“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3). There was a lot of fire in that place. Fire!
Perhaps the greatest human discovery of all time was the discovery of fire. It is used by humans for warmth, for cooking, for light, for purification, for energy. Without fire, we would sit in the dark every night and freeze to death in the winter. Diseases would run rampant. We wouldn’t have cars, or computers, or coffee, or chocolate chip cookies.
And then there’s the kind of fire we read about in Acts. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. What kind of fire can this be?
The disciples of Jesus had already lived through death. The world as they knew it had ended. All the hopes they had for Jesus and themselves as his followers had been put to death on a cross. And then, something happened that they hadn’t expected. They saw Jesus again, and he was alive. Not like he had been before. He was different now. And so were they. They had known not only death, but resurrection, as well. And now, it was time for the fire.
I wonder if fire is something that always follows death and resurrection. At this graduation time of the year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own graduations from high school and college. I remember that as much as I worked to get to graduation, when the time finally came, I had a lot of grieving to do. I was leaving my former life behind. I would never be sharing my days with my friends the way I had. It was a death. There was some pain involved. But that was the only way to get to the new life that was waiting for me. Eventually, I was ready to move on and embrace that new life. And I could look back on the person I once was and, recognizing the person that I had become, I realized that I had experienced resurrection in my life.
And then came fire. It didn’t come from anything I had learned in school. It wasn’t a thing of the head. And it wasn’t something that I had strong feelings about. It wasn’t a thing of the heart. It was a calling that I couldn’t ignore, a passion, and it burned within me. It was a fire in my belly.
I know this isn’t just something that happens to pastors. It can happen to anyone. In fact, I suspect that it does happen to everyone. Some of us may throw water on that fire before it has a chance to burn within us, but if you’re open to it, if you’re not afraid of it, if you pay attention to the fire burning in your belly, your life will be transformed.
We read about such a moment in the Pentecost story. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. And they went from quivering, sniveling cowards hiding out behind closed doors, fearing for their lives, to people who boldly risked everything to share the story of Jesus with the world. Their story was about death, and resurrection…and fire. It was a story of transformation.
The book we call the Bible is a collection of stories within a larger story about death and resurrection… and fire. And that story doesn’t end once we get to the last word of the book of Revelation. It’s still unfolding, and we are a part of it. It’s a story of transformation as the people of God are always growing into the people God created them to be. We haven’t always gotten it right. In fact, quite often we’ve been dead wrong. Sometimes the fire nearly went out completely, but there was always a glowing ember somewhere, or a spark, or a smoldering rock beneath the surface of the earth.
When the Word, God, took on flesh and blood, the John tells us, this Word made flesh was a light that no darkness could overcome, the brightest of all the stars in the sky, Fire. His human name was Jesus. In his life he showed us what the life God intends for all of us looks like. It’s a life of radical compassion. And it is such a departure from the ways of the world around us that the way to that life isn’t easy. It’s more than pouring water over your head. It’s more than going to church on Sunday morning. It’s more than reading your Bible faithfully and following the 10 Commandments. It’s death and resurrection. It’s dying to the ways of the world around us and being resurrected to a Jesus Way of life. It’s saying no to exclusive social clubs, and yes to open communities of faith. It’s saying no to injustice and exploitation of the poor, and yes to justice and service to all in need. It’s saying no to violence in all its forms, and yes to compassion and understanding. It’s saying no to our need to be the best and have the most, and yes to cooperation and denying ourselves for the sake of others. It’s saying no to “What’s in it for me?”, and yes to “What does it mean for the community? What does it mean for the world?” It’s saying no to judgmentalism, and yes to love.
I heard a story last week about a pastor at an affluent church in Texas. In his congregation, parents have been giving an unusual gift to their daughters for high school graduation. Do you know what it is? Breast implants. And they’re so proud of it that they bring pictures of their daughters to church to show everyone. This is not what the transformed life that Jesus calls us to be part of looks like!
It leads me to think of another high school graduation story. This one involves four girls who have been best friends all through school. Two of them are black and two of them are white. They live in a little town in Georgia that has had integrated schools for as long as the law of the land insisted that they be integrated. It’s been forty years. And during those forty years in that little town, they have continued to have segregated proms. They call one “White Prom” and the other “Black Prom.” It’s the way it was for their parents and their parents’ parents; it’s just the way it has always been. But now it’s 2013. And these four girls decided it was time for a change. They wanted a prom that included everyone. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that they met a lot of resistance! The governor of Georgia accused them of having a liberal, democratic agenda. But they said, that wasn’t it at all. This wasn’t about politics. They just wanted to dance with their friends. And this is what the transformed life, the life that Jesus calls us to be a part of, looks like.
The Jesus Way has always been subversive in this world. When it ceases to be subversive, when it becomes part of the status quo, it ceases to be the Jesus Way. If you’re here today because you want to follow the Jesus Way, really follow the Jesus Way, this very gathering is a subversive activity. If this community is not here to reinforce the values of the status quo but to push us toward living the Jesus way, we are a subversive community. It may not be for everyone. But if you’re being called to a Jesus Way of life, open yourself to God’s Spirit of transformation. Encounter death and resurrection in your life. And get ready for the fire.