We’ve Been Through Fire

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
June 9, 2019
Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2: 1-21 (CEB)
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
5There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14Peter 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! 15These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17In 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. 18Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. 20The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes. 21And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

There is a poem by an unknown author that my Mom shared with me many years ago. Her college choir director read it at every concert, and as I grew to love and study music, it was never far from my mind. It reads like this: “For the common things of everyday, God gave man speech in a common way. For the higher things men think and feel, God gave man poets, their words to reveal. For the heights and depths no words can reach, God gave man music, the soul’s own speech.”

Many of us know of the power of music, don’t we? A few days after 9/11, my college held a concert in the campus chapel. When words were not enough, music created the space for reflection and mourning. Music can express our joys and our sorrows, our patriotism, our beliefs. Music often unites us when nothing else can or does. Just imagine thousands of people at an outdoor symphony concert. They represent every conceivable nationality, political party, religious conviction, and personal taste. But they are drawn together by a common devotion to music. If the concert, as often happens, is a great one, the whole audience is electrified by it, they will all share to some degree the same experience. When the concert is over, they will leave silently, moved by an experience too great for words, raised, for the time being, to one of life’s supreme levels of emotion. “For the heights and depths no words can reach…”

This week, as I read again the story of Pentecost; of the gathering of believers infused with the Holy Spirit, who spoke in their own tongues and yet were able to understand all that was being said, I was reminded of this quote. And I thought about the fact that even music has its limits. But, when all else fails, where everything else falls short, “For the heights and depths no words can reach,” God has given us his Very Spirit, “the soul’s own speech.” And that is what we remember and celebrate on Pentecost Sunday.

God has given us the Holy Spirit, his very presence with us. It is the Spirit that lives within us. It is the Spirit that is at work all around us. It is the Spirit which undergirds and strengthens us to serve God in the world. And it is the Spirit that unifies us despite all of our differences. We live in a world in which forces are at work each day dividing us and threatening to destroy us. Every week the news seems to grow more urgent; the Middle East is a hotbed of sectarian violence. There is an ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Europe stands perched on the cliff of economic doom, threatening to tumble over at any moment. But the story of Pentecost is that when all else fails—all the sanctions and austerity measures, all the peace-negotiations, and non-violent protests—Christians can still have hope. And that’s because all who follow the Messiah are united by the power of the Holy Spirit, which rises above all other powers of this world.

When everything else in the world seeks to divide, Pentecost reminds us that Christians are people who are drawn together by a common devotion. “They were all together in one place,” our reading tells us. They were a group of people who probably had nothing else in common save this one thing: they loved Jesus. They were all there, their differences overcome, for the simple reason that they adored Christ. And Christians have been drawn together for the same reason ever since. Even now! And it is because of that bond in Christ Jesus our Lord that we can have hope.

It has been said that Pentecost is the “big bang” event that creates the Christian Church and puts God’s saving acts through Jesus Christ into motion. It also explains how a small group of frightened, puzzled, and largely uneducated men and women could so quickly become a force to be reckoned with all across the known world! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church is born and is given the authority to proclaim the good news of the Risen Lord to the very same people who had put him to death!

And good news is exactly what this world needs, is it not? As I watched the news the week, I saw stories of murders and abductions, infidelity and suicide. When I gathered with some fellow clergy on Tuesday morning for coffee as I have for the past ten years, I learned that one had been victimized by robbery over the weekend, and another’s mother-in-law had just been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. When the ways and words of the world fail to offer comfort amid such atrocities, the Holy Spirit brings a message of hope. Despite the incomprehensible Babel of humanity, the power of the Holy Spirit is able to unify the voice of Good News so that it is heard above all.

And sure enough, on that first Pentecost day, thousands of people heard the message of the gospel loud and clear. And they received it with joy! But, it should hardly be surprising that to some, what the apostles were saying sounded like the words of people who had too much to drink! So Peter says, “These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!” I love what the modern theologian, N.T. Wright says about this, “again and again in the work of the church, to this day, there are always plenty who declare that we are wasting our time and talking incomprehensible nonsense. Equally, some Christians have been so concerned to keep up safe appearances and to make sure they are looking like ordinary, normal people that they would never, under any circumstances, have been accused of being drunk.”

Could it be that part of the challenge of the Christian faith and of this passage of scripture in particular is the question: “Do people know that things are going on, that the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing here at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church?” Do people know this congregation as a transforming center for their community? Are we doing things with such enthusiasm and energy that the nay-sayers might even comment or think to themselves, “Those people are full of new wine!”? If we don’t make space for the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through our lives and the life of this congregation, then our words and actions are empty and meaningless like so many other things in this world. But undergirded by the Spirit of God, we can rise above all of the jumbled mess of this world with a message of a Savior, a message of love and hope for all people.

I’m afraid it’s too easy for us to dismiss the story of Pentecost as a “one-time thing.” The Holy Spirit came in the rush of wind and tongues of flame; thousands of people were converted and thus, the church began. “God said it. I believe it. And that settles it.” But if nothing else, the book of Acts is strong testimony to the filling of the Holy Spirit as an ongoing gift, not just a one-time event. We know that we need the power of the Spirit. We know that nothing can change this world but some intrusion by a power greater than anything the world itself contains. And the thing is, the church has to constantly present opportunities for the Spirit to break through, for that power to be made manifest; otherwise, our voice will just get lost in the shuffle. Pentecost challenges churches to live into the promise that Christ is always present, alive, and at work in the world.

There was a praise song that became quite popular a little over a decade ago, and the bridge of the song goes like this: “We’ve been through fire, we’ve been through rain. We’ve been refined by the power of your name. We’ve fallen deeper in love with you, you’ve burned the truth on our lips.” As we celebrate Pentecost 2019, I pray that like those first believers, we will be refined by the tongues of flame and the power of the Holy Spirit. If we will just be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit all around us, the results are sure to be amazing! People will have to stand up and take notice. Perhaps at first because they think we’re crazy or “filled with new wine.” But at least they’re noticing, and God can work with even that. And the great good news of Pentecost is that God is still busy in this world. So we have a choice today. We can either continue about our own ways, simply a part of the everyday mess and muddle of life or, undergirded by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can join together in God’s work and share the good news of our Risen Savior! If the task seems a bit overwhelming, just remember the story of Pentecost: “for the heights and depths no words can reach,” God gave us his Very Spirit, “the soul’s own speech.”

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