What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life.
The Lord Jesus said to the apostles, I have come to cast a fire on the earth (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, a transformative, refining, purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us. It is a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for fire. Because it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.
The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit
The reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest.
Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man (not the animals): then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
So, the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam, but he lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus, we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts then says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire or in fiery terms: Moses saw Him as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says,
The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
Scriptures also call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3).
So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
God is also preparing us for judgment, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit
You will notice that the Spirit came on them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no accident, for the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
So, behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds that have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago, these were frightened men huddled together in secrecy behind locked doors. Now, they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
What about us? Too many Christians are silent, overcome by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or being unpopular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians gather in the “upper room” of the parish and are active—even leaders—but once outside the safe confines of the “upper room” they slip into what I call “secret agent” mode.
Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that. To the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less able to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, to burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing come naturally to us.
Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles. The people in the crowd spoke different languages, yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent on my eloquence alone but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubt-filled encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes obstacles we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit
In the great commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
How is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help to illustrate. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title “Holy Comforter.” Above the high altar is the following Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See the photo above of our high altar.)
The walls of my parish church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the stories of the lives of twenty saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) Over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not via “magic fairy dust.” It is in the fiery transformation of every Christian going forth to bring warmth and light to a cold, dark world. This is how the Lord casts fire upon the earth. This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth—in the lives of saints (and in your life)!
In the end, the great commission (Matt 28) is our first and most important job. No matter what else we do, we are to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. As individual Christians, we are a disgrace and not worthy of the name if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth but only through us. The spread of the gospel has been placed in your hands. It’s scary, isn’t it!
In my short time on this planet, I have seen it. Parishes that were once big and booming (and, frankly, sometimes arrogant) are now in decline; some are near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (Yes, I am talking to you.)
Enjoy the feast of Pentecost, but don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you. Then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a dark, cold world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
The video below features details from the clerestory of my parish, Holy Comforter in Washington, D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth through the lives of the saints (and through you, too). It is not magic; it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, so that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way that He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song accompanying the video says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary …!”