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July 13, 2020

Pentecost 2020: A Reflection

Pentecost 2020: A Reflection

Greetings, friends and colleagues. I offered these reflections for Pentecost 2020, nearly three months into the Novel Coronavirus quarantine, a mere week after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the multitudes who have protested across the world against police brutality.

What do we commemorate this Feast of Pentecost? What do we ask for when we call out, “Come, Holy spirit! Renew the face of the earth?” I wish to address two implications of this cry to God. This cri de Coeur.

Part One

The Acts of the Apostles tells us,
“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.” (Acts 2:2–3)

We’ve seen paintings of this moment. A first level of meaning coming from Luke’s use of the Greek word, púr, fire, relates to the divine presence in the Hebrew Bible.

Exodus 3 tells how Moses was shepherding his sheep, now 40 years after fleeing from Egypt as a murderer. Oh, look over there, there’s a bush burning. It’s on fire! It’s not consumed! How odd. And so, Moses went over and engaged God there at the burning bush. The divine voice welcomed him and sent him on mission! [See Acts 7:3] Him, a murderer. Fire signifies the presence of God who reaches out to call Moses. The fire that burns without consuming.

In Exodus 19, Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended upon it in fire. The smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln while the whole mountain shook violently. The presence of God as a powerful fire and cloud appeared there. We’ve seen the fire and cloud before. The cloud of fire guided Israel by night as they went from Egypt to the Red Sea. It held back the army of Pharaoh so the people could cross the sea in safety.

Later, in Exodus 40, the same cloud of the Lord brooded over the tabernacle by day, with fire by night, accompanying the house of Israel at each stage of their journey to the promised land. God leads and guides the people. When Moses meets the Lord face to face within the tent of meeting, he is not consumed! [See Deuteronomy 5:23f; Psalm 78:14]

Considering the prophet Isaiah’s use of púr helps us contemplate the passage from Acts about the descent of fire on the disciples by setting it within the Exodus appearance of God. The flame burns but does not consume them!

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2)

The presence of God in fire show divine guidance, leading and direction of the people in the wilderness where they’re lost, and after the time they had created their golden idol. Fire that does not consume!

And there is a second level of significance given to this event.

Why talk about Pentecost these weeks afterwards? Really. Seems to me that Pentecost 2020 could be one of the more vital celebrations of the feast in a long time. So, I invite you to consider this examination of a second level of resonance of Luke’s use of the Greek, púr, fire. Earlier, we saw how fire signifies the presence of God that burns, yet neither abandons nor destroys the people after their idolatry. Rather, it leads and guides them on every stage of the journey to the promised land.

Part Two

John the Baptist appears preaching repentance, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). Later, John proclaims,

“‘I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire.’” (Luke 3:16f)

This fire purifies! This fire consumes the chaff, the dross, the dregs! It burns all that is not gold when tested:

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation…” (Sirach 2:1, 4f)
“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? …For he is like the refiner’s fire…” (Malachi 3:2)
“‘In the fire… I will refine them as one who refines silver and test them as gold is tested.’” (Zechariah 13:9)

Pentecost fire signifies the completion of repentance, of the purification process that was left undone even by three years of discipleship and undergoing Jesus’ death and resurrection. What might that be? First, the premiere vice in Luke’s Gospel is greed. So, immediately after Jesus blessed bread and wine saying, “Do this in memory of me,” the disciples fought about who was the greatest. Their/our demands to be number one, to not let go of everything, to not trust — these disclose their/our idolatry.

“They will call on my name and I will answer them. I will say, they are my people. And they will say, the Lord is our God.” (Zechariah 13:9)

This fire tests and burns out the idolatrous spirit in each of us.

Hearkening back to Isaiah 43:2, the tongues of fire burned to purify the disciples, and they were not consumed! In Acts 2, we hear how this refining by fire manifested itself in the new community of the purified: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceed to all, as any had need.

Here is the kicker for the times we live in: Jesus’ words in Luke 12,

“‘I have come to bring fire on the earth. And how I wish it were already kindled. Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided one another, three against two and two against three, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter-in-law…’” (Luke 12:49–53)

This is one of Jesus’ promises that was actually fulfilled then and continues to be realized today. Could it be that our divisions in the Church and the United States, which are profound (!), are those that Jesus desired to incite on the earth? And the very divisions that you and I live out, wearing a mask in public vs. no mask; #BlackLivesMatter vs. status quo; traditional vs. liberal. What if this is the work of the fire of the Spirit to uncover what lurks deeply in the shadows of our lives, bring it to the light and purify the hell out of it?

It has to do with the divisiveness within you and me which provokes divisions, which adds fuel to the fire of rage, so that our meanness might surface to be purified like gold in the fire, like burning away whichever in you and me promotes divisiveness.

Inasmuch as this is a credible reading of what Luke was saying about Pentecost, then, who in their right mind really wants to pray, "Send your Spirit! Renew the face of the earth with the fire of your Spirit." This is a dangerous prayer, right? And one, not simply for the one day we remember the Spirit. This could be the prayer for our times.

Light of Fire, illumine the shadows where we hide.
Light of Fire, shine your light upon hurt people hurting people.
Light of Fire, shine on the dross of fear and self-protection.
Light of Fire, uncover meanness and malice.

Fire of the Spirit, consume whatever fuels divisiveness!
Fire of the Spirit, refine our idolatrous hearts!
Fire of the Spirit, burn away greed and avarice!

Fire of Christ, melt frozen hearts!
Fire of Christ, purify self-righteous anger!

Come, Holy Spirit! Renew the face of the earth by your purifying fire!