Flames Becoming Fire
A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 24, 2015
I really like this town . . .a lot. I say that even though I arrived from Florida in November of 2013 before the winter that would not end, when I found myself amazingly ecstatic whenever the thermometer read above 20.
That first winter I lived alone with our dog Seeley Booth while Nancy finished up her job in Florida. That long, long winter it was so cold that I did not open the windows until . . . I think . . . like, June. There was no fan in the kitchen of the rental house so without ventilation I set off the smoke alarm on regular basis while cooking. I like to think it was not because I am a bad cook, but because the siren of a smoke alarm is the traditional sound of my people cooking. But Seeley Booth, the dog . . . despite what he may think . . . is not one of my people and he did understand or like the noise at all. Even today all I have to do is put a pan on the stove in our new house and he shivers and cowers against me in fear of the alarm – the sound of my people.
And you know what? While I could, I suppose, learn to cook without smoke, I am not sure I want to . . . for Nancy’s sake. See I like to think I am treating her like a goddess when I serve up burnt offerings.
Today is Pentecost, it’s celebration of a biblical event, which like my cooking, involves fire. In what is considered a story about the birth of the church, we are told that
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. (Act 2:2-3 NRS)
I am fascinated with the “tongues of fire” part of the story. There are all kinds of things in this story, but the fire part leaps up and “sparks” my interest. And why is it fire that the Spirit shows up like, apparently fanned by wind? What’s up with that?
And as soon as the fire shows up we are told that these first Church members start speaking other languages. How is fire relevant to that? Why wouldn’t wind be able to do that alone” Or why not rain, symbolic water to baptize the church ministry? Like Jesus ministry began when he was baptized. Or you know, why not alphabet soup? Or foreign language lesson scrolls? Or even tongues of cows or other animals. These all seem more relevant to language than fire, and they are all certainly within the realm of possibilities for God in the story to send down and cause languages to spew forth. But instead the story has God send something like wind-aided tongues of fire.
And I know punning is not well loved in all quarters, but I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the author of Luke is at one level using the “tongues” of fire image as playful pun on the multi-“tongued” speech that blesses the Jesus Followers in the story. 1. But more than a pun on “tongues of fire,” the image of fire itself is intended as an important metaphor offering us layers of truth. For instnace, the Bible is full of theophanies – a fancy word for encounters with God. One common image in theophonies is fire. We’ve talked about this a little before. God shows up in fire and fire-like things. Moses encounters a bush on fire and lightening on mountain tops. The Israelites walk through the desert following a pillar of fire. God sends fire on Elijah’s water-drenched altar. There are coals in Isaiah’s vision of God. And of course, Jesus tells his followers “You are the light of the world” at a time when light came in the form of flames in lamps and torches. And one of the last recorded Easter appearances of Jesus has him tending to a beach fire. Fire in the Bible very often symbolizes God’s presence. So in our Pentecost story we can hear the fire image as conveying to us that Pentecost involved the presence of God.
And the symbol of fire allows us to also hear that God touches and is burning within each of the Jesus followers– that the Church is consumed with the fire of God’s Spirit, of God’s presence. Christians are meant to be aflame with God and experienced by as others as such– we can hear that as going on the Pentecost story.
There is a popular notion I really like about a Pentecost origin to mitres, the ceremonial head-wear bishops and popes don on important occasions. Those hats, if you have never seen one, are sort of like a triangle that rounds up to a peak like a flame. The popular notion, the folklore, is that they are meant to represent the single tongues of flame that appeared aloft upon each of the Christians at Pentecost. That may be more legend than historic truth about the mitre, but it is a cool image, especially when you see a picture of a gathering of Bishops and think of all those mitres as flames. 2 What you get is an image of a moving living fire that grows with each new mitre-wearing-Christian who joins the gathering.
And whether the mitre was originally meant to represent such a flame and gathering of flames, that image of single tongues of flames joining to become a moving living fire fits the Christian call. We are, in a metaphoric sense to join together and be a raging fire of God doing goodly work. That’s one of the points of the symbolic tongues of fire image the Pentecost story is trying to convey. Symbolically we can join together like so many dynamic tongues of flames in fire to: light up the world for the blind; warm up the world for the cold; cook food for the hungry; be a blazing beacon of hope; have burning compassion and love for others; we can even consume the old unloving ways of the world to allow the phoenix of new life in Christ to rise from such ashes.
There’s even more modern fire wordplay. We can play off English words for the source of daylight and warmth, the “sun” and, Jesus as God’s “Son.” We can imagine that our flames have a double meaning that make us son-like, reflecting son-shine. This supports the ancient Biblical image that we are now as church the heavenly Body of Christ, the second coming – if you will– of Christ in the world.
