June 9, 2019: Across Fire
June 9, 2019 Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
Do you know what this is? It’s Easter grass. You know, the stuff the Easter Bunny uses in kids’ Easter baskets? This stuff is amazing. No matter how hard you work to throw this stuff away, it’s like ninja grass, hiding undetected, only to sneak up on you days, months after the Easter baskets are put away and the Easter Bunny goes back to . . . wherever the Easter Bunny lives.
It’s 49 days after Easter, and I’m still finding this stuff around the house—remnants from my sons’ baskets—as if Easter is playing a little trick on me so I won’t forget it. So about once a week, I’ll bend down to pick up yet another renegade piece of Easter grass, and I remember Easter. And for a fleeting moment, I’ll recall the story of Easter. How Jesus died on a cross and rose on the third day. How Christians today wonder, “What does this mean?” How we’re no different that the earliest followers of Christ in asking that question. In fact, the entire New Testament was written to answer the great question of the resurrection, “What does this mean?”
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers off and on for 40 days. He taught them. He ate with them. He convinced them that, indeed, he was alive. One of the things he told them was to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit. 40 days he was with them, and then just like that, he was gone. The followers of Jesus were abandoned . . . again. That was it. So his followers did what all good church people do—they called a business meeting. Actually, it was a nominating committee meeting. You see, they had lost one of their members; they had to replace Judas. They elected Matthias. That was about it. After Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers just kind of hung around praying.
For eight days, that’s all we know. But on the ninth day after Jesus ascended, his 120 or so followers woke up that morning and started getting ready for a typical Jewish Pentecost celebration. The women applied their Mary Kay; the fellows dabbed on their Old Spice. They got in their late model Fords and Chevys and Buicks, arrived at their meeting place and started talking with friends about current events—like whether the Rays would beat the Red Sox this afternoon. They sat down in their favorite pews and started looking for typos in the bulletin. You know, it was just an average day, really.
But then the Holy Spirit showed up. The scripture says the sound of a “violent wind” was heard and tongues of fire began to appear over every person there, presumably men, women, and children. And this supernatural phenomenon granted them supernatural power. Suddenly, this room full of (mostly) blue-collar Galileans were speaking other languages.
So there they were: filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and the power to speak other languages. And boy, did they speak! I don’t imagine they took turns; I get the sense that they were speaking these new, foreign languages all at once. Must have been some kind of ruckus! Now because it was a holiday, good Jews from everywhere were there in Jerusalem—Italians, Egyptians, Greeks—hearing these good ole’ boys from Galilee speaking fluent Italian, Arabic, and Greek. You can imagine they were pretty bewildered. The scripture tells us they began asking, “What does this mean?”
Let’s stop there and go back for a moment. The very last thing Jesus told his followers before he ascended offers us a clue: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). This “power” that Jesus promised right before his ascension? It came in the form of language, enabling his followers to communicate across a primary boundary that divides humans from one another. Across the barrier of race. Across the barrier of nationality. Across the barrier of religion. You see, that fire that rested on those early followers was a CROSS FIRE—giving them the power to tell the story of the CROSS ACROSS the dividing lines they inherited. Jerusalem? Yes! Judea? Of course! Samaria? Yes, even Samaria! To the ends of the earth! All peoples everywhere. And Jesus didn’t say, “I want you to be my witnesses,” or “I command you to be my witnesses.” He said, “You WILL be my witnesses.” In other words—it’s going to happen. It’s automatic. Witnessing to our faith is inherent to followers of Christ—it’s part of our spiritual DNA. With our lives we tell the story, and occasionally we even use words.
And you know how the story goes from there. That “across fire” burned so strongly within those followers they were compelled to communicate the story of the cross, and it didn’t matter who heard. Slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female. They had Holy Spirit power, and what does that mean? They had the power to go across the barriers that separate one human from another, to share the love of God. From those 120 people gathered for another ho-hum Pentecost meal, 3,000 were added to their number that day. 2,000 years later there are some 2 billion men and women who follow Christ—every color, every gender, every nationality, every sexual persuasion. That’s the power of “Across” fire!
But the story isn’t over. Every day God writes another chapter of that story through you and me. You see, that Pentecost fire burns within each of us, granting us the power to communicate God’s love, empowering us to reach across dividing lines and share the good news through what we say, yes, but most importantly through what we do.
