Alarming Fire to the Rescue

A sermon based on: Acts 2:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 15, 2016 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A preacher introduced the story of Pentecost to a group of fourth graders with an illustration for the Feast of Pentecost, that had the disciples gathered in a room, tongues of fire over each of their heads and they were all facing an open door with looks of shock. After seeing the illustration one fourth grader raised her hand and asked quite seriously if it might be a picture of the first recorded fire drill.

The pastor at first thought that was humorous but started thinking maybe a fire alarm in a building is a helpful image for understanding Pentecost. In both the Pentecost story and a fire alarm there’s an alarming noise. And the point of the alarm and Pentecost is to be awakened to take action to save yourself and others, to lead people to rescue. 1

I’d add that the Spirit’s fire is not one to fear but to take with us on our rescue missions, to help us be the Light of the world and carry forth the burning flames of love. The name Pentecost sounds kinda fancy but it is simply a reference to “fifty days” after Passover – which alone doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the tradition behind the day IS a big deal.

Pentecost in Judaism long before Jesus and the disciples lived was a Holy Day to remember “the most important event in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah [,the law]” 2. Pentecost started as the celebration of what can be called the birth of Judaism with the giving of that law shortly after the Exodus. Passover, celebrated fifty days earlier in Judaism, is a celebration of the Exodus.

So Passover and Pentecost were already days of religious importance to Jesus and the disciples. But they both become something else to celebrate for the Jesus Followers. It is on Pentecost, the day of celebrating the giving of the law, that today’s Lectionary story takes place. Torah and Moses are still a part of our Scared texts, but Christians do not by and large commemorate them as a part of Pentecost anymore. While Pentecost is still fifty days after Passover, Christians nowadays don’t focus on the Exodus at Passover, but on the Easter event – the day Jesus was gloriously resurrected, vindicated by God for a life well lived focused on love, and given to us forever as a means of salvation.

The Christian Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter, and ten days after Jesus’s ascension into heaven when Jesus prophesied the Holy Spirit would come and empower his followers to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” A prophesy that is important enough to be represented in our UCC logo by a circle divided in three for Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world.
After Jesus made this promise The Book of Acts tells us he was taken up into heaven by a cloud. You may recall that a cloud was God’s presence to the Israelites, God’s people, as they wandered the desert for forty years after the exodus from Egypt.

The Book of Acts also tells us while Jesus was going up on that cloud and his followers:

were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Now we can hear that Jesus’ prophesy about the Holy Spirit coming unfolds on Pentecost, but did the angels’ prediction that Christ would return come true? Well, as we heard the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven, like wind and fire descending from the sky, to rest upon Jesus’ followers. Here’s what Kasie read

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit . . .

The day that Jesus followers were filled with the Holy Spirit (which Jesus promised would arrive), that Spirit came from heaven in the same manner as Jesus left. And the Spirit’s arrival on that day, Pentecost, is the day that we trace the very birth of the Church to. The Holy Spirit came to us to start the Church in the same way Jesus left. Pentecost for us marks the day the Church began because that’s the day the Holy Spirit filled the body of the followers of Jesus. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.

It’s believed Jesus died and rose again and ascended somewhere around 30 A.D. which makes today roughly the 1,986th birthday of the church. It’s a big deal to be that old. Pentecost is a big deal in other ways. We are told that Jesus’ body left the earth ten days before Pentecost. For those ten days the Jesus Followers were without Spirit (pun intended). But thankfully it was only ten days, because from Pentecost on Jesus’ followers have been provided a God-given means to go on, to embody Christ on earth. The Spirit comes down to ignite us with the flames and Light of Christ’s Divine compassion and love – and presence.

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit shows up with a huge room-filling noise like wind. And with a great glow like fire the Spirit comes down from Heaven and rests on Jesus’ followers and fills them. From that day forward they are Spiritually blessed as a body with power to be Christ’s witnesses to the end of the earth, bringing the good news to the world, to all of God’s people through word and deed.

So Pentecost is in the Christian tradition a celebration of the birth of the Church, the new Body of Christ bringing Love in Jesus’ name to the world; bringing peace on earth good will to all. Christians commemorate Pentecost. We tend to celebrate it by wearing red and hanging red in the church and singing songs and hearing sermons about the Holy Spirit.

That is a good thing, but I always think the day gets short shrift. I want it to be a big huge holiday, something akin to a Second Christmas. That’s not really that far fetched. Christmas is about Emmanuel, “God is with us” incarnate in the birth of Jesus. And Pentecost is about Emmanuel, “God is with us” incarnate in the Spirit which fills the Church. It is not about God being with us two thousand years ago in a short thirty or so years life through the physical body of Christ in Jesus, but, about being with us through the Spirit working in the Body of Christ, the Church every single moment since Pentecost! Because of Pentecost, Christ – Emmanuel– is with us always through the Spirit. There is so much hope and joy in that.

Christians since at least the very oldest writings of the New Testament have known that the Church is the very Body of Christ in the world now. I mentioned last week how the Apostle Paul writes about this. Churches – as the very Body of Christ– provide the promise of Christ’s presence. This may seemed belied by the follies and abuses that have been found in the Church. But those worldly flaws are the wounds humanity inflicts upon the Body of Christ and we can consider them no more an imperfection on that Body than the wounds suffered by Jesus at the hands of the Roman Empire. In fact, despite human efforts to hurt the Body of Christ. The Church like Jesus lives on full of the Spirit of God. This has been true ever since the first Pentecost. Church provides the promise of Jesus’ presence and pleases God as a dwelling place.

Pentecost is, then, not just about the birth of something called the Church, but the rebirth (if you will) of the very image of the Body of Christ. That first Pentecost can be understood as the second coming of Christ. As I read a moment ago Acts tells us how two angels told the disciples “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Most of us have heard a number of times in our lives how there’s to be a “Second Coming” and that it’s a second coming of Christ in the future. Many Christians live and aim their lives toward the bringing in of a heavenly day in the future by a single being Jesus. The angels don’t call it the Second Coming in the Ascension story, and I am not going to argue that Christ won’t appear in some other form, on some other day, in some other time, but I do want to point out emphatically that the Body of Christ indisputably returned already . . . on Pentecost. And it was with a big Tah-Doo, with flames and noise and wind . . .a wake-up call, an alarm that Christians are to live and aim their lives toward the bringing in of a heavenly day, every day– NOW– by each of us, all of us being Christ as best we can in each given moment. Pentecost is an alarming fire to take and bring light into the darkness of the world, to bring peace on earth good will to all.

There is you see not only an Easter connection but a Christmas connection to Pentecost. Jesus who ascended can be understood to be God incarnate. The Holy Spirit who descends can be understood to be God incarnate. We call the Church, the effective results of the descending of the Spirit – the Body of Christ. So one way or another in a very real sense there already has been a Second Coming of Christ and it happened at Pentecost– 1,986 or so years ago.

Christ has returned in the form of the Church! That’s good news anyway you slice it. Christian beliefs or doctrines which claim Christ is coming another way at a another time, do not alter that fact that it is still true that the Body of Christ has already returned and is here now. There is lots of promise and hope in that fact.

And if we think about it, that hope is very much like the hope in the Christmas Story. Both are about the hope of God being incarnate on earth in a Way that offers up the very promise of peace on earth good will to all. And like the Christmas story, today’s reading on Pentecost is also about an infant body whose arrival is prophesied, whose birth is co-parented by the Holy Spirit; whose coming is preceded by a light in the sky over a humble building; and angels encourage people who are without Spirit. It’s about God incarnate in a form least expected. At Christmas folks are looking for a warrior king Messiah and what they get is a peasant baby born in a stable. At Pentecost people are also expecting a warrior king Messiah and what they get are peasants crowded in the upper room alone and afraid. Both the infant Jesus and the infant Church incarnate God in unexpected Ways.

Christmas and Pentecost are stories are about the coming of Christ and the promise of hope that God’s work through the Body of Christ offers to the world through humans. Remarkably, almost unbelievably, we are Christ on earth now. Christmas is about the good news which one person, Jesus, offered the world with the work he did as God incarnate, as the body of Christ in one life time. Pentecost ups the ante, it’s a sequel and the loud noise and rush of wind and bursts of flame ought to get out attention, get us out of the building to help rescue ourselves and the world from our lesser ways of being.

See we are the next part of the Christian story of God’s incarnation. We continue the Word of God beyond the pages of the Bible. We are one of the Ways God is still speaking. The power of one in Jesus has been and is being multiplied in his followers. It is now the power of millions and millions.

Pentecost is about the good news which a multitude of people, working as the Body of Christ, offer the world with work they do as God incarnate in a multitude of life times. Pentecost has allowed all of us, every Christian, to not just be members of the Body Christ, but active, dynamic working parts of that Body in every generation since the birth of the infant Church. We can be – and are supposed to be– the continuation of the Spirit-filled stories of Christmas when the Spirit became incarnate in Jesus; and of Pentecost when the Spirit became incarnate in Jesus’ followers.

At Pentecost we need to remember how WE became an integral part of the very Body of Christ. We need to remember we are to act that part in our living, here and out in the rest of the world. We remember and celebrate the beginning of that lineage today where the infant church took up Jesus’ ministry and missions and starts its Spirit-filled move toward bringing peace on earth good will to all. . . . So let me say this: Merry Pentecost– and God bless us everyone.


* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010 and an award winning short essay I wrote in seminary in 2005.
1. I found this story, and was prompted by ideas for this opening section from a sermon by Gross, Denise found on line at “The Pentecost Fire Drill”
2. Telushkin, Joseph, Jewish Literacy, p. 592.