The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s032ca10  Pentecost 23/5/2010 (updated from a sermon at least as old as 1989)

"Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire." Acts 2.3

Most of us are familiar in this cold weather with fires and the joys which come from a lovely open hearth. Fire for those in the Antipodes means warmth and companionship, typified by the family barbecue. But it has the aspect of the horror of bush-fires and loss of life as well as the life-giving use of burning off the fields to make the soil rich for the coming seeding. Those who were scouts and guides among us were taught the art of making a fire, and I wonder if we remember our training?

The first thing about building a fire, is I guess the most obvious, yet the most ignored. To build a fire one needs to gather the wood together. There is little point in lighting one little stick here and another ten feet away; another a similar distance in another direction and another further away still. One soon runs out of matches and none of the fires can assist the other. So the wood has to be gathered together. So too the words are given to us "the disciples had all met in one room" and they are so obvious they may well be overlooked. The gift of the Holy Spirit could not have been poured out on the disciples before they had come together. No matter how enthusiastic they were, the task was too great for each alone - they needed the help of one another - for the darkness and the cold was far too great, it would have soon engulfed the most fierce but solitary flame. So too with us - it doesn't matter how enthusiastic we are individually - we will always need other people.

I remember being taught to collect dry wood as a scout. Green twigs and wet leaves only produced a smoky fire not likely to heat a billy nor attract people to itself. No, dry timber is needed for a good fire. In fact later I think a resolution was passed in the Scouting Movement that no living tree was to be cut down for any reason, let alone for fires. No, old dead timber is the thing for fires; this burns truly and with the minimum of smoke. So too with Christianity; so often it is suggested that the most important ministry is with the youth. However Abraham was 75 years old when God called him to leave his father's house, and 99 years old when God made the covenant of circumcision with him and his descendants. The youth might be led astray by every blast of vain doctrine; it is the old and seemingly dead who bring about the works of God.

Following on from the choosing of the dry wood and the collecting together, the pile needs to be stacked properly; do you remember? There needs to be small twigs at the bottom, grading up to larger pieces of wood above, lit by the smaller pieces. But an essential part is the spaces between the wood; the amount of air able to get into, to feed the flames. If the wood is packed together so tightly that the air cannot reach the wood then the flames will be short lived. It is a delicate balance this space; enough air, yet also not too much space that one twig doesn't light another. Some Christian communities tend to pack everyone in, the young with the old, and no one has any freedom to move. Is is not a recent phenomenon and many people can be manipulated in this way.

So we've got all our pile nicely heaped up, and just for good measure a bit of kero to make sure. What next? The pile will just sit there with nothing happening until someone lights it. Now these are words again so obvious they might be glossed over, yet how it is lit? Ah! You might think, this is where God comes in. But no, not just yet. There are two common ways; with a match or with a lighter. Both of these ways use the same principle, variations of the same old method of lighting a fire used by cavemen - friction to produce a spark. Even electricity, that most useful of inventions and without which, we all feel quite lost, is produced by rubbing one thing against another. In the Christian community we need the spark of one person rubbing against another to ignite the whole. Of course it is more likely if there is more than one couple rubbing together, but ultimately one couple is enough, if they are in the right spot.

This rubbing together might be termed love, and I point out that the materials which are rubbed together are different, not the same. The flint and the stone in the lighter; the match head and the matchbox; and in the case of electricity the silk and the ebony rod. The only example of similar materials being used is the old scouting method of rubbing two sticks together. This process is not generally deemed either quick or in the hands of inexperienced persons usually very successful. And think what it feels like to be a match about to be struck against the box. Even if I knew I was about to fulfil that for which I was created, I still hardly think I would relish the prospect. It seems likely to be uncomfortable to me; precisely because that with whom I am reacting is different from me.

Whither God in this process? I readily acknowledge all that I have discussed up till now could just as easily be useful in a political rally as a church service. To see the part God plays, and the only thing that makes the fire "religious" or "christian", one needs to return to the Old Testament again, to the encounter that Moses had with God in the burning bush. You might recall the story - the reason that Moses was attracted to the particular bush, was not in fact because it was burning - that was common enough in his day too. No, the unique thing was that the bush was burning but the wood was not being consumed! Now there are endless causes which demand our attention and call us to respond, heart and soul, with all our last energy. Ultimately only our common sense might tell us enough is enough, we are hurting ourselves. But when God's fire lights us, we are not hurt, nor are others hurt about us. When we are hurt or when others are hurt, it has ceased to be the fire of God's Holy Spirit.

Incidentally when we read in the book of the prophet Malachi that the Lord would come: "As a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver" (Mal 3.3) we would naturally think of this as a painful process. In reality the gold and silver are not touched by fire at all, it is only the impurities that are consumed. Just as the gold and the silver survive the refiner's fire - there would be no point to the refining if this were not the case.   We also will not only survive, but we will laugh at the flames, and rejoice at the purification taking place. In the process we will not be changed at all; it is all the frustrations and distractions that are done away with.

One of the things one soon learnt in Scouts was really that the art of lighting a fire was really an art, it demanded patience and practice in order to perfect it. Patience has been behind all the words today. Patience with ourselves and patience with others. A fire is built by patiently selecting the right wood, gathering it together, then putting each piece in its proper place. In our loving, part of the difficulty, the friction, comes when we are patient with the other, rather than trying to change them into what is identical to ourselves. And with the God part, when we are patient with ourselves or the other, we will not hurt ourselves or them by trying to make ourselves or them something we or they are not. Impatience on the other hand means that someone will be hurt, either ourselves or someone else.

We have been well instructed that love, joy and peace are pretty important in the list of the gifts of the Spirit; you will not be surprised then to be reminded that the next on the list is not in fact temperance, but is indeed patience. In chapter 5 of St Paul's letter to the Galatians the words are: "What the Spirit brings, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control."

And it is easy to take this all personally, but as is my wont, I want to suggest that it is more important to take this corporately.   If we know God’s blessings when we relate to others who are different, what will the conflagration be like if we as a denomination rub up against other denominations?  As ‘christians’, as we rub up against those of other faiths and those of no faith?  As ‘straight’ people as we rub up against gay persons?   No one will be hurt or harmed.   Nothing that is important will ever be lost, either in our own lives or in the lives of others, including our (and others’) sexuality.

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