May 15, 2016 “Fire and Rose” – Acts 2:1-21

Acts 2:1-21
“Fire and Rose”
May 15, 2016 – Pentecost

Flames leapt up the curtains. A lamp had fallen over and the hot bulb touched fabric. The flame jumped from the drapes to newspapers on an end table. Then the couch began to smolder. The wooden end table itself ignited. The carpet caught. In three or four minutes the temperature in the room was high enough that flammable objects burst spontaneously into flame. Then smoke and fire was everywhere. Another couple minutes and the camera melted and the picture went dark.

I was sitting at the fire station watching a firefighter training film. Its purpose was to graphically demonstrate the power and speed of a house fire. The filmmakers took an old building, furnished it like a regular family home, installed the cameras and then rigged the event which triggered it all. The video switched to cameras in other rooms and then outside the house. We watched bedrooms upstairs fill with smoke before flames burned through. We saw the floor collapse. From a camera outside we saw windows explode outward as the temperature rose still higher inside. It made a huge impression on us. It was all so much more powerful, so much faster than any of us could have guessed.

One Pentecost symbol of the Holy Spirit is fire. In verse 2 we hear the sound of a violent wind and then see the sudden arrival of fire in verse 3. Tongues of flame separate out of the blaze and come to rest upon each one of the disciples. Verse 4 explains that it is the filling of the Holy Spirit who causes them now to speak in other tongues.

Wind and fire. The very word “spirit” in Greek, pneuma, can mean breath or wind as it does when Jesus talks about the wind blowing wherever it pleases in John 3:8. The same is true in the Old Testament for the Hebrew word ruach. The Holy Spirit of God comes like wind and fire, swift, unpredictable, terribly powerful, whenever and wherever He pleases.

The disciples did as we heard Jesus direct them last week at the end of Luke. They retreated to an upper room to rest and pray and wait. The unknown but expected moment arrived, ten days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, fifty days after He rose from the dead on Easter. They were overwhelmed, literally blown away by the coming of the Holy Spirit in the midst of another Jewish holy day.

Pentecost is the Jewish festival of first fruits, celebrating the first crop of the year, some of it offered to God in thanksgiving. It was more or less a quiet agricultural feast. By Jesus’ time it had also become a remembrance of when God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai. It was time to quietly contemplate the Law of God, to make resolutions to live more holy lives.

Yet Sinai was also an occasion of fire and smoke, thunder and lightning. Exodus 20, verse 8, says that when the people saw the mountain wreathed in the smoke of God’s burning, “they trembled in fear.” And Philo, a Jewish philosopher, suggests that the Commandments also were understood in many languages.

It’s awesomely exciting and even frightening when the Spirit blows and burns into the middle of our quiet lives. Many people look for that kind of burning excitement in Christian faith. We long to be overwhelmed and overturned by the power and love of God, to have the kind of Pentecost experience which Acts 2 describes. In the church I grew up in we would sing this hymn:

Lord, as of old, at Pentecost,
Thou didst Thy power display,
With cleansing, purifying flame,
Descend on us today.

Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!
Thy floodgates of blessing, on us throw open wide!
Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!
That sinners be converted and Thy Name glorified!

Young Christians today express the same thing when they speak so frequently of “passion.” The desire to be passionate, to have a burning hunger for God and for His work on earth is that same desire for Pentecostal power. We feel bored, stale, lifeless. “Come to us, as once you came,” we sang a moment ago, “burst in tongues of sacred flame!” We want to be filled and consumed by a holy passion.

In the passion and fire of the Holy Spirit, God’s people constantly break out in new directions, receiving new visions of what our mission is to be for the Lord. Despite what some may think, we’re not always doing the same old thing. We’re talking about hosting a Spanish-speaking church, about putting up huts for homeless people on our property, about a new kind of Bible reading in the fall. The Spirit keeps us on our toes.

The Bible promises this kind of fiery, spontaneous experience of the Spirit. John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Messiah, said that when He came, He would baptize “with fire and the Holy Spirit.” In I Thessalonians 5:19, Paul tells us, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” II Corinthians 3:17 says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The Church of Jesus Christ is empowered by a fiery Spirit who sets us free for new experiences, for great adventure, for becoming people we never thought we could be.

If we welcome the Holy Spirit, we should expect burning, passionate, spontaneous expressions of that wonderful freedom we enjoy in Jesus Christ. The fire will burn and we will not be able to predict just how and where it will flare up next. The Spirit will blow wherever He wills and we won’t be in control. He will be directing us.

Yet fire is fire, even when it’s spiritual fire. Unchecked it can run out of bounds. You all know how often passion of the most basic sort, plain old bodily lust, can rage out of control, bringing us all sorts of grief, causing all sorts of destruction. Spiritual passion can be just as grievous, just as destructive.

Old, old Christian divisions have resulted from spiritual fire gone too far. Around 1200 A.D. the fourth Christian Crusade to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule set out from France. But instead of heading straight for Palestine they sailed to the capital city of Christianity in the east, Constantinople. And there, with passionate intensity, they fought against fellow Christians and sacked and burned their city. Almost none of the French army ever made it to the Holy Land. Eastern Christians still remember and resent that invasion of western Christians.

We create all sorts of little crusades against each other whenever spiritual passion runs out of control. We crusade for worship styles, old or new. We crusade for political agendas, whether on the left or the right. We crusade for correct doctrine. We crusade for social compassion and justice. In the process of our crusading, fire burns our brothers and sisters in Christ and even those we wish to win to the Lord.

That’s why I’d like to share with you a few lines from the Christian poet T. S. Eliot. They form the ending of Little Gidding, the last poem of his Four Quartets,

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Eliot’s poems are confusing and full of allusions and complex symbols. I don’t claim to understand too well what he meant by those lines. But the picture is plain. He envisions those Pentecostal tongues of flame gathered and twisted together into the form known as a crown knot, where the loose strands of a rope are woven around and through each other to keep it from unraveling. The result has the appearance of a woven crown. Some of you may have made crown knots in macramé. The image of a crowned knot of fire envisions flame taking on definite form, a kind of fiery rose.

The fire and the rose will be one. It’s a reminder that there are two aspects to our experience of the Holy Spirit. The fire, the passion, the freedom, is only half the story. On the other side is a peaceful ordering of human life which is best represented not by the dynamic ever-changing image of fire, but by the quiet picture of a perfect flower, a rose.

You can see the fire and the rose at work together in the Pentecost story. The Spirit comes with fire and drives the disciples out into the street to tell everyone they can about Jesus. It’s a mob scene of passion and confusion. Verse 12 says of the bystanders, “Amazed and perplexed, they asked each other, ‘What does this mean?’” Yet at the very same time the Spirit generated fire and confusion, He brought calm and order. Everyone heard the message in his or her own language. It made sense to anyone who cared to listen.

The Pentecost text from here in Acts 2 is paired in our readings with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. In the Old Testament story, God came down and confused and divided our language when humans become too arrogant. In the New Testament reading, that division of language is healed. By the coming of the Holy Spirit, linguistic confusion is eliminated and everyone can understand each other again.

Paul doesn’t just talk about the freedom we have in the Holy Spirit. As he writes to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, he asks them to reign in their passion because, he says in I Corinthians 14:33, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace.” A little further on in verse 40, he tells them, “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

The rosy side of the Holy Spirit weaves the fire together in our lives to bring us peace and order. It wasn’t long before that first blazing church of Jerusalem began to settle down a little and get organized. They recognized leaders like Peter, who is the spokesman here, and then Jesus’ brother James. In Acts 6 they appointed deacons to look after a ministry of care.

At the same time, the Spirit’s fire kept breaking in. In Acts 10, He burned Peter in a dream and sent him off in a whole new direction to the Gentiles. But then in Acts 15 the Spirit’s rosy peace brought them all together in the first church council to deliberately and orderly decide how to treat those same Gentiles.

