More than Fire

John 15:26–27, 16:4b–15; Acts 2:1–21, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on May 26, 2024

As I prepared to talk to our kids about the Pentecost story last week at the Family Gathering, I asked Sarah Almén whether she had any concerns about my lighting a candle as part of the storytelling. Her wise response was, “Nothing gets a kid’s attention like an open flame.” Other than the possible exceptions of ice cream and fart jokes, I agree: fire is a top-notch attention-grabber.

Apparently, God is in on this aspect of human nature because in biblical stories, God (or at least the Biblical authors’ stories of God) uses fire very strategically to get our attention: there’s the burning bush that stops Moses in his tracks. There’s, like, most of the Book of Revelation. And there’s this passage from Acts that marks what we observe as the birth of the Christian church. It’s so captivating, this image of a tongue of fire alighted on each head, like so many human candles in that upper room in Jerusalem! And the miracle of speaking in other languages, and the half-joking accusations of drunkenness! Between the fire and wind, and the intimate story of Jesus’ final departure from the disciples that precedes it, it’s easy to think that everything we need to know about Pentecost is contained within that room.

But life was happening in the streets of Jerusalem, too. Outside it was Shavuot, one of three annual pilgrimage dates in the Jewish calendar. Shavuot comes fifty days (Pentecost means fiftieth in Greek) after Passover, or God’s delivery of the people of Israel out of bondage. It’s the feast day celebrating God’s delivery of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, to God’s people. Folks from all over the Jewish diaspora traveled to Jerusalem to observe Shavuot, celebrating how God spoke to them through Moses, built a covenant with them, and how God continues God’s relationship with them.

The biblical text doesn’t give us much of a glimpse of these Shavuot pilgrims, those folks in the street outside, so I would like to move our imaginations in their direction . . . 

The Romans love the Egyptian cotton cloth that my family produces. We have been trades people for generations, ever since we lived in Israel. Four hundred years ago, when the Persians invaded Jerusalem, my ancestors fled from the invaders and immigrated to Egypt. Many other Jewish families did the same, dispersing all across the Mediterranean. I, as the eldest cousin in my family, am the head of sales for my family cloth business. I accompany our cloth across the Mediterranean, selling to Roman elites and to the locals who must work with them.

The job does have its perks. Every year I make my sales trips to Jerusalem from Passover to Shavuot, so that I can attend two of Judaism’s biggest holiday festivals. Egypt is my home, but I love being in Jerusalem for those fifty days, surrounded by my Jewish siblings, worshipping at the Temple with the Jewish pilgrims who travel many hundreds of miles to observe our most holy occasions. God feels so near in Jerusalem.

This year’s Shavuot was different. As I walked through Jerusalem on my way to the feast, I heard people shouting. At first, I assumed that someone was in trouble with the Roman army, but I listened more closely, and the shouting was. . . full of joy. Out of the chorus of voices my ears found one shouting in Egyptian, my native language. Another voice shouted in Greek, another in Aramaic, others in languages I had never heard before. And the voices, they shouted in praise of God’s works, passionately, powerfully! I was frozen in place listening to these glorious, shouting voices, lifting their love of God—with Galilean accents of all things! Those voices filled mewith joy and praise. Those voices, the words shouted in my language and the languages of the other foreigners in the street, it was as if God was in the building with those people, and they were calling us in. I looked around and people of every nationality were frozen, too. They heard it: the joyous meeting of voices and languages greeting and praising God in their midst.

Finally, after several minutes of listening—we didn’t speak, we simply moved—all of us gathered at the door of the building from which the shouting voices emerged. We opened the door to find over a hundred people inside, each praising God in a different language! I went to the person shouting in Egyptian. She didn’t look Egyptian, but I asked in my language where she was from. She shook her head, as if coming out of a dream, and stared at me. She looked at me as if she didn’t understand my words, so I asked her again, this time in Hebrew, and she replied that she was from Galilee, with a look on her face that made it clear that she didn’t understand what was happening.

All around me, similar conversations were taking place, and like a wave washing over us, or a fire spreading in dry grass, we realized that a miracle was happening in our midst; on this Shavuot morning, the day of celebration of God’s revelation, God was being revealed anew to us foreigners, us outsiders. God’s Spirit had visited these Galileans to reach us

And then. . . well, to make a long story short, that day changed my life. That day, standing in that street, I was baptized by God’s Spirit. I began the day celebrating God’s Spirit given hundreds of years ago through scripture; I ended it celebrating God’s Spirit visiting me and hundreds of others personally! I am now a member of a new community, a new church, on a new spiritual path as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks be to God. . . .

In this morning’s reading from John, Jesus tells the disciples, “When the Spirit comes, it’ll expose the error of the godless world’s view of sin, righteousness, and judgment.” In the story of that first Pentecost the Spirit did come. By making itself known not just to the disciples inside the meeting hall but also to those foreigners in the street, God’s Spirit exposed the culture of empire’s drive to separate folks into camps competing for scarce resources, fearing each other when they hear another language, another dialect, or when they see another skin color, another type of clothing. God’s Spirit broke through the idea that belonging itself, and safety, and divine love, is a privileged status.

The Spirit came upon the disciples, putting words in their mouths that they did not understand, and filling their hearts with love for the life gifted them by God’s grace. The Spirit filled them so completely that they exploded in love, and that love broke through the clay walls of their meeting place and broke through the cultural walls those pilgrims outside had up as they made their way through Jerusalem’s streets. The Spirit, through the disciples, announced God’s presence even there in that uncertain and empire-occupied place and time. God was there, and like our attention to a flame, everyone who witnessed that love explosion went towards it.

Theologian Luke Powery writes, 

Pentecost shows that the Spirit loves us so much that she wants to get inside of us, dwell in us, and commune with us in a bond of love. This divine outpouring is love for each person. The Spirit honors the bodies of all people—young, old, male, female, all human beings throughout the world. . . . The Spirit is an equalizer and holy resister to racism and racial hierarchical systems.

The story of Pentecost shows what the relationship between God’s Spirit and the church—the Body of Christ—is meant to be. Just as the disciples did, we gather in community to listen for God together, to give thanks for the gift of life, to ask for God’s help, to listen to Jesus’ teachings, and apply them to our own lives. And within our shared space, God’s Spirit comes to us, in music, in care for each other, in the significance of our individual stories. But as the Pentecost story illustrates, God’s Spirit cannot be, is not meant to be, contained like a finite resource; it not only overflows the containers of our individual lives, it bursts them in order to touch more of humanity. God’s Spirit, God’s love and guiding grace, seeks more. We as church, as the Body of Christ, get to participate with God as conduits of God’s Spirit, the healing force in our hurting world. We get to burst open in awe and love for the mystery of life, the mystery of God so that others might hear the voice of the Spirit through us. Then, as our love of justice and of the other attracts the attention of folks outside our walls, we get to witness to how the Spirit dissolves the systemic sins that divide us and keep us afraid of each other.

At First Church, through collective discernment, we have heard God’s call to be in deeper community with our neighbors, and we have followed. We serve food to the hungry, we show hospitality to our neighbors by giving them a place to study and by showering them with baked potatoes and plants, we partner with groups to bring more justice into the world, and we care for each other. We may not be shouting in Aramaic at the top of our lungs, but I see that the Spirit is touching people outside these walls through us.

May we continue to feel God’s Spirit in new ways together, and may we continue working to overcome the fear that keeps the Spirit constrained. Amen.