A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
The Feast of Pentecost
June 5, 2022
When I was 12 I lit a beach on fire. I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. I was bored and without playmates and I found myself for one reason or another at the small lagoon near our home, meandering along the beach when the dry grass at the shores edge caught my eye. I had some matches in my pocket and without wondering whether or not I should, or why, I was soon engaged in the ever so risky practice of lighting small fires among the grass, watching with curiosity as it spread slowly outward from a single match. When the ring of fire was getting too wide, I would quickly stamp it out and then start another. It didn’t take long for the inevitable to happen, one of these small fires spread too quickly and I was not able to stamp it out. As it spread wider than I could contain, the flames chewing down the grasses in every direction, a sense of panic welled up within me and I fled. Hailing a passing vehicle I confessed that “someone” had started a fire and that the fire department should be called. And then I pressed on toward home, certain that my life was over. My father being a seasonal wildfire fighter with the Forest Service, and someone who dressed as Smokey the Bear in our annual Fourth of July parades, I could already hear the lecture I was going to get at home…I was about to learn in person the truth that “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” But the alarms never sounded, the lecture never came, and later I discovered that the fire had burned itself out after about 5 feet. While my fevered adolescent brain saw a roaring inferno, it had only been a small blaze that never actually spread.
But, my imagination wasn’t all wrong. After all, we know that the nature of fire is to spread. In describing the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, Norman Maclean tells how as a raging inferno chased a doomed crew of smokejumpers up a ridge, the foreman, out ahead of his baffled and terrified crew, lit a second fire in the dry grass, entered into the flame and laid down in the cinders and ash it left behind, a safe space from the rapidly approaching conflagration. He knew that the larger fire behind needed tinder to burn, and the safest thing for him to do was to clear a space where the fire could not burn, in essence, fighting fire with fire.
Fire needs to spread.
And this morning we hear the story in Acts of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, as divided tongues of fire, gifting them with languages not their own, and how the fire of that moment spread to those listening, from different tribes and cultures, all in their own languages, in utterances and speech they could understand. The fire of the Spirit spread in that moment, sharing a good news that touched all people, slaves and free, men and women, from all around the known world. This was, according to tradition, the birth of the Church, a movement begun in that moment, amidst diversity and difference, and extending over the millennia to now. As it spread, it brought with it gifts that empowered people to do great things.
In this morning’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples, his soon to be apostles, (that is, soon to be those who are sent out to spread the fire of God’s good news) he told them that those who believe in him would not only do the kinds of things he did in his ministry, but that they would “do greater works than these”. Empowered by the fire of God’s life-giving Spirit, the early church had this promise that they would do works even surpassing the works Jesus did in their presence. Fire not only needs to spread, but given the right conditions, it tends to grow both in power and size.
This morning that image of fire, the power of a church kindled with passion for spreading the good news of God’s love, of taking up the ministry of Jesus and enfleshing it with our lives burning with zeal to heal what is broken, to cast out the demons of intolerance and injustice, to proclaim peace and share love, feels at moments out of reach and at others out of touch. This morning, the church and the world it exists within is beleaguered and exhausted; the fire, if it was ever there, is spent, and, in hard numbers, the church in the west is shrinking, not growing. The greater things that Jesus says we will do appear to be behind us, or have not yet manifested, and we are tired. With more than two years of pandemic, the constant specter of death and fear, the growing threats of authoritarianism, and the depressing reality as we watch the constant whittling away in our country of civil rights, human rights, and equality, seem to suck the very oxygen out of whatever embers were left. We have watched even just this year as blow after blow lands on the bodies of children, migrants, women, people of color, and on the bodies of our LGBTQ siblings. Those who yearn to see the church engaged in the work of justice, who yearn to see the Body of Christ standing with and protecting the least, the lost, and those on the margins, can feel their throats beginning to crack as they blow on and fan whatever embers remain. So, what are we to do?
Well, to start, we must pray. We turn again not to the efforts and energy within us, but, toward the Holy Spirit whose very presence is promised again and again, as an inexhaustible fuel for the fire of ministry. It is important to notice in the gospel today, that the giving of the Holy Spirit is framed in far different language than the almost chaotic and dramatic story found in Acts. Here Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the passage that follows directly after his own words of assurance, words we often read at funerals and indeed which some of us heard only yesterday at the funeral here at St. John’s for Dick Slade. Jesus comforts his disciples and us saying “I go to prepare a place for you…in my father’s house there are many dwelling places…” The disciples can see the direction Jesus’ story is taking, the end seems almost an inevitability, and the community out of which John’s gospel was written was one in deep turmoil and division, families splitting over the gospel, households broken, lives ruined, and the followers of Jesus’ way of love exhausted and in fear. And, then again, following on these promises of God’s enduring love, Jesus pledges to the disciples that they will be empowered by his Spirit to do great things, and again offers these words of encouragement – “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” In another part of John, just as Jesus is about to depart from his disciples, he leans in and breathes on them, saying “receive the Holy Spirit.” Here we get a picture of God’s Spirit not as a roaring inferno, but as the gentle breath blown softly on the dying embers, coaxing them back, first to a glow, then a crackle, and finally a steady flame.
Church, the tasks in front of us are monumental – overwhelming even. The stakes for what the church is called to do we will reiterate in a moment as we welcome Jonas into the household of God and into Jesus’ way of love have never been higher or more daunting – to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves, to renounce Evil, and to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. And the context, while not new, seems like the end of all things – division, wars, shootings, and the continued indignities visited upon the bodies of so many of our siblings. But, God’s love is true and the gift of the Spirit is poured out on all of us in baptism. The work of our faith is not to do great things on our own, but to pray, to learn and grow in the knowledge and love of God, to renew ourselves in Spirit and in truth through the sacraments and in study of Scripture, in short, to continue the work of discipleship, to believe that the things Jesus said and did are right and true and worthy of emulating and practicing in our own lives. Then, Jesus tells us, do not be afraid, for we will be given an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. It is she who will kindle a fire in us, who will empower us with every good gift, to do the works of love that God calls us to do, as Jesus did, and even greater things than these.
T. S. Eliot writes in his well known Four Quartets,
“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”