The forty-year history of our own church is full of both fire and rose. It was the Spirit’s passionate fire which led a handful of people to start a little Bible study and dare to dream that it could become a church here in Eugene. And it was the Spirit’s gentle rose which led them to organize and elect officers and call a pastor who would lead them.

It was the blazing power of the Holy Spirit which empowered our church, filled it with creative and artistic people, and energized it for several dynamic years of ministry and meeting in a little rented grange hall up the hill. Yet that same Spirit called those people to the settled order and peace of building a sanctuary here on this corner.

The fire of the Spirit keeps driving us forward. He blazed and led us into a campaign to pay down our first mortgage. He burned the hearts of people who loved kids to reach out to them and call a youth minister. He gave fiery inspiration to those who led us to build the Gathering Place. He gave passion to a couple of us to reach out through the Egan Warming program. He’s asking us to blaze forward in new ways right now.

At the same time, the peaceful rose of the Spirit calls us to unity and order. He inspired us to form our own care team of deacons. He encourages us to love each other in spite of our political differences. He guides us toward good process of discussion and discernment. He calls us to regular, faithful giving in support both old and new ministries. He gives us patience and love toward each other regarding worship hymns and songs.

The Holy Spirit’s fire and rose in us as individuals too. The fire is in the innovators, the visionaries, the people always ready for something new, always ready to blaze forth in yet another direction to reach others with the love of Jesus. The rose is in the organizers, the peacemakers, the people calling us to hold securely to the faith and to good traditions, to remember to care for each other in all our passion.

We need each other. That’s one of the messages of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit wants to balance fire and rose in us. He wanted the disciples to have the fiery courage to preach in the streets. Yet at the same time He wanted there to be an order, a rose of peace so that they were understood. It’s not chaos, says Peter starting in verse 15, these men are not drunk. This is the coming of something long predicted in our tradition, the Holy Spirit will come and start something new, but the end result will be peace: “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

If you’ve ever tended a campfire, you know you need to get organized to maintain it. It’s best to have a nice neat pile of chopped wood stacked at hand keep the flame fed and hot. You need careful planning to keep the fire going for long. You have to pay attention.

And if you’ve ever cared for rose bushes, you know they need new attention all the time. You have to keep finding the right mix of fertilizer, keep killing the bugs which can attack them, keep spraying for black spot and other diseases, keep plucking off the dead heads. You can never relax if the roses are to stay beautiful.

The mixing of the Spirit’s fire and rose is like a blessed marriage of opposites. In the first Covenant church I attended, I met a couple like that. Howard and Eloine married each other after their first spouses of many years died. At age 70 Howard was still all fire when he decided to court Eloine. He would drive to the next town to pick her up. They would go dancing and he would take her home. On his way home, he would be so tired he would have to pull over on the way and take a nap before he could drive the last few miles.

Eloine on the other hand, was orderly. When they did get married, she kept their checkbook, made sure they didn’t stay out too late, and had everything in their home in its proper place and perfectly dusted.

I watched Howard and Eloine plan a big vacation trip together to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Howard was full of enthusiasm for what they would see, for the fishing they would do, for the golf they would play. Eloine worried about what it would all cost and how two old people would get through the airport and manage to walk down the ramp into the plane. They needed each other. They balanced each other. Fire and rose.

God has given two thousand years of the Holy Spirit’s marriage of fire and rose to His Church. He’s blessed us here at Valley Covenant for forty years with that same wonderful union. Innovation and tradition. Enthusiasm and order. Passion and peace. Sometimes the fire gets too hot and sometimes the roses are awfully thorny. But we need each other. Both fire and rose are the work of the Holy Spirit. They belong together. They belong together because in the end it’s the way God will balance out our lives and makes us into holy and beautiful people who will shine in His kingdom forever.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj