Church on Fire: The Church of Ananias and Sapphira

Scripture: Acts 4:36-5:11

 

I’d like to tell you that this passage is not about money.

Because it would seem a little anticlimactic, wouldn’t it, for it to be about money, since so far in the book of Acts we’ve seen Jesus ascend into heaven and the apostles receive the fire of the Holy Spirit and head out into the mission field of Jerusalem and perform an honest-to-God healing miracle like Jesus used to and get arrested for it and then released.  It’s like we’re ramping up and things are getting exciting and we’re feeling the fire and then all of a sudden it’s a stewardship sermon.

Let’s talk about mission.  Let’s talk about resurrection.  Let’s talk about all the things that are going on in the world like we mentioned in prayer time earlier.  Anything but money.

But, I didn’t write the story, I just preach on it.

If you were here last week, you heard the passage that comes right before this one from today.  In it, Luke (remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke) takes a break from the action to shift the scene back to the church community itself, and, he tells us, this is how it worked: no one owned any of their own stuff, and if they did, they sold it and brought the money to the apostles and laid it at their feet, and the apostles distributed it among the people in the community as there was need.

I don’t know a lot of present-day churches that work like that, and to be honest if I did, if someone told me that they had found a new church and the pastor wanted them to sell everything they own and come bring her or him the money, I would be a little concerned.  Don’t drink any Kool-Aid, I would say.  So I’m not going to tell you that, though I do think that we could all stand to read this passage and feel a little convicted by just how much the church today does not in fact work like that.

Luke does paint a pretty rosy picture of the early church here, one that may make us wonder if it ever could have been really like that, and that brings us to today’s reading, where Luke gives us two specific examples of this principle at work.  Just in case we were tempted to take the whole money thing as an aside, Luke isn’t going to let us move on that easily.  The first example he gives is the example of Barnabas.  We’ll hear more from Barnabas later as he travels around evangelizing with Paul, but in this little section, Barnabas’s claim to fame is that he did in fact own a field, sell it, and bring the money to the apostles for redistribution in the community.  This is Barnabas, Luke says, in effect.  Be like Barnabas.

But it turns out things are not always quite as rosy as they appear in this early Christian community, because as it turns out, the church of the apostles, the church of the Holy Spirit, the church of Barnabas, is also the church of Ananias and Sapphira, the kind of imperfect people we are perhaps used to church being made up of.

Ananias and Sapphira, like Barnabas, own some property somewhere, and like Barnabas, they sell it, and like Barnabas, Ananias brings the proceeds to the apostles.  I don’t know whether to imagine he made a big show of all the money they were donating, or whether he nervously laid it down and tried not to call too much attention to himself.  In any case, unlike Barnabas, it wasn’t all of the money they handed over.

I don’t know how Peter knew something was amiss, whether it was something in Ananias’s demeanor, the way he wouldn’t make eye contact, or whether Peter simply had access to that kind of divine knowledge, but instead of saying “Thank you, praise God,” and letting Ananias go, Peter says, “Hmmm.”

“Ananias,” he says, “This is the amount you got for the property?”

“Yep,” says Ananias, “that’s all of it.  Definitely all of it.”

Peter shakes his head and says, “Ananias, you didn’t have to do this, you know,” and then Ananias drops dead on the spot.  We can think of it not so much as an invisible lightning bolt from heaven, but maybe more like Ananias dropping dead of shame and fear.  Either way, it does make for a pretty heavy-handed stewardship sermon, doesn’t it?  And we’re not even done yet, because then Sapphira comes in – I don’t know where she’s been all this time – and Peter says, “Thanks for the donation, was that all of it?” and Sapphira says, “Yep, definitely all of it,” and then she drops dead too.

Luke tells us that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things,” and you can kind of see why.  If I was part of the early church there, I might wonder just what I had signed up for, too.

