St James Church • Pentecost A• Tobias Haller BSG
I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them.
Given the options for the readings appointed today, I have chosen to omit the account of the descent of the Spirit from Acts. This passage describes the day on which the Spirit blew through the windows of the house where the apostles were huddled together, appearing as a flame on each, and giving them the gift of miraculous speech. I omit this reading today in part because the story is so familiar, but more importantly so that we can focus on the readings from Ezekiel, Corinthians, and the Gospel. For today I want us to reflect together not about the story of the Spirit’s descent, but its purpose; to focus not on the what, but the why.
Why did God’s Holy Spirit descend in tongues as of fire? Why, after all, does anyone light a fire? Well, might one do so for warmth, for light, as a signal, to clear a field of a rank overgrowth, or destroy a pile of refuse? Or to create a fire-break in a forest or field, to prevent a wild-fire from spreading? In short, what is the use of fire? If we can answer that question, we will gain a better understanding of God’s purpose in sending the Holy Spirit down to earth — a Spirit sent not as a showy display like a fireworks celebration, but sent with a purpose to do God’s work, not to entertain, but to empower.
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In his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul catalogues the uses of the purposeful Spirit. And these uses reflect the fire of the Spirit at its most fruitful and productive. These are the gifts of the Spirit that nourish and build up the church itself, making it grow strong. This is like the fire that bakes the bread and cooks the food that nourishes us; the fire that warms our spiritual home, the church in which we gather; the flame that gives light, that drives away the darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s presence, and serves as a light to our feet so we may follow in God’s way — — as it has from the days the children of Israel followed that pillar of fire in the nights of their Exodus. The Holy Spirit is called the “Comforter” and here we find the gifts that give comfort — which doesn’t mean “make cozy” but “make strong” — to fortify. The Spirit provides gifts that feed, that protect, that enlighten and encourage. And, as Saint Paul assures us, though there are varieties of gifts, the source is the same, the one Holy and purposeful Spirit of God.
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But what about the other side of fire? For in addition to its comforting ability to provide us food, warm shelter and light, fire can also be used to burn. Fire has two sides: it can build up but it can also tear down. This other side of fire — the destructive side — is reflected in the spiritual mandate described in our other readings. It is the power to find out evil and to expose it to the light and heat of God’s forgiving and yet all-consuming love. This fire burns up and removes all that is detestable, the prophet Ezekiel assures us. This fire is so powerful it can change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, like the refiner’s fire that takes hard, lumpy and unpromising ore and melts out the precious, ductile gold. This is a fire turning us towards obedience and away from reckless wandering, calling us together like a great flaming lighthouse beacon, assembling us from all the places to which we have been scattered, turning our backs upon our foresworn foolish ways, so that we face the light — and the shadows of darkness lie behind us, and we gather together around the cleansing flame, to unite our transformed and refined hearts with a spirit to obey and love the Lord our God.
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This power is reflected in the gift Jesus gives to his disciples, as he breathes on them and opens their hearts to receive the soon-coming Spirit. In doing this he gives them the power to forgive sins.
The fact is, sin makes good kindling. It burns easily. And the important thing about the burning of sin is where you stand in relation to the fire! If you are caught up in your sins, if you try to hold on to them, you’ll be burned up with them; and we all know the name of the place where that fire burns, the place where soul and body are destroyed. If you’ve ever wondered why hell is so hot, it’s because all the dry wood of sin burning there so easily.
But Jesus offers us the better way, the way out of the destructive fire, so that the sins can be burnt up apart from us, burnt up like the discarded rubbish and trash they are, as we stand free and clear, able to see our past debts cancelled and forgiven, and reduced to ash, never again to harm us.
You know, there used to be a custom — it may still be done this way — that when churches took out loans so as to construct their buildings, when the loan was finally paid off they would have a mortgage-burning ceremony. The fire would consume the paid-off debt as if it never was. The fire of the Spirit can do the same with sin — Christ gave his church the power to do this, to cancel the sins of its members, and make them as if they never were, burnt up like a bill that has been paid off, or better yet, cancelled! We do often speak of a cancelled debt as having been “forgiven.” And surely Jesus calls us to remember this when we pray the prayer he taught us, as we ask God to forgive our debts even as we forgive the debts others owe to us. To forgive a debt doesn’t mean that it’s been paid off, after all — it means it has been set aside, the slate on which the debt was tallied wiped clean, the bills dropped into the fireplace, as the one to whom the debt was owed says, ‘Forget about it.’ That’s what forgiveness means.
This is good and great news, that there is a way to defeat sin, and Christ has committed it to his church. It is the flame of forgiveness that burns sin away, cleansing and purifying and giving life. The original Pentecost — not the one in Acts, but the one God commanded Moses to celebrate — came to be commemorated as the day on which God gave the law from Mount Sinai. But the Pentecost that we celebrate is not about the giving of the law but the giving of the Spirit: for the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. Some think the way to fight sin is to keep battering people with how bad they are, reminding them how sinful they are, beating them over the head with the law, like a creditor who keeps sending you past due notices. That is the way of the law.
But the way that Jesus shows us is the way of forgiveness, the way of setting sin aside. He takes all those bills and past due notices and drops them in the incinerator of forgiveness, the flame that burns urged on by the breath of our Lord, as he gently blows on that flame to burn up the debts of past sins. That is the way of the Spirit. And it is the way God means us to follow.
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These then are the powerful uses of the fiery Spirit, God’s great gift to the church. It is the beacon that calls us together, reassembling us from wherever we have wandered. It is the giver of the comforting gifts of nourishment, enlightenment, and protection, the gifts that build up the church. It is the fire that gives light to discern the way, to reveal our faults, and then consume them — to liberate us from their power, as we lay our sins upon the fire of God’s love and they are consumed and removed and forgiven forever —
— even as we set aside the sins of others against ourselves, allowing the flame of forgiveness to consume all we might otherwise hold against each other.
May we always respond to the beacon that summons us, rejoice in the light that renews us, be comforted with the warmth of the flame that enfolds us, and be freed from bondage of sin by the promised gift of the purposeful Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+