It’s that fire that helps us reach across generational lines to share God’s love.
This Wednesday my husband and I joined the Wednesday walking club for their two-mile (round trip) beach walk down to Opal Sands and back, with a stop for a beverage or two at the end. Eleven of us were there. A couple of young adults were there. A few of us middle-aged folks. And one octogenarian who set the pace . . . the rest of us huffing and puffing along behind Barb Jones! And when we sat down at a table together to enjoy a cold drink and continued conversation, I quit talking long enough to notice how beautiful that table was. An intergenerational gathering of adults, enjoying being with each other. It was sacred space. We were CHURCH in that moment. Generations reaching across those artificial boundaries with the love of God. That’s the power of “across” fire!
That fire empowers us to reach across generational boundaries, and it empowers us to reach across racial boundaries.
My good friend, Bob Puckett, turns 93 this month—he’s a retired pastor and has been heavily involved in the International Council of Community Churches, the network of churches we participate with. Bob was deeply involved in the civil rights movement as a young clergyman, which was not a popular decision for a young, white guy in the South. I love hearing some of the stories he tells from those days, like this one:
“I remember one time when I was in high school—it was during the war, the Second World War—I got a job during the Christmas vacation . . . with the post office delivering parcel post because all the able-bodied men were in the military all scattered all over the world. And I worked, the first year I must have been fifteen, and that year I worked with a black fellow who was a regular postal employee, and we used an army truck to deliver parcel post. Guys were all over the world sending stuff back for Christmas for their families, and we were delivering them. And I liked him! We had a great time together. We worked together and ate together. But after he went back to being a postal clerk and I went back to school, I caught a bus going home after school, and he got on the bus, and it was full, and there were people standing in the front and back. Buses were segregated, and I was in the last seat before the black section. And the seat next to me was vacant. And when he came back there—I knew he had been walking and delivering the mail—I said, ‘Sit down.’ He said, ‘You know I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Yes you can. I can have anybody sit next to me I want to have sit next to me.’ So he sat down. Then the bus driver turned around and said, ‘Nigger, get up and move to the back of the bus.’ And I put my hand on his knee and said, ‘You stay right there. I can have anybody sit by me that I want to have sit by me.’ Then the bus driver got up and came back there, and said it again, ‘Nigger, get up and go to the back of the bus.’ I said, ‘I can have anybody sit next to me I want to have sit next to me.’ And the bus driver reached over and grabbed me by the collar and literally picked me up and threw me out the back door of the bus. And I had to walk home. I didn’t have another nickel to ride the bus. And I was angry. And I’ve been angry about that kind of injustice ever since.”
Sometimes I forget that Jim Crow wasn’t that long ago, and it was the Holy Spirit fire in Bob and others that resisted the segregation that was the law of the land.
The Holy Spirit that fire empowers us to reach across generational boundaries and racial boundaries empowers us to reach across religious boundaries as well. I once read a story about a young man, in his twenties, who lived through the terror of being in the World Trade Center on the day the twin towers came down. He was on the forty-seventh floor, and when the people were told to stay, his youth and his instincts told him otherwise. He ran down forty-seven flights to safety. Sometime after September 11, the young man made an appointment to see his pastor, indicating some sort of faith crisis. His pastor imagined that he was having survivor’s guilt. But when the young man got there, that wasn’t it at all. Instead, he was having difficulty reconciling the scene that he left behind on that 47th floor. People of all ages, races, genders, and nationalities praying—praying in languages he could not understand, in postures of prayer with which he was totally unfamiliar. But they were all praying to one God. He asked his pastor, “What does this mean? What am I to make of that? To whose God did they pray?” “Suddenly,” he said to his pastor, eyes tearful, “My God seemed embarrassingly narrow.”2
Sometimes that Holy Spirit fire feels like friendship, like experienced between generations in our church. Sometimes that fire feels like holy anger, like my friend’s stand against racial injustice. Sometimes the Holy Spirit fire feels like doubt, causing us to question narrow religion that attempts to exclude so many from God’s love.
Can you feel it? Can you feel that fire prompting you to extend God’s love to someone outside your race or class or faith or sexual preference or nationality or political party? One God. One people. We build the walls. It’s up to us to tear them down.
 Robert M. Puckett, transcribed from a video interview conducted on June 7, 2011.