The holy spirit, like tongues of flame, came upon them….
I love to watch the streamers flutter…I like to imagine the tongues of flame here in our midst…because I believe the Spirit is here. Here in this gathering outside as surely as it was on that Pentecost so long ago.
We confess that, as God’s people, we are filled with God’s Spirit…that God’s spirit guides and empowers the church….that God’s Spirit moves among us. But what might that mean for us in Newport, WA on May the 23rd in the year 2021?
Maybe we better start with what it meant to the disciples on that Pentecost day shortly after Jesus died. The first thing we should know is that Pentecost was a Jewish festival that came 50 days after Passover. The Passover observes God’s deliverance of the Jewish people out of slavery to Egypt — And on Pentecost, 50 days later, the Jews gathered to give thanks for God’s continued provision for their life together, even as they set off into the wilderness. They gave thanks for the harvest…for God’s provision of food — and they gave thanks for the Torah — God’s provision of the law which ordered their life together.
So what might it mean to these Jewish believers to see the flames of fire on this Pentecost festival empowering the disciples to share the good news of Jesus in many languages? If you remember the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and their time in the wilderness…you might remember some fire stories. You remember when God called Moses…God appeared in a fiery bush ….and then in the wilderness, God led them by a pillar of fire…and when Moses received the Torah, God descended upon Mount Sinai like a fire. So this Pentecost fire would have resonated profoundly with those who were gathered to observe the Jewish Pentecost….it would have spoken clearly that this was the same God at work — the God of Moses — the God of Israel. And it would have indicated that God was leading once again. God was again leading the people through their wilderness…. delivering them from bondage….and God was providing a new covenant….a new way to order their life together. God was faithful still and providing still….but God’s Spirit was moving beyond the small community of Israelites to people of all languages and races.
That is the Spirit we recognize on this Pentecost day…the Spirit at work among us today — the Spirit that leads us in this wilderness world we live in that so often seems unfamiliar and unsafe. The Spirit that frees us from the things that hold us hostage — our fears, our prejudice, our addictions. The Spirit that orders our life through the power of love that knows no limits.
The spirit of God that burned in the desert for the Israelites to lead them in their life together is the same Spirit that burned for the disciples…and leads us in our life together. So what does it mean to be led by the Spirit …or as Paul says…to “live by the Spirit?” What changes in us when we attend to the Spirit of God in our midst?
Well, according to Paul…normally, when we just live our life and don’t reflect on the Spirit of God moving over the face of creation…breathing life into us all….we are prone to fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Sounds like the evening news, doesn’t it? Or sounds like our own community? Or our own family? It’s funny…sometimes we act like unfaithfulness in marriage and sexual abuse are something new. Or like we were the first to discover drinking and partying and losing control. And how often have you heard someone say that our generation is the first to be this divided, this angry, this corrupt…or that no other generation was as commercial and shallow, always wanting what they couldn’t have. It’s like we forget that Jesus and Paul lived at the time of the Roman Empire. Paul’s list here comes from personal experience. This is what the world around him looks like. Paul wouldn’t have been surprised by the vulgar angry flags that fly down my street. He wouldn’t have been surprised by the state of our nation or the state of our world….he might be taken aback by some of the technological changes…but the character of the people? No. Paul knew that we were in bondage to sin — In every age, our human nature creates division and animosity…in every age there is indulgence and greed…in every age people treat others with contempt when we do not attend to God’s Spirit within us. Among us. In one another.
But Jesus came to invite us to live differently. To forgive us. To deliver us from the evil within and without. To live in God’s kingdom. Jesus came to invite us to attend to God’s Spirit…to recognize who we are…who our neighbor is. Jesus came as God among us…to call our attention to God who is always among us. To call us to a different way of living in the world and being in the world — the way of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Paul calls these the fruit of the Spirit. It is what naturally grows in us when we live in the Spirit. When we stop and listen. Pay attention. Pray. Meditate. When we spend more time paying attention to God’s artistry in creation than we do noticing our neighbors’ faults. When we spend more time praying than we do listening to the news. When we spend at least as much time meditating on God’s presence within us as we spend stewing over our failures and fears. When we attend to God’s presence…the fruit grows. Our love grows…our joy…our peace….our patience…our kindness…our generosity….our faithfulness….our gentleness…our self-control.
What is fascinating to me…is that this is the way of Christ….but it is also the way of folks of all different traditions that attend to the Spirit within and among us. Jesus says…you will know who is truly speaking for God…who is truly living in the kingdom of God…by their fruit. Not by their doctrine. Not by their “right belief”. Not by their moral purity or political views or religious persuasion. You will know them by their fruit.
Here’s the truth — Jesus was never concerned about purity of doctrine and religious conversion.
I wonder on that first Pentecost…if that wasn’t part of the message. The fire of the Spirit was making clear that Spirit’s work wasn’t about converting people or making people part of the Jewish religion through the Torah.. No, the Spirit was on the loose…and it was working through all people..people of every language, from every corner of the world. ….if we would just notice it. If we would just pay attention. It was about recognizing God’s Spirit in all of us, among us all.
At one of our pastors’ gatherings, our speaker challenged us to remember that God was already at work in the world….and most of the time, as a church, we just had to notice it and join in. Sometimes the church acts like we have the corner of God’s Spirit. “We’ve got the spirit, yes we do…We’ve got the spirit, how about you?” So if people want to do God’s work…they should do it through the church.
But the truth is that the Spirit of God isn’t limited to the church….any more than it is limited to the Torah. The Spirit of God is in all creation — in the atoms and that hold us together…in the breath and in the water. The Spirit of God…the spirit of Gentleness and faithfulness…is found in the life and work of atheists and Buddhists and Muslims and Ba’hai and Mormons….the spirit of kindness and generosity…of joy and peace….the Spirit of love and self control… is found in hospitals and schools and workplaces and homes and organizations of all stripes that seek to care for their neighbors.
On this Pentecost Sunday…in Newport, Wa on May 23, 2021 — .the Spirit is on the loose as it always is. The flames of the Spirit are above you and within you. May you attend to God’s movement. Stop and listen. Pay attention. Meditate and pray. Remember you are a beloved child of God and nurture the seeds of God’s extravagant love that they might grow in you into beautiful fruit in your life. Amen.