I have to say that I have some sympathy for Ananias and Sapphira, who were really probably not at all as bad as history remembers them.  I mean, we don’t know any numbers, but let’s say they kept back 25% of the proceeds.  Does anyone here give away 75% of their income?  Me neither.  (By the way, if anyone can answer yes to that, I’m willing to bet it’s someone poor.)  So, the rest of us really don’t have much of a leg to stand on.

Maybe they had bills to pay.  Maybe they had an elderly parent to care for or a kid to send to college.  Maybe they just weren’t sure what the future was going to hold.  They’re not so different from us, are they?

Well, you might say, at least I don’t lie about it, though.  Because that was the real problem for Ananias and Sapphira – not that they didn’t fork it all over but that they acted like they did, presumably because they wanted to be seen in the same light as people like Barnabas.  There’s no outright requirement here for how much you need to give to be part of the community (though tithing, 10%, is certainly recommended, and in light of this story, seems like a good deal) – there is no outright requirement, so there’s really no reason to lie about it.

I don’t know, though.  Just a couple weeks ago I was going into downtown DC for a friend’s birthday dinner, and on my way from the Metro to the restaurant, as I was waiting at a crosswalk, a woman approached me.  She asked for some money to get something to eat and buy a new pair of shoes.

I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you at the moment.”

But that was a lie.  Or at least, it was mostly a lie, because while I actually had a couple twenties on me, it was true that they were not for her.  For one thing, I wanted to have them on hand for bill-splitting purposes.  For another thing, when I do give money to people I encounter on the street, it’s most often a dollar or two, and 20 seemed kind of steep.  I felt a little bit guilty, but I figured she would go on her way and that would be the end of it – only she didn’t go on her way.  Instead she stood there and she asked, “If you had it, would you want to give it to me?”

I didn’t drop dead on the spot, but I think I understand a little of how Ananias and Sapphira felt.  I would have liked the answer to that question to be yes – if only I had had some smaller bills, if only I hadn’t been on my way somewhere, yes, I would have liked very much to help her, I wish I could have – but obviously, the answer was no.

Often, though, I think the people we lie to about money are ourselves.[1]  I can’t afford to give more, we say.  I wish I could, and if things were a little different, I would; it’s too bad I can’t.

I don’t know your financial situation.  Just putting that out there.  I’m guilty too.

It’s striking that this, more than anything else, is the characteristic that Luke chooses to emphasize about what made the church the church.  He could have said it was their life of prayer, which is clearly important in many parts of the story.  He could have said it was their fellowship, their breaking bread together, which also gets a shoutout in Acts 2 and becomes important once dietary restrictions that separate Jews and Gentiles are removed.  But when Luke gives us this picture of the church, what he tells us is that no one owned anything of their own, and all their money was distributed among the community as there was need.  Like it or not, being the church, being in the church, has a lot to do with what we do with our money.

It’s also not only about money.  With Luke, it never is.  “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” Jesus says, and in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts when there is a story about what someone does with money it always has to do with where their heart is.  Think of Zacchaeus, whose conversion was known by his promise to give half of what he owned to the poor.  Think of the Rich Fool, who kept building bigger barns to store his crops that he never got to enjoy.   I think it’s a pretty good indicator for us, too.  If someone were to look at your bank account or credit card statement, what would it tell them about what is important to you?  Not what you wish was important to you – but what’s actually important?

These stories of Barnabas and of Ananias and Sapphira are stories about where people’s hearts are.  Are they ready to literally buy in to this community called the church?  Are they all in?  Or are they holding something back?

I told you that I’m not asking you to sell everything you own and bring me the proceeds, at least not today, but I did get to thinking – so what does it mean, then, to be all in?  What does it mean for our hearts to be here in this community?  What does it mean to be fully committed to this thing we call church?

I thought of our membership vows.  When we join the church we promise to support God’s work here through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  Are we making good on those vows?  Or are we holding something back?  Do we say, well, my occasional presence is good enough, when I don’t have other plans?  And maybe I’ll remember the prayers that people lift up in service every once in a while?  And I’m happy to help out when I can, but I wouldn’t want to volunteer for anything that would be too much of a commitment?  It’s too bad I can’t give more.  I definitely would want to, if I could.

I’m not pointing any fingers, here.  These are questions for you to think about.  And some of you haven’t taken these vows, and it’s OK to not quite be all in yet, as long as we’re honest about it.

But God does need people who are all in.  Maybe it’s time.

Think about it: how can the church be the Body of Christ in the world – serving and healing and sharing God’s love and working for justice – if we’re not first the Body of Christ, together?

To be the Body of Christ together is to be committed to each other.

To pray, for and with each other.  To be present, together, with each other.  To pool our resources with each other to do better things together than we could do alone.  To serve each other, to commit to doing our part so that someone else can do their part.  To encourage one another and share our stories so that we create new testimonies to share with others.  Committed, to each other.

I struggle with this sometimes.  Last weekend at Annual Conference we were debating some of the constitutional amendments we were supposed to ratify, two of which had to do with gender justice – simply asserting our belief that women are equal to men, and equally created in the image of God.  And I listened as, for different reasons which I won’t go into here, a number of people got up to oppose these amendments, and others applauded them.  We won’t know the actual results until all the conferences have voted, so I don’t know how it turned out.  But I was about ready to call it a day.  If this is church, I said, I think I’m done.  Sometimes pastors have these moments.

Reading this passage this week, I had to question how far my commitment went to these other people who make up the Body of Christ with me.  How far did my presence there in the same body with them go?  Right up until they say something that makes me mad?  How deep does my commitment go to these people who are part of the same Body of Christ go?  Maybe I’m Ananias.  Maybe I talk a good game but I’m only willing to give so much.

It can be exciting to talk about mission, about going out and doing bold and good things in the world.  And if the church doesn’t have a mission, the church doesn’t have much.

But it’s here that our mission starts, here together and to and with each other.

And God needs people who are all in, who aren’t holding back.  Their money, yes.  But also everything else.

If you had something to give – would you want to?

 

[1] Cf. Will Willimon, Intepretation: Acts, p.54

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Church on Fire: What I Have I Give

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

Last week on Church on Fire:

As the disciples prayed and waited in the Upper Room, the day of Pentecost arrived.  The Holy Spirit rushed in like a mighty wind and tongues of fire rested on each of them, and they preached in multiple languages they didn’t speak, much to the surprise of the wide-eyed onlookers below, about the day of the Lord.

This week, the mission begins.

But first things first.  The new fire burning in the disciples’ bones doesn’t immediately drive them out as witnesses to the far corners of the earth.  The first thing that fire does is bind them together with all the other new believers and make them the church.  And so, Luke tells us in Acts 2, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  A sense of awe came over everyone.  God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.  All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes.  They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.  The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

It is a beautiful picture of church that has made people for centuries ask what happened.

Today, though, Peter and John are venturing outside this heavenly community, on their way to afternoon prayer at the Temple, when they encounter a crippled man outside the entrance called the Beautiful Gate.  His friends had dropped him off there knowing it was a strategic panhandling location – after all, they can reasonably assume that the people going in and out of the Temple to pray might be, if not actively inspired to give, at least guilted into it.  So as Peter and John are entering the Temple gate there is this man, hands outstretched, asking, “Can you spare any change today?”

And all of a sudden our reverie of this nice, idyllic, joyful church is shattered, and instead we have the church as it bumps up against the raw pain and brokenness of our world.  Which is, of course, the point.[1]  So what now?

I imagine many of us might be able to imagine ourselves in the apostles’ place, here, though some of us might identify more readily with the crippled man, and perhaps some of us a little of both.  I know I find myself in the place of Peter and John sometimes when I go to Safeway.  Or when I walk along Lynn Street deciding what I’m going to have for lunch.  Or when I get off the Metro in downtown DC.  Or sometimes, when people come to my church office: we even have a fund set up for times like that.   Sometimes I respond generously, though often less generously than I might; sometimes I don’t respond generously, and then feel guilty about it; sometimes I say no and the person is persistent enough that I pay them to leave me alone; sometimes I stand there awkwardly trying to decide whether I am being taken advantage of.  I think of all the different opinions there are about how Christians should respond when people ask for money, and I am already interested in which one Peter and John will choose.  Will they in fact give him what they have?  Will they tell him they have already donated to the Jerusalem Foundation for the Disabled, and direct him there instead, thinking that that’s ultimately better stewardship of their funds?  Might they not give him money directly, but instead offer to buy him dinner at a nearby falafel cart, knowing that that way, he won’t spend the money on booze?  Will they give him an apologetic look and say they are sorry, they can’t help today, knowing they have to save their change for the Temple offering?  Or, in a hurry not to be late for prayers, will they simply avert their gaze and keep on walking?

This isn’t just a question isn’t about giving money to panhandlers.  What is the answer of the early church when it faces need and suffering out in the real world?  I would like to know.

So, we read on.  First Peter says to the man, “Look at me.”  We have our first answer: he will not avert his gaze and keep walking and pretend that this man, this child of God, does not exist.

“We don’t have any silver or gold,” says Peter, and that rules out option #1, just hand over some cash.  Remember, though, that the reason they don’t have any silver or gold is because no one in this early Acts church had any property of their own; it was all held in common.  So I suppose one way to get out of giving at a time like this, if that is ever your goal, is to have already given everything away.  OK, no money, they can keep walking.

But they don’t keep walking.  “I don’t have any silver or gold,” Peter says, “but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk.”

It wasn’t exactly what the man asked for, but he does: he gets up and walks.  In fact, he doesn’t just walk, but leaps in the air and praises God.

So I admit that as I’m sitting here reading the story looking for the early church’s answer for how to respond to the world’s need, this presents a bit of a conundrum.  Because mostly as I go about my life encountering the pain of the world around me, this is not really an option I consider.

“In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk?”  I wish I could do that.

I know that we here have different beliefs and experiences regarding whether this kind of healing miracle is still possible today, or whether it was ever even quite like the story tells it.  I don’t presume to say what is possible for God, but I have personally never physically healed someone in the name of Jesus (or otherwise) and I am challenged by this text.  I’m not sure if it is telling me that as someone with faith in Jesus I should, actually, be able to do such things; and I’m not sure where it leaves us as the church if we cannot.  If we can’t respond as the apostles did, are we back, then, to deciding whether to share or withhold the spare change in our wallets?

Once I was on a trip with my college campus ministry and as our group walked along to wherever we were going, someone did stop us and ask us for money.  We were actually in Jerusalem, or somewhere nearby in the Holy Land.  I don’t remember whether anyone gave him some, but what I do remember is that two students got in a debate about whether you should give money to people directly like that or not, and the student who thought “not” said, “I believe we are called to care for that man in a radical way.”

It sounded like a really good answer, and from my place a few steps ahead of this conversation, I felt convicted in my own heart, only as we walked on a little farther, I thought, “How?”

We were on a 10-day trip.  We were never going to see that man again.  It was probably a couple of shekels or nothing.

But what if we could have given that man something more?  What if we could have looked him in the eye and said, “No, I’m not going to give you money today, but in the name of Jesus Christ, you are made better.  Whatever your real, underlying problem is; whatever your pain is, whether what you need is housing, or a job, or mental health, or a re-established connection with your family and community: whatever that real, deep need is, that is what I give you in the name of Jesus Christ.”  And it would be so?

I wish I could do that.

Of course, Peter is careful to let everyone know that it isn’t him doing that at all. Later in Acts, a guy takes credit for some miraculous act that God does, and then he falls down dead and gets eaten by worms.  So when Peter gets a chance to preach his second sermon, after the crowds have attracted the attention of the local officials and the apostles have been taken into custody, he makes sure to tell everyone that it is not by his own power but by the power of Jesus Christ that this man has been healed.

