friendly phrase used on a fairly regular basis in many aspects of our society. “Jason has sold eight cars this week. He’s on fire.”
When our boys were younger and still living at home, they had a Nintendo video game console as many kids do. They both have one now, or at least something similar. One of their games, I think it was a sports game but I can’t remember for sure, when they were playing really well, the avatar on the screen would be wearing flames. By today’s graphics standards it was pretty cheesy, but for the time it was pretty impressive. Then the game would say, “You’re on fire!”
Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day commonly referred to as the birthday of the Church. I have often asked congregations to celebrate Pentecost by wearing red. Sometimes I get a little too much on my plate and forget to say something. That happened last week.
Pentecost is the day we, as the Christian Church, set aside to remember and celebrate the beginnings of Christianity as a movement from a bunch of scared men and women who saw their leader executed but also saw Him alive again, to an organized whole now showing purpose and movement through the power of the Holy Spirit. These men and women, who spent much of the previous six weeks between Easter and Pentecost locked away in a room, hiding from the Romans and the Jews, now felt empowered to share the message of Jesus Christ with all the known world around them. They were on fire, as we shall see, at one point some might have thought they were quite literally on fire.
The words Luke uses to open the second chapter of Acts are powerful and dramatic. Just reading or hearing his words would be enough to frighten many people who might be living through the events. To think the disciples and others gathered in the room were already pretty scared, our natural inclination would be to think they would run scared again, probably with Peter taking the lead. What we do see quickly in this lesson, however, is something has changed. Something has changed inside the disciples. Something has changed in them quite dramatically. They are no longer the scared ragtag bunch hiding out in the Upper Room.
They were all together, Luke says, when they heard a sound from heaven like the roar of a mighty wind. Most of us have heard the wind howl before. Perhaps you have been in a house similar to one Cindy and I lived in during days past. You couldn’t help but hear the wind blow. In that house, when the wind blew from the northwest, there was something about how the house was constructed in the back, where you could really hear the wind howl. If it was windy and blowing from the right direction you couldn’t help but hear the rush of the wind.
I am not sure why, but howling wind scares some people. It can add a note of suspense to an already tense scene. Lots of movies and shows with alleged haunted houses have the sound of the wind howling in the background. With Luke’s words about the sound of a roaring wind and our imagination, had we not read the story before, we could certainly think particularly if we already had an understanding of how easily spooked the disciples were, that something big was about to happen. It is kind of like one of those tense scenes in the movie when the dramatic music starts to play. You want to yell at the character, “STOP, can’t you hear the scary music? This isn’t going to be good for you!” But do you know what? They never stop and it never ends well for them. They never listen to us. They never, ever do the smart thing and go back. They just continue to move forward, as if they had good sense, and they don’t, and we sit and cringe as we await the evil about to befall that poor, unfortunate soul, that not so intelligent person on our television or up on the movie screen.
If we were reading the Pentecost story for the first time, our expectations would be for the disciples, hearing the scary wind, to get up and scatter. We would expect them to run away from what scared them. As we read, we might even be saying to ourselves, “Quick, get up, run! Can’t you hear the wind? The scary music is about to start. You better get out. This is going to be bad. It won’t go well for you. QUICK! RUN!!! NOW!!!!” Still, they don’t listen. They stay, waiting on whatever evil is about to befall them.
Luke continues on with the story. Tongues of fire appear on their shoulders. Friends, if I see a flame on you, and it isn’t flames woven into the fabric of the clothes you are wearing, I am going to get up and do my imitation of that church secretary we talked about a few minutes ago when the church was on fire. I am going to try my best to put out those flames, to extinguish the fire on you. I don’t want to see the fire spread. I don’t want you to get burned.
As we read, we know all about the twelve. We know how we expect them to act. Oh, at this point it was the twelve again. Yes, Judas was gone. But, in the first chapter of Acts, they select Mathias to replace Judas. Back to the story, we have seen the twelve. We know how they are. They are sitting in this intense situation, waiting on something to happen. As they wait, they hear the scary wind. Now they are seeing the flames. When I picture the scene in my mind’s eye, I can see them pointing fingers at each other and not having enough arms to do all the pointing because EVERYONE has a flame. Everyone is on fire.
