May 20, 2018

2018 May20

Pentecost Sunday - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

At the 10am service the children will enact the Pentecost Pageant, telling the story of Pentecost with costumes and great enthusiasm. Just like in the Christmas Pageant in which the littlest kids have headband halos so they can play angels, the littlest ones will have headband flames to show how the Holy Spirit came upon the people like Tongues of Fire at the Day of Pentecost.  


Fire is fascinating, and I was one of those kids who would light things on fire for fun. Fortunately, I never burned down any structures or started wildfires. Forasmuch as I really didn’t know what I was doing, everything was pretty controlled.  


A quick lesson about fire, The Bible and Christianity:

  • The most famous reference to fire is probably Moses and the Burning Bush.  You will remember that God spoke to Moses via the bush, which was not consumed by the fire. So, fire is one of the images of divine presence. The candle behind me and in front of the aumbry signifies that Christ is present in the consecrated elements inside the aumbry – fire as a symbol of divine presence. When the sacrament is not in the aumbry, the candle is not lit.
  • In Luke’s Gospel, John proclaimed that, Jesus ‘will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’.
  • The kids (will illustrate at the 10am service) have just illustrated the Tongues of Fire which descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. The Tongues of Fire symbolized the descent of the Holy Spirit.  

I’m so Trinitarian in my theology that my three examples are one each for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…purely coincidentally. But it shows that fire is a symbol of God, the presence of God and the power of God.


But fire hasn’t always been a positive thing within Christian circles.

  • Fire has also been a symbol of the devil and the fires of hell.  
  • So many of us speak of preachers of hellfire and damnation, and we don’t speak well of them.

There seems to have been a late medieval swapping of fire from a symbol of the Holy Spirit to a symbol and tool of Satan in art and from the pulpit. Christians like certainty and stability, so fire may be too unpredictable to be a safe symbol for the highly controlled system that the Medieval Church was trying to impose. Instead, the Medieval Church employed fire for the public execution of heretics and witches. One commentator described the use of fire as a symbol of evil as an “evacuation of a theology of the spirit for many centuries prior to 20th-century Pentecostalism.”


Understanding fire from a science perspective has allowed us to put knowledge to the experience of fire that people have known for tens-of-thousands of years, knowledge that underscores the experiences that led to the positive and negative associations within the Church that I just described.


I asked the Fire Chief to tell me what his favorite aspects of fire are. Some thoughtful theology came from his responses.

 

•“Fire can be harnessed for amazing good (food, light, power, health).” Chief Olson is definitely right.

 

Though, I think we take that for granted. When you cook, do you really think about the flame being generated in order to heat your pan which cooks your food? When I interviewed the Fire Chief about his passion for wood-fired pizza for my radio show, you can tell that the harnessing of fire for good was important…cooking over a wood fire is not so much about the control of the fire, it’s a delicate ballet that humans have danced with fire for a very long time for their mere survival.


•“If misused, deliberately or by lack of thoughtful consideration, fire can be horribly destructive.”

 

Of course, the Fire Chief is going to ensure we hear that message. We here at St. Stephen’s do not need a lesson in the misuse of fire. On the night of January 24, 1970, fire nearly destroyed this building. Thanks to SLO Fire being only 2 blocks away at the time, most of our historic building was saved. Parallel the Chief’s comments about the misuse of fire with the Church, and we can smell the burning flesh of the Martyrs of The Reformation, witnesses to fire’s horrible destruction.

 

•“Fire  is a source of unbelievable light and energy, yet it takes no defined  shape (unlike a flashlight or lamp).”


I could write an entire sermon on this aspect of fire. But let’s briefly reflect on the image of God: At Easter, we light the Paschal Candle which represents the Light of Christ, and The Pentecost Tongues of Fire which represent the Holy Spirit, are without shape – allowing both to touch all people.  God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omni-gendered, omni-racial, omni-sexual, but God is also without definition. By that I don’t mean that God has put on a few extra pounds and shouldn’t be an Abercrombie & Fitch model. God without definition alludes to the unknowability of God, that we can only describe God through analogy or metaphor – we have to give God shape to strengthen our understanding.

 

•“When  burning in its most pure state, fire is almost completely invisible in  normal light, yet that is when it produces the greatest amount of energy  and the least amount of undesired byproducts (smoke, soot, gases).”

 

Think back to the Letter of Paul to the Colossians, referring to Jesus as:  

 

“…the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.”  

 

This is not to say that Jesus is an undesired byproduct of The Invisible Godhead. Rather, we re-live the Iconoclast Controversy of the 8C & 9C during which one side said that any image of God, including Jesus, would be an inaccurate depiction of the Invisible God. The other side claimed that Jesus is God incarnate as visible matter. Therefore, icons do not depict the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh, which is mortal…but, according to some, flesh is undesirable – again, for another sermon.  


Both The Bible and the Fire Chief give us plenty of Fire to reflect on. Is fire good or bad? Is the symbol of fire good or bad for our spiritual journey?  If you saw the Presiding Bishop preaching at the Royal Wedding this morning, he spoke passionately about the importance of fire and quoted French Jesuit Pierre de Chardin that fire is one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history, and that

 

if humanity ever harnesses the
energy of love, it will be the
second time in history that we
will have discovered fire.

 

If the fire in our faith is God’s love, then it’s definitely good.  

 

In the Church, we are close to
harnessing fire again, because
we know the Love of God.

 

Adrian Hastings, from whom I stole the opening summary of fire and The Bible, states one more thing in his commentary on Fire in the Church:

 

“Fire speaks of the passion and unexpectedness of prophecy, of uncontrolled enthusiasm, of sudden violent movements of conversion and revival, of all the things which the first Christian Pentecost experience hinted at…The Tongues of Fire symbolized the descent of the Holy Spirit, transforming them into courageous, outgoing evangelists able to talk in a multitude of languages and convert a multitude of listeners.”  

 

(I think that’s basically what the Fire Chief said, right?)


By our Baptism, we have been given a share of the Pentecost experience of the Apostles. Our participation in the Eucharist is our weekly transformation into courageous, outgoing evangelists. The Sacrament itself is the outward and visible sign of the Invisible God who is the Fire of the Bush, the Light of Christ and the Tongue of Fire. Let us harness the amazing good of this source of unbelievable light and  energy, pure yet ever-present – let us harness these Tongues of Fire  that have been given to us, and let BE courageous, outgoing evangelists  who prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams. transparent in front

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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