“And 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.”
This is crazy stuff. Even the people who were there “were amazed and perplexed!” They experienced something unbelievable, and wondered what it meant. I’m sure that even as it happened, there were some in the room who did not believe their eyes – or their experience.
You know by now that I was raised in a fairly skeptical family – the idea of God, even in the untraditional sense was something I didn’t learn about until much later in life.
And even once I had learned that the word “God” meant so much more than the dude with the big pointy finger painted in the Sistine Chapel, it took me a long time to reconcile the idea of a constantly moving and changing Spirit which infuses all living things with what I had been taught in my early life. But most importantly, I had to accept that experience is not always rational or logical.
Let me give you an example. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe that the spirit within us lurks nearby once our body has died. As far as I’m concerned, ghosts don’t exist. Except I saw one once. Back when I still worked in the theater, I attended a tribute concert for a much-loved gentleman who had run the box office for decades. I was sitting in the back of the theater with my friend who had worked with Charlie for many, many years, and gradually I became aware of a presence behind me. I turned around to look, and there he was. Sitting in the seat directly behind my friend, with a cigarette in his hand and his beloved dog Ginger, a golden retriever who had also died a few months before, at his feet.
It is a great mystery to me what that was all about – because like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts. But as sure as I am standing here before you today, I saw one once.
The story of Pentecost is one of the great mysteries found in the world’s scriptures—and like my experience, is open to reflection and interpretation. I learned about Pentecost in my very first class in my very first year of seminary, when I had to run to the bookstore and purchase the last copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms so that I could look it up! It was a class on the History of Ancient Christianity, and the professor had breezed by a reference to Pentecost, assuming that we all would understand. But though I had heard the word before, I didn’t understand what it meant.
“Pentecost” was one of those words. The words I thought I knew were part of a special story, one from which I was omitted at best, and more likely, actively excluded. Upon further study, however, I discovered that one of the most important parts of the Pentecost story is that it was the first time that the Spirit had been revealed to more than just a select few.
According to the story, Jesus gave the Spirit to the twelve disciples on the evening before he died. But on Pentecost, “The Spirit, once the exotic possession of a prophetic few, is now offered to all.” For me, this biblical story about one aspect of God seemed almost Universalist in nature.
We can use this story as a metaphor—calling on the idea of the power of fire to connect us to the power of the Spirit to transform. It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit comes down as tongues of fire. “Spirit of Life, come unto me…”
According to theologian Peter Hodgson, “Biblical and classical metaphors of spirit represent it as a fluid, pervasive, intangible energy whose fundamental quality is vitality and freedom and whose fundamental purpose is to create, shape and enliven.”
For Unitarian Universalists, the flame symbolizes the light of truth, the warmth of community and the fire of commitment… it symbolizes the refiner’s fire, the flame that transforms us, the flame that keeps us warm, the fire that lights our way and draws us home.
In astrology, fire signs are mutable—they are changeable. And just as fire is always changing—just as fire is a dancing light throwing shadows on the wall, the flame that exists at the center of our shared symbol is always changing. It reminds us of our history, illuminates our present, and prepares us for our future.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are constantly evolving, and so are our congregations. UU history is a dance of change and continuity, not a static, fixed doctrinal deposit that must be preserved and passed on unchanged.
My friend Alison puts it this way, “Today, as a minister, I use the flaming chalice to symbolize many things on different occasions. Sometimes it is truth, or love, or hope; sometimes the energy of a life, of one of us, that is gone but not forgotten’ sometimes I simply hold the flame up as a reminder of our good intentions…
Some days it is the chalice part we hold up, sometimes it is the flame. But for me, I will always think of the flaming chalice as a vessel of sorts, one that can receive but also one that can share and give of itself. One that contains the past but is open to the future. Most importantly, my chalice is a vessel that holds something significant and powerful to which it is worth paying attention.”
Today we are holding up the flame—that dancing, burning heat of the refiner’s fire—the flame that tempers steel, making it stronger and more flexible. And that image of the flame is significant and powerful. It is worth paying attention to!
The flame we lift up today reminds us where we came from—it calls to mind people like Thomas Potter, committed to his vision, and John Murray, willing to embrace a miracle.
I particularly think of Michael Servetus, our anti-Trinitarian forbear who was burned at the stake in Geneva, all but three copies of his major written work destroyed.
This is the fire of commitment.
We must also remember the cost of commitment to the light of truth—and be willing to risk our comfort and our assumptions in order to realize our greatest dreams. Hopefully you and I will never find ourselves making such a drastic choice as Servetus did, but nonetheless, I ask, what are we willing to sacrifice for our faith? It is possible to allow this life-changing faith of ours to enter into our hearts and souls. It is possible that in the mystery, we might find a common understanding.
The flame also reminds us of the work it takes to create and sustain a fire: to build a strong foundation, we must begin with lots of kindling, shelter the young flames and then tend the embers. This is the warmth of community: it is work to nurture and tend our families, our communities of faith. And yet, this work does not have to be drudgery—it can be joyous and enlivening, as dancing flames in a warming fire.
It is no coincidence, I would argue, that the first major appearance of the Holy Spirit moving on earth was first revealed in the sounds of wind and the appearance of fire. This is the unpredictable non-rational, mysterious, playful part of the trinity.
My own experience of the divine is exactly that sort of astonishing, pervasive power that lives and moves anywhere and everywhere, most especially where I least expect it. Like the ghost I can’t explain, but know that I saw, God is inexplicable and surprising, and over the years I have learned to let my rational mind have a little break and not work too hard to understand.
And that is why I love Pentecost. Pentecost is real, it is immediate and it is miraculous. The inbreaking of the Spirit is troubling, unsettling, even scary, but it is where we find the greatest gifts, if only we allow ourselves to let go of our worries and fears long enough to give it space to move.
When the tongues of fire descended, the writer of Acts reports that the people “…were so on fire with new hope that outsiders who watched them concluded they must have been drunk on new wine…” UU minister John Nichols continues, “So much about the spiritual life is difficult to describe in conventional language. We owe it to our friends and ourselves to pay attention to a vision, dream or a thought that comes to us in a very compelling way. Of course, it could be a delusion, but it could be a much more powerful message.”
And we are a spiritual community. We are a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community, steeped in the historically beloved and effective trifecta of freedom, reason and tolerance. These essential historical concepts are deeply important to who we are as a faith community, but I do believe that we sometimes rely on them to our detriment.
According to a sermon by Rev. Bruce Clear, “To be rational does not mean to believe only those things which are proven to be logically true.” In order to fully live our faith, we must be open to the unexpected, the non-rational, the unproven. We must look for the mystery. We must make room for Spirit.
Fire is part of many religious traditions: the hearth of Brigid, the angel of the Lord appearing to Moses—it is also an integral part of most any shamanic initiation. Pentecost was an initiation of sorts, but a communal ecstatic initiation experience rather than an individual one.
How do you feel when you think about this? Is it scary? Threatening? Perhaps you are a bit frightened. Perhaps you fear that letting go and embracing the mystery might cause things to spin out of control? Can we trust in the power of the Spirit of Life to light our way as we walk forward into the mystery, out onto the edges of our known world and step into what the future promises to bring?
At Pentecost, it was through the mystery that the people found a common understanding. They were lost and afraid, missing the man who had inspired and led them, worried for the future of this tiny movement that would become Christianity. And yet, they experienced the mystery of the tongues of fire, and they were able to understand one another and move forward.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not always understand each other’s language – we have different theologies, different life experiences. But we are in covenant together, which means that we are committed to walk forward into an unknown future together with compatriots whose language we cannot always understand.
Embracing the mystery, as at Pentecost, changes us. We are not changed so as to be unrecognizable, but transformed, transmuted, through the fire of Spirit and the light of truth into something more. As the small gathering of disciples was transformed into something more. Not changed into something different so much as propelled into a new stage in their development, with new energy, vision and purpose.
We have a powerful image here in the chalice, and the story of Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the importance of paying attention to the things we do not understand.
May we find our way to welcoming the unknown.
May we embrace the mystery together.
May our shared history and our commitment to the light of truth and the fire of commitment bring us to new and unimagined places.
May it be so.