Surely now they would all head for the exits. Surely now they would all get up and get moving. They would all disperse, each on running in a different direction. I mean really, the fear has to take over now, does it not? After all, these are the same guys, except Mathias, who got scared when Jesus was sleeping in the back of a boat and the weather got a little rough.
Apparently not. There is still one more twist in those opening verses. The disciples, at least for the most part, had little education. Their native language was most likely Aramaic and they were also most likely not bi-lingual. The chances are better than not that most of these guys would have been illiterate. They may have recognized and even known a little Greek, the most commonly used language of the day in the eastern Mediterranean region. They might have known a little Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire. I know a little Spanish, French and German, and when I say little I mean very little. I do know quite a bit of Pig Latin but that doesn’t make me bi-lingual. Neither does being fluent in sarcasm. The same is true for the twelve. They didn’t know enough Latin or Greek to be considered bi-lingual. They probably did know some Hebrew, the historic language of the Jews. But there is this tremendous wind blowing and making noise outside. Everyone seems to be at least a little bit on fire, literally. Put yourself into the story. As you sit and watch and listen, suddenly Peter starts speaking French. John is speaking English. Andrew’s words are coming out in German. Philip is speaking Russian and Matthew is talking in what sounds like it may be Spanish. The only one most of us could really understand would be John. And yes, I know, none of that is in the Bible and I freely admit I made up that illustration. But, what I am not making up is, the lesson says, and they “…began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.” While we didn’t know what languages the disciples did speak, who knows, my idea could be the right one, but I don’t lay claim to that part of the story’s authenticity.
In my mind, as I see the story playing out, now the disciples start to move. I want to emphasize, however, they are not, in full-on panic mode. They calmly and orderly walk from the house out into the village where they encounter a crowd that has people from all over the known world. As they hear the disciples speaking, everyone can understand what they are saying, regardless of their native tongue. They ask one another, “What does this mean?” and conclude their thoughts by speculating the disciples were drunk. What drunkenness has to do with the scene unfolding before them I have never quite figured out.
Then Peter, and of course it would be Peter, the first to jump into everything, jumps right square into the middle of this story. But, this isn’t the same Peter we have seen so many times before. There is a new boldness, a new confidence, coming to him and running through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Peter and the disciples start telling their audience the story of Jesus. They tell what they know and what they have seen. When people were troubled by what they heard, they told them what they needed to do, how they needed to believe so they too could be filled with the Holy Spirit, so they could have this boldness and confidence, and power in their lives.
By the lesson’s conclusion, we are told 3,000 people came to know and follow Christ that day. That is the birth of the Church. In one day the world went from no Church to a Church of 3,000 people. If we had been there that day, we may have said at the beginning of the story, “Hey Peter, you and the guys are on fire! No, really you are literally on fire.” But by the end of the story, I think our tone would change. “Hey Peter, you and the guys are on fire! You are on fire for God.”
When I was researching this message I ran across something and thought to myself, “This is interesting.” Most of us have heard and remember the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Some twisted soul added to that, “Build a fire and keep a man warm for the night. Set him on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life.” If literal, that is one scary thought. If spiritual, well, not so much.”
You see, that Pentecost, God se the disciples on fire. Scripture, history and tradition seem to indicate fairly clearly that those early Christians God lit on fire that day did stay not only spiritually warm, they stayed spiritually hot.
What about us. Has God lit us on fire? Have we let God light us on fire? And if so, are we still warm? It’s not a question I can answer for anyone but me. But if so, let’s follow the disciples’ example and share what we know with those whom God brings to cross our paths.
If you aren’t feeling quite so warm, if that fire God lit so long ago seems to be fading, perhaps it’s time to pray for some wind to stir the embers. Have you ever noticed, if you have a few hot coals, blowing a little air, a little wind can stori them to life again. Let God warm your fire once again.
If you have never let God light you on fire, Peter tells us the answer in the lesson when he says, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” God will set you on fire if you seek God.
After serving as your pastor for a while, I feel I can safely say of you as a whole, though we can probably all use a bit of wind blowing across us, “Hey friends, we’re on fire!”