And even so I admit I wonder what I have to give.

This is, again, about more than just people begging.  As the church, what do we have to give to the world around us?  When war rages across the world from us, what do we have to give?  When people the next county over are dying of their addiction to opioids, what do we have to give?  When our neighbors are alone and hopeless, what do we have to give?  How do we speak the name of Jesus Christ into these situations in a way that is neither dismisses nor tries to slap a Band-aid on the world’s problems, in a way that brings the Gospel to life for people where they are?

I don’t think the answer is always cut-and-dry, but here are a few things I think we can learn from Peter and John, miracles or not.

First of all, Peter and John don’t ignore this man, and they don’t ignore the real, immediate cause of his pain.  They don’t say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, repent of your sins and receive Jesus into your heart and have eternal life.”  Now, I’m certainly not trying to knock eternal life, and I think it’s clear that this man’s healing points him to something bigger– the story doesn’t just end with healing, but with him praising God and clinging to Peter and John, becoming part of their community.  But this man’s first problem is that he is crippled, and that is the problem Peter and John address when they heal him.  As Desmond Tutu once put it, “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”

And at the same time, they are clear that what they are doing is in the name and by the power of Jesus.

I have a friend from seminary who was talking about her church the other day, and all the good things they do: their food bank, their community garden, the shelter they help run, the apartment they are getting ready to house a family with no place to go.  “Now,” she said, “they do have some serious work to do to be able to say ‘Jesus’ out loud without apologizing.”  I am sure there are more than a few of us here who resemble that remark.  How easy is it, sometimes, to separate the nice things we do – sandwich making, collecting supplies for health kits, even repairing houses in Appalachia – from our faith in Jesus completely (or if not completely, we’re at least really, really quiet about that side of things?)  When we do these acts of service, do we allow them to point beyond us and our own general goodwill to the power and call of the one who sent us?

I do have to wonder – what if Peter and John had just had some money?  Would this whole thing have gone down differently?

Of course, when we think we have something of our own to give, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for God to do even greater things through us.  Maybe the point is, that when we are driven by the fire of the Holy Spirit, we have more to give than we might think.

In the Gospel of John (ch. 14), Jesus at one point tells his disciples that they will do even greater acts than he did.  That’s an eyebrow-raising promise coming from a guy who not only healed people but also raised people from the dead.  And that promise might give us one more reason to look around at this thing we call church and wonder if we’re doing it wrong.

But maybe our response doesn’t have to be overtly miraculous to be miraculous nonetheless.  When as the church, as Christians encounter the pain of the world around us, what do we have to give, that’s beyond just some spare change?  Is it relationship?  Community?  Ongoing commitment to a person or a cause?  Is it prayer – not just an “I’ll pray for you” but fervent, consistent prayer that might bring about healing in ways we never would have guessed?

When we encounter the pain and suffering of this world, does our response say, “We are nice people” or “What I have, I give – and what I have, I have because God has given me?”  Does our response say, “We want to do good things,” or “In the name of Jesus, we believe that God is at work here and God has more for you than whatever this is?”

The point, of course, is not to not be generous.  It’s to be more than generous, to be ready to give even more than we ourselves have.

Now I’ll warn you that the disciples do end up in jail for the night, for the first but certainly not last time, which doesn’t tend to happen when you just give someone the dollar crumpled up in your pocket or hand them a granola bar.  So it might be that we need to be ready for that, too.

But here’s the thing: Jesus might not be bodily, tangibly here anymore to do things like heal people and make them walk or to tell the demons that plague them to take a hike or to multiply loaves and fish until everyone eats and is full.  That’s the whole point of the book of Acts: someone else has to do these things instead.  This is our call as the church, the Body of Christ on earth, the hands and feet of Jesus, the heart of God.  This is our job, now.

And so we gather, and we pray, and we sing hymns, and we break bread, and we share this portion of our lives together.

