Growing up on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest one of my childhood heroes was Smokey the Bear. I’d see him on road signs leading into or out of the forest announcing the fire danger for that particular day.
If we really believe the Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-21), we ought to put a sign like that in front of the church this Sunday.
Luke says that when the Holy Spirit moved into the lives of Jesus’ first disciples it was like fire dancing around the room setting each of their hearts on fire. He was drawing on imagery from the Old Testament that declares, “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Deuteronomy 4:24)
British poet, T. S. Eliot, reflected on the Pentecost story while incendiary bombs were falling on London during World War II.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire…
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
I looked up the word “suspire.” It means to “breathe from below.” It points to things we most deeply long for, aspire to, or set our hearts on. But don’t miss the Smokey the Bear sort of warning in Eliot’s words and the choice he places before us. It’s the “choice of pyre or pyre…Consumed by either fire or fire.”
Living in Fire-Risk Times
We are living in a dangerously fire-prone time. It’s as if we, our nation and our world are positioned on pyres of dry wood that are ready to flare up at any moment:
…fires of anger, frustration, resentment;
…pyres of racism, bigotry, and perverted patriotism;
…fires of repression that threaten the very things we value in Bill of Rights – freedom of religion, freedom of the speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government;
…and now even more than a week ago, the fires of an environmental crisis that threatens to incinerate the earth itself.
But Eliot said we get to choose the fire that will consume us.
We can be consumed by the flames of narrow self-interest or we can be on fire with the self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
We can set the world ablaze with the fires of jingoistic nationalism or we can gather around the flame of shared values that break down barriers and build bridges of understanding.
We can burn on the pyre of persistent racism or we can be ablaze with the hope and promise of reconciliation.
We can be incinerated in the flames of narcissistic greed or we can glow with the warmth of God’s extravagant generosity.
We can feed the fires of consumption that destroy the environment or we can ignite the energy of a biblical stewardship of creation.
We can add fuel to the fires of polarization that separate us by or we can stoke up the fire of divine love that unites us in one family of God.
We can burn on the pyre of hated or we can be aflame with the fire of Christ-like love.
Ablaze with Love
Charles Wesley prayed that the same Spirit who came like fire on Pentecost would burn be ablaze in his own heart.
Pure baptismal Fire divine,
All thy heavenly powers exert,
In my deepest darkness shine,
Spread thy warmth throughout my heart;
Come, thou Spirit of burning come,
Comforter through Jesus given;
All my earthly dross consume,
Fill my soul with love from heaven.
Love in me intensely burn,
Love mine inmost essence seize,
All into thy nature turn,
All into thy holiness!
Spark of thy celestial flame,
Then my soul shall upward move,
Trembling on with steady aim,
Seek and join its source above.
Pentecost is the constant reminder that our God is a consuming fire and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we like those first disciples, can be set aflame with the fire of divine love.
So, which pyre will we choose? Which fire will consume us?
Grace and peace,