Kinda fun stuff– and truth too. When our sparks of God are fanned by the wind of the Spirit to become flames of love. We become like Jesus in the world.
Beyond the various wordplay and symbolism there is also a common thread of mystery and awe between both fire and God. Humans even with all our science and technology do not fully understand fire, and we sure as heck do not fully understand God. Somehow there is a greater-ness that sparks life and creation, but at the end of day we cannot explain it. Fire and God are experienced as mystery.
The Bible and its stories, especially the parables of Jesus and later the parable of his followers, lend themselves to finding meaningful imagery in the New Testament. The Pentecost story’s short little phrase “tongues of fire” is certainly an example of this.
But there is one meaningful image meant to be invoked that we moderns cannot find without some help. We have to do a little research to put the phrase in the context of the Greco-Roman and Jewish Ancient Near East culture to find it. It turns out that way back then fire was a metaphor in writings for “the physiological experiences of prophetic inspiration.” 3.
In other words, fire was understood to represent in writings like our Lectionary text, the combined inflamed and agitated state “that occurred when the spirit of prophesy awakened and elevated the prophets ability to speak.” 4. We would not ordinary think that hearing the tongues of fire reference, but the original audience of the story most likely would. It’s about the excited state prophets have when they address issues related to their calling from God.
It’s about the fire from heaven lighting up prophetic vision, throwing light on new understandings of God and God’s calls to us. As the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary puts it:
Luke’s symbolism of the Spirit’s fiery presence not only signifies the power to speak the word of God effectively, but also to think about God in fresh and “inspired” ways. 5
This facet of the Pentecost story echos in the United Church of Christ’s motto, “God is still speaking.” If we listen we can hear fresh new ways and action God speaks to us to follow and to do.
So Pentecost is not just about Christians getting the Spirit and inflamed with passion and compassion to become as I suggested, the second coming of the Body of Christ in world, but it is also about being awakened as that Body to imagine and re-imagine God’s role in the world with “divinely inspired intellect.” The commentary notes this leads to true knowledge of not just God, but the true meaning of Scripture, “to interpret the biblical word after the mind of God.” 6.
You may recall that in the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch which we considered at the start of this month, Phillip interprets scripture for the soon to be convert. And when the Ethiopian Eunuch asked what was to keep him from being baptized, Phillip answer with action, he baptized him. Phillip did this in spite of the fact parts of the Old Testament purity laws prohibited eunuchs from being brought into the fold. Phillip and the early church were “think[ing] about God in fresh and inspired ways.”
I also mentioned a few months ago how Jesus did this type of fresh and inspired thinking. One example I gave was Jesus directly challenging interpretations of the Bible passage about an eye for an eye. Jesus makes it clear that his way leaves no room for revenge or retribution. Jesus also expanded the meaning of love your neighbor to include love your enemies, and he elevated the commands to love others and love of God above every other commandment. Jesus’ fresh and inspired way of thinking about God was that love rules!
Love trumps all unloving laws and rules and thinking about God and our responses to God in creation. That’s what the Ethiopian Eunuch story was about, and that’s actually what Pentecost is about.
To those who jeered at the Christians doing wonders on Pentecost, Peter quotes an amazing equalizing text from the prophet Joel who as a part of Jewish tradition in the Bible also re-imagined fresh and inspiring ways to think about God. As Peter pointed out, Joel claimed God said I “ will pour out my Spirit upon ALL flesh . . .” “ALL flesh” . . . not just those who think and believe as we do, but everyone get the Spirit of God.
Peter goes on to make it clear that this applies to both men and women by quoting Joel’s assertion that “sons AND . . . daughters shall prophesy . . .” Females are recognized in a patriarchal culture as having the gift of prophesy. They are equal in the eyes of God–and Joel and at the very start of the early Church! And slaves – of both genders–are too, “even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
Pretty cool stuff! See, the fire of the Holy Spirit from the very start of the Church on Pentecost has been burning down old barriers to Jesus’ Way and to God’s love – even as it has also been a flame lighting the way, and providing food and heat and protection and warmth to others– and of course a burning passion for love of creation, most especially humans.
On this Pentecost Sunday –and every day– may we continue to add our flames to the Holy Spirit’s fire and burn with love for God and God in all creation, to have a burning passion for humans.
1. Interpretation, p 30, see also, Feasting on the Word, commentary p. 3
3. New Interpreter’s Bible on Acts p 54
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