And then we march out those doors and into the pain and the brokenness of the world around us and we say, “We may not have a lot but what we have we give: in the name of Jesus Christ, world, be well.”

 

[1]     Cf. Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 43-44

Church on Fire

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Do you know what it feels like to be set on fire?

When the day of Pentecost had come, the story goes, they were all gathered in one place: the Twelve, some women, and some other unnamed followers of Jesus.   As we left off with the disciples last week in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus had just ascended into heaven promising that he would be with them always, and they had gathered back in that infamous Upper Room, praying and waiting for God to make the next move.  But the thing about waiting is that sometimes it’s time to wait and sometimes it’s time to get up off your butt and do something for Jesus.

Today, that’s what it’s time for.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all gathered in one place.  Jews from all over the known world once again flooded the streets of Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot – Pentecost in Greek – to celebrate God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Who knows if the disciples woke up that morning thinking “Maybe today’s the day,” or if they thought it would be too obvious a move.  Who knows if they woke up with a certain sense that it was time, that God was about to do something big, and nothing would ever be the same.

God was, and it wasn’t.

Because, there gathered in that Upper Room, as the disciples are waiting and praying, all of a sudden the wind begins to pick up.

The disciples look around and raise their eyebrows, silently acknowledging to each other “Wow, it’s kind of gusty out,” but it doesn’t let up.  Instead the wind begins to howl.  It rushes in the windows and the disciples hold their hands in front of their faces and in the midst of trying to catch their breath maybe one of them says something along the lines of, “Guys, I think this is it.”

And then there is fire, fire coming in the windows too, tongues of flame hurling and curling toward each person huddled there, only like the Burning Bush from those days on Sinai, they are not consumed.

This wasn’t the kind of fire that burns a person alive, but the kind of fire that gets into your bones and drives you forward.

Do you know what that feels like?

The prophet Jeremiah once spoke of his mission to speak God’s word as a “fire shut up in his bones,” and I know what it feels like.  I remember going as a teenager to a youth rally called, appropriately, Acquire the Fire, and coming back and telling my mom (much to her alarm) that I wanted to go on an international mission for Christ.  Though that particular fire was short-lived, I remember being in college and encountering for the first time sermons preached by religious leaders who fought against apartheid in South Africa, and how when I read them at night they kept me awake because I knew that, though apartheid had ended a decade ago and I was not in Johannesburg but Colonial Williamsburg, those words had a bearing on my life that I would not be able to shake.  I remember telling my once-again-skeptical mother that I was going to seminary and while it would be nice if I got a scholarship, it didn’t matter if I didn’t, because this is what I was called to do and God would make it happen one way or another.  It felt like accepting a daring invitation to a radical life.  It felt like embarking on an adventure.  It felt like falling in love.

Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that fire in your bones?

Have you ever felt like you had a mission and for once in your life, even just for a moment, you were so completely sure of who you were and what you were doing here?  Have you ever felt just once like it was all coming together, like God was present here and now and opening up a way for you just ahead?  Have you ever felt like you were ready to step up to what was demanded of you and ready to take risks and ready for whatever God had in store? Like there was nothing that could stop you?  Like you were compelled by a force outside of yourself –a force you might even call holy?

As those tongues of fire came to rest on the disciples they felt their own tongues begin to move, but the words that came out were strange and unfamiliar.  Still, they leaned out the windows and flooded the balcony and let those strange words flow, attracting the attention of the pilgrims flooding the streets of Jerusalem below.  These people heard their words but they weren’t unfamiliar to them, they were the languages of the places they had traveled from: North Africa, Persia, Asia Minor.  In those words the disciples proclaimed the story of Jesus and the amazing things that God had done.

Fishermen from the backwater of Galilee were not the kind of people you’d expect to hear preaching in Persian, but this was the kind of fire that meant that you could do things you never could have imagined yourself doing before.  This fire was the power of God working through your own weakness.  Do you know what that’s like?

More importantly, though, than any linguistic miracle, it was on this day that that ragtag group of disciples huddled in an upstairs room became the church.  It was that day that they became not just followers of Jesus, but the Body of Christ present doing God’s work on earth.  It was from there that they set out on their mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, enduring arrest and prison, risking rejection and death, knowing not just that they could do it, but that they couldn’t not.  Have you ever been there?

I remember being 23 years old and just having completed my first year of seminary and enrolling in a chaplaincy program in a planned community that used to be the worst projects in Atlanta, the next step in my plan to save the world in the name of Jesus.  I was the youngest student in my group and the rest of them thought that I was hopelessly naive, and I remember that as we sat and read our evaluations of each other at the end of the summer, one woman named Sue said of me, “She really believes in the power of one person to change the world,” and then she cried, because she used to feel like that, too, and she didn’t know what had happened.

Maybe it’s because old age has made me cynical, but most of the time now I think I’m probably closer to Sue than I am to myself back then.  I don’t really know, anymore, if one person can change the world, and frankly, it’s exhausting even to try, and you have to worry about the politics of it all, and not saying something that will cause someone else not to come back to church.

Do you ever feel like maybe once you had that fire, but you don’t anymore?

Fire can be hard to sustain.

But do you remember how it felt?

Well, church, it’s Pentecost and it can be that way again.

Or have you never felt that way, not yet?

Church, it’s Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit has the power to set even you on fire, for the first time ever or once again, because what God’s church needs is people who have been set on fire.

What is it that sets or once set you on fire?  Did you have an immediate, unmistakable experience of the grace and holiness of God, and had to tell others?  Was it a person you met or a story you read on the news that made you say, I know what God’s work for me is?  Was it a mentor who made you want to be just like him or her, or a ministry you knew you wanted to be a part of?  A subject, even, that you fell in love with and knew you would spend your life devoted to?  Do you remember?  What did God want to do with that?  What does God want to do with that now?

Do you remember what it felt like to fall in love with Jesus for the first time?

What did you do with that fire?  Did you allow God to fan that flame, even if it became less a roaring fire and more of a slow, controlled burn after a while?  Or did it burn bright and burn out?

Might our God of resurrection want to resurrect that fire in your heart?  Might the Holy Spirit be ready to visit you again, sending you on a mission, giving you work to do, whether it takes you to the ends of the earth or takes place right here?

That day as the wind howled and the tongues of flame swirled and the lips of the disciples made new and strange and exciting sounds, Peter told the crowd that was gathering below – some out of the sense that God was doing something new, some out of pure morbid curiosity – that this was what the prophet Joel had prophesied, this was the day that God had promised when God would pour out God’s Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, slave and free, and everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved.  This was what Joel prophesied, no doubt having felt that same fire in his bones, that God’s Spirit was for everyone, that God’s church was open to everyone who felt or wanted to feel that fire.

As the church here and now, what is that fire in our bones?  What has God given us to do that we can’t not do, even if it’s dangerous, even if it’s risky, even if people think we might have gone crazy?  What has God empowered to do together that we can’t do on our own?  Have you felt that fire?  Do you remember?  What does God want to do with that now?  To feed the hungry?  To heal the hurting?  To create a family out of strangers?  To set the oppressed free?  To stand up for justice?  To speak God’s truth into a world that may or may not want to listen?

We are the church, and God has work for us to do.  God has work for you to do.  Maybe you remember what it was like to feel that way.  And if you haven’t, or if you’ve forgotten, the promise of Pentecost is that it’s not too late; these things happen in God’s time, and perhaps our job now is simply to say Come, Holy Spirit.  Set me on fire.  Set us on fire.

But maybe, if you listen closely, you can feel the wind beginning to pick up.  Maybe you can feel that heat, that burning, that begins in your bones and won’t let you sit still.

It’s Pentecost, and before the story goes on, God needs a church that has been set on fire.