From Ashes to Fire
Today is a special day in the Christian calendar. It is Pentecost Sunday. It is celebrated in a world that moves from fire to ashes. But Pentecost comes to transform this world. That is why we now move from ashes to fire.
The journey that reaches its final destination today began on Ash Wednesday. There we became reacquainted with our mortality. “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” as the words accompanying the imposition of ashes on our forehead reminded us. With the mark of death on our forehead we began our journey. It led us into the wilderness with Jesus. It introduced us to the strenuous demands of discipleship, in which we learned we have to take up our own cross if we want to follow Jesus. It then brought us before the authorities that arrested, tried and condemned Jesus to death. We stood and gazed at the cross. But then it drew us forward to the empty tomb, where we heard the witnesses testify that Jesus is not dead, but is risen. We then accompanied the disciples for forty days as they learned from the resurrected Jesus, until he was taken up into heaven before their eyes. Before he left them he told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit, about whom they heard it once said: John baptized with water, but the one who comes after him will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
It comes to us today. The fire descends, not to incinerate us, not to turn us into ash, but to set our hearts aflame. It comes to us today. The winds swirl around us, not to scatter us like leaves, but to lift us up and carry us out into the world that the Holy Spirit will transform.
Pentecost is about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But who or what is the Holy Spirit? On Ascension Day we heard Jesus’ instructions to the apostles before he was lifted up into heaven: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The language that Jesus uses here provides one clue: The Holy Spirit is the “power by which God accomplishes the divine will.”
That is certainly true, as long as we don’t overlook the fact that this power is inseparable from God’s presence. The Holy Spirit is not a proxy for God. In the Holy Spirit, God is really there, insofar as the Spirit is God’s own Spirit. For this reason, it’s not improper to speak of a twofold coming of God into our world. Only today God comes not in the form of a single individual, that is, in the incarnation of the Word, in the person of Jesus Christ, but in a diffuse abundance.
At first, it comes upon all the disciples gathered together in this room. It is represented in a tongue of fire that rests upon each of the disciples, enabling each of them to speak in a language not his own. But it is not limited to the disciples. “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” as Peter interprets what is happening with the help of the prophet Joel.
This “all flesh” is represented here. There are devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. They hear sounds coming from the room where the disciples were staying. Curious, they draw closer. More and more begin to join them. They look at each other in wonder and amazement. Is this language? Yes, only not one, but several languages. “Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6). What did they hear? The wonders of God. Those no doubt farther from the source of the sound, for whom the voices are still inarticulate, conclude only that the men speaking are drunk.
We cannot be too quick to blame them. After all, it’s not every day that this sort of thing happens. What are we to make of it? There is much we can say about this important event, but today I want to focus our attention on two effects of the Holy Spirit as revealed in our lesson. The first is this: The Spirit brings together. And the second is this: The Spirit brings salvation.
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans and Arabs—these are only a few of the nationalities or people groups mentioned who hear the word of God spoken in their own language. At least in one sense ancient Jerusalem here resembles modern cities. It’s a melting pot of different peoples. In fact, difference is as old as human civilization itself. Our cities have always been made up of different tribes. And tribes always, to a greater or lesser degree, have always existed in tension with one another. When these tensions are stretched to the breaking point, we then have tribalism.
Tribalism is a term used to characterize America today. We are a divided nation. You belong to this tribe; I belong to that tribe. You don’t understand my language, even though I am speaking English; I don’t understand your language, even though you are speaking English. The fact is that we Americans tune one another out, when each one of us hears words that mark the other as belonging to a tribe that our tribe stands against. After the election of Donald Trump, pop psychologists told us during the holiday seasons to avoid political discussion at our large family gatherings. Communication breaks down, stereotypes are reinforced, bigotry justifies itself, and we remain bitterly divided.
Let us make one more observation in this vein. The nationalities or people groups represented in our lesson are made up of black, brown and white people. They are there together in one place to hear the Word of God. In our nation, black, brown and white people are divided against each other. We had only to witness the protests in the streets of Minneapolis and other major cities this past week, we have only to hear the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, and Eric Garner to realize that that these painful divisions exist and are tearing us apart.
But the Spirit brings together. This is the good news that the church has to announce to the divided nations of this world, not least America. The Spirit overcomes tribalism. We said last time that the church means to be an alternative to the world. The church is a sign and harbinger of a kingdom in which a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, will one day stand before the throne of God and worship the lamb together.
We as the church cannot lose sight of this truth. If we do, we risk undermining our own foundation and turning into something that is indistinguishable from the world around us. Let us then open ourselves up to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who does not divide us, but rather brings us together.
We move to the second effect of the Spirit. That is, the Spirit brings salvation. Peter comes out and explains to the different peoples gathered there what is happening. He appeals to a prophecy in the Old Testament, in the book of Joel. There we find described a day when the Spirit is poured out on all people. There are dreams, visions and prophecies. And then there are portents and signs in nature. All this culminates in the free offer of salvation: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Let us recall that before his ascension Jesus tells the disciples: “You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Note that the Spirit enables the disciples to witness to Jesus Christ, because salvation is to be found in him.
John Calvin gives a good explanation of this connection between the Spirit and Jesus. He asks: who is Jesus for us apart from the Spirit? The story of a Galilean peasant teacher, his band of followers, his running afoul of the authorities, his execution, his ongoing influence after his death. These would be nothing but cold, inert facts of history, far removed from us, and of little or no significance for us. But the Holy Spirit brings to us what is separated from us by space and time. The Holy Spirit reveals what this story means to us and to the whole world today. And most importantly, the Holy Spirit applies to us its saving power.
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. It can’t be that simple, can it? Several years ago, when I was trying to learn how the financial markets work, a trading coach told me: Trading is simple, but it isn’t easy. Maybe we can say the same about receiving God’s free offer of salvation. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Why? What do I mean?
Some have said to me: “pastor, I have done too many bad things in my life.” Or others have said to me: “pastor, too many bad things have happened to me.” There’s a certain seduction in the despair one hears in these statements. The monk Thomas Merton wrote about the seduction of despair. You know that people have succumbed to it when they turn their back on all help from anyone else so they can taste the rotten fruit of knowing themselves to be lost. Despair is actually the outworking of pride—a pride that has become so great that it opts for the misery of damnation rather than accept salvation from the hands of God. Despair says: “I’d rather die in my pride, than accept help from God.” It’s a tragic place to be, not ultimately because of the bad things done or suffered, whatever they may be, but because it’s totally needless. Jesus Christ occupied that place for us all. The Spirit evacuates that place for us all. No one ever has to be there. In fact, we may say that there is no longer any “there” there.
The opposite of pride is humility. The truly humble man or woman cannot despair, because in him or her there is no longer any self-pity. We see here how pride is a curse that leads to death. Humility, however, leads to life. It allows us to say “yes” to the salvation that the Spirit of God brings, it allows us to say “yes” to the community that the Spirit of God wants to make us a part of. It allows us to accept the other who is different from us, whom God wants to bring into our lives. Let us be found among the humble. And let us open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit and all the gifts that the Spirit wants to give us. Amen.