Holy Spirit Wild Fired, Rev. Fred Kinsey
Even Peter couldn’t deny, that like a fire out of control, the Holy Spirit had leapt from the Jews to the Gentiles, wild and unpredictable, and totally beyond human restraint.
When Kim and I lived in the wilds of the UP, the rural Upper Peninsula of MI, surrounded by lakes and streams, and many more trees than people, we used to get together with parishioners and friends around bonfires, often on a Friday night. It could be magical, whether in the evening of a star lite summer night, or in the frozen winter time, ice fishing on the Net River. Dennis Hiltonen, provided most of the fires. He owned some 35 rental homes, and was always in the midst of tearing apart one or two, and remodeling them, and so had piles of old furniture and flooring, doors and windows, and more, ready to set alight.
Some fires were very near uncontrollable, flames jumping 20 or 30 feet in the air, throwing off sparks, this way and that. And some summers were dry, and the DNR had fire-bans, and with good reason, as his Camp, and many others out in the woods, were surrounded by thousands of acres of pulp forests, adjacent to State and National Forest lands that grew Maple, Pine and Poplar, Oak, Birch and Spruce. And once a fire decides to jump to the next row of trees, it’s hard knowing where the wind will blow it, and for how long!
Maybe we were lucky, then, when someone pointed out one day, that Dennis was burning some very expensive wood – chairs and tables and flooring – some of it 100 year-old hard wood, from virgin timber, long gone, that rumor had it, would fetch quite a price, down in say, Milwaukee or Chicago! After that, we had bonfires together, less often, as these new circumstances brought his pyro-technics under control. Dennis had found a side business, which was always a welcome thing in the poverty of those UP neighborhoods. But I missed the fascinating fires that lit up the warm, or cold nights, and those gatherings that brought us together – the new friendships that were ignited, and the unpredictable and creative spirit, that filled us.
In two weeks’ time, we will hear the Pentecost story from Acts, when the sound of a rushing wind swept through the upper room, and tongues of fire rested on each of the disciples, who spoke suddenly in foreign languages, all signs of the Holy Spirit. This is the same unpredictable spirit, like a wild-fire, that fell upon all who heard Peter excitedly telling about what he experienced in the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. Peter, directed by the Spirit to go to Cornelius’ house, was welcomed by his household, and ate with them -Gentiles- who don’t follow the kosher restrictions, which Peter had known as so defining to his faith, growing up. And now, as all of the household of Cornelius listened to Peter’s preaching, they spontaneously praised God and spoke in the tongues of the Holy Spirit, and Peter could no longer see why they shouldn’t be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ!
It is hard to describe the movement of the early church, in those first few decades, and how the followers of Jesus so quickly included Gentiles, except that, like a fire’s ember no one was keeping an eye on, there was a sudden wind shift blowing it up into a wild fire, which jumped to the first row of trees, and then the next, until it had been fanned into a worldwide conflagration. The barriers of race and ethnicity and religion came tumbling down. We saw it start in the Acts story from last week when Philip the evangelist baptized the Ethiopian eunuch – and who could be more of an outsider than he – and now Peter, the pillar of the early church, follows not just his heart, but the invisible, and living power, Jesus had sent. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these [Gentile outsiders and this soldier of the Roman army,] who have received the Holy Spirit just as we [Jewish Christ followers] have,” said Peter?!
First the Ethiopian eunuch! And now this Centurion, our oppressor and enemy! Who will God ask us to baptize next? And how can we stand in the way of the Spirit's movement? Who are we to say who is in, and who is out? And how can we remove the ideology, the prejudice, or tradition that blinds us, or keeps us, from what God wants to create?
The outcome of Easter morning – which we celebrate for not just one, but 7 weeks – can only be full of surprises, when you think about it, though sometimes scary ones! When Jesus walks into the upper room of the disciples hiding away on Easter evening – and one more time a week later, just for Thomas – Jesus greets them with, Shalom, Salam, Peace be with you. And then he breathes on them and says, receive the Holy Spirit. In that breath of life, on the eighth day of creation, the day of resurrection, Christ’s Spirit gave birth to a new fire, the fire of rebirth and renewal. And humans have not been able to resist this wild-fire, which spreads when, and where, we least expect it.
In two weeks, it will be Pentecost Sunday, and we will witness the Spirit descend on Ngbarezere, as his faith is Confirmed. And appropriately, Pastor Emily is scheduled to be preaching that day – so I guess, today is my Pentecost sermon!
But how do we experience this Spirit poured out? In the more traditional, mainline churches, the liturgical churches like our own, here, we are not known for speaking in tongues or ‘falling out’ in the Spirit. So, have we contained the movement of the Spirit, institutionalized or domesticated it, past the point of resuscitating it’s embers? Even in Pentecostal churches, where the spirit sweeps the congregation like wild-fire, still, they too have a mode of containment, in that they keep it to Sunday mornings, in the same place at the same time. “The Spirit works well for movements, but fares poorly in institutions,” as writer John Killinger has said.
And, even Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say about the Holy Spirit, besides in the upper room on Easter. We know the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove at his baptism. But the only other time he talked about the spirit was in Nazareth, at the beginning of his ministry, when he was in his home synagogue and got up to speak from the scroll of Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:14-18). And then he went out and lived it. The movement of the Holy Spirit anointed him, and he showed us how to lift up the poor, and heal the sick, and to set the oppressed free.
The Holy Spirit is still at work in us in the world too, through the power of our baptisms, our Confirmations, and each new morning when we rise, and we pray for the Spirit to burn within us, and in everything we do that day. The Spirit can ignite even the smallest ember, for the Holy Spirit is always much bigger and more “other” than we normally think, capable of blowing where it will, and upending our worlds, when we aren’t expecting it.
Then maybe – in the courageous, and tongue-in-cheek words of Annie Dillard – we might think well each Sunday morning, “to fasten our seatbelts and wear crash helmets when we step into our pews, lest God decide to move among us again.”
And who knows who the Holy Spirit might start having us baptize then, as Peter and the early Christians did, finding new bonds of friendship in the faith, with former strangers and outsiders, brought in, suddenly making us question the boundaries we ourselves have accepted so long.
Sometimes the old beautiful wood in our lives is sold for a pretty penny, and money in the bank. And sometimes it is fuel for the wild and unpredictable fire of the Holy Spirit, totally beyond human restraint.
Praise be to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit!