Imagine it with me – and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
And then, everything changed. In that sacred and holy moment, the Holy Spirit broke in and a new way was born. This way was one of fire, of warm, life-giving, energy-producing, ever-flaming fire. We call this day Pentecost; we celebrate it as the birth of the church – of a community that first gathered with a shared belief in Christ, God’s amazing deeds, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We remember this day and that community as a people of fire. We celebrate this day here and this community now as a people of fire.
Fire in the biblical tradition is everywhere. We heard it again in the story of Moses at the Burning Bush. God appeared to the Israelites in the wilderness in pillars of fire.1 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace yet not consumed because of their faith.2 Jesus and the disciples likely built many a fire to cook the fish they caught and Peter warmed his hands by the fire during Jesus’ trial so that he could eavesdrop on the prosecution.3 Fire in the biblical memory is a reminder of God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s promise. It is a reminder that when fire appears, the community must take note.
The usually busy security checkpoint was still. No one stood in line to take off their shoes or be scanned for foreign metal objects. Instead, a great crowd gathered. They waited with signs and giggles and anticipation. I saw a news reporter and a camera; I saw mothers holding their toddlers’ hands lest they run off in excitement. Those in waiting clearly knew something I did not. They knew that something was coming; something was about to happen.
I asked the TSA agent what was going on. She said, "A couple adopted an HIV-positive sister and brother from Ethiopia and they’re coming home." She then flipped over her badge and showed me a boy holding a baseball bat and said, "This is my Ethiopian child." She smiled at me with pride and I asked her if I could wait to go through security. She nodded and we both stood there, adding ourselves to the gathered. I looked at this mass of people and saw that not one family looked the same. There were families of all shapes and sizes, of races and ethnicities, of ages and gender identity. Everyone was mixed together; homogeny was far from sight. Beautiful but perplexing. How were these folks all together in one place and clearly together as a group? Noticing my amazement, the TSA agent said, "I think they’re all adopted families – from a church or something like that." Something like that. A people of fire.
Moses was a person of fire. Remember the story from this morning. Walking past a burning bush, Moses turned and saw a bush blazing yet not consumed. What is most powerful in this story to me is that Moses was an active participant in his calling. He made the choice to turn and see. When God called him, Moshe, Moshe, Moses responded with one of the most beautiful words in all of Hebrew: Hineni which means Here I am.4 This "Here I am" is not a passive, attendance-taking kind of "here" but a fully embodied here – this place, not another place – here I – me, me as You, O God created me, I – here I am – fully present in mind, body, soul. Hineni, Moses says. This active response to God’s sign of fire is met with God calling Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses knew he was now a person of fire.
And likewise, those gathered at Pentecost were active participants in their calling. The disciples were all together in one place. Actively praying, remembering the ascension of Christ days before, recalling the lessons he taught and visioning what will be in the future, the disciples were active and filled with a sense of purpose. And then – and then, that Holy Spirit fire came rushing in, emboldening the disciples with new flames of faith. Fiery tongues rested upon each disciples so that he could go out and preach the Good News of the Risen Lord to the people. Now, I think the Holy Spirit is powerful – don’t get me wrong here. But had the disciples not been in that room, gathered, prayerfully in communion with one another, would the Holy Spirit have been as powerful a force? The disciples were ready to receive their anointment as people of fire. They were ready, able, actively participating.
One might think that it is hard to get eighth graders to actively participate on a Sunday morning. That many wouldn’t choose to come to Sunday School, let alone a year’s worth of a confirmation classes. But the confirmands that are before us today were, indeed, active participants. They showed up with curiosity, insight, devotion all of which is a resounding hineni. Over and over again, Nancy and I reminded the confirmands that Confirmation is not the end of the journey of faith. It is a recognition that one is ready to be an active member of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Our Book of Order says this about active membership:
"Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church."5
Membership is a recognition that the Holy Spirit has given a voice to each confirmand and that that voice is worth hearing in the full governance, life, and worship of our community of covenant people. To be an active, faithful member is to remember that on that day of Pentecost and in the church gathered ever after, we witnessed a fire that cannot be diffused. This fire of love and grace burns bright and sure and strong. To be an active member is to take seriously the privilege it entails and to fully participate in the life of the church as the Spirit emboldens you. To be engulfed in your calling. To be here, hineni.
There is an ancient tradition in the Middle East that goes like this. When a family visits another family, the hosts give the guests a burning coal to carry back to their home. When the family returns to their house, they place the coal in the fire and need not wait to start their own. A people of fire has given them enough to keep going.
In the church – and in life – we need people to give us coals when we feel our flames are dying down. To keep our faith, our spirits, our hopes ablaze is a laborious task and is not one best done alone. This, too, is the point of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit gave of the fire so that others might bask in it, catch it, and start it themselves.
The crowd started to move even more. Eyes widened. Hands were wrung together in hope. The TSA agent and I held our breath as we saw a family of four walk through the gate. The children, beautiful and small, held the hands of their new parents but when they made it to the crowd, everything changed. The crowd surrounded this family with a blaze so bright, no one could turn away. Hugs and tears and cheers resounded from voices of a multitude of languages and I knew then that this community was indeed one filled with the Holy Spirit. That this community had actively lived into their call to share the faith, to open their arms, and to fan the flame when times got hard.
Such is the calling to you, confirmands. Be an active participant in your journey with Christ. Use the voice that the Spirit gave you to speak and question and profess. Share the warmth of your faith with others when they are cold and distant. Hear the call of God upon your life and turn with a response that says, "Hineni." And when you get weary, know that you are surrounded by a community, a covenant people, who will share the fire and promise of the Holy Spirit with you all the days of your life. All praise be to God, Amen.
1. Exodus 13:21
2. Daniel 3:17-18
3. Luke 24:41-43; Mark 14:54
4. ??????? – "Here I am." The common way to say, "Here" as in this place is ??? (poh).
5. G-1.0304, 2011/2013 Book of Order.