FIRE: The Purifying Power of the Holy Spirit

Acts_0203awDoes your organization or business have mission statement?  We are wrestling with discerning our church’s mission statement.

Does your organization or business have an image statement? There are very few now that do. But in an image culture, it’s more important to have an image statement than a mission statement.

Providence is called by some the WaterFire City, and its WaterFire Festival has done more to revitalize downtown Providence than almost anything else. Fifty years ago, Providence was going the "rust-belt" way of other industrial cities unable to make the transition to an information economy. An "urban revitalization" consultant was hired to recommend new approaches to reversing the downward spiral that Providence found itself in. After extensive study, he made his proposals. Chief among which was the suggestion that the city blow up its perfectly good downtown bridge in order to give people "water experiences" like Providence offered its citizens in earlier days. Much to everyone’s surprise, Providence was in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world’s widest bridge – two miles wide at one point.

The consultant was laughed out of town. But Providence kept tanking as the urban flight move to panic stage. In desperation the money was raised to take down the bridge that covered the downtown in concrete and give people water experiences again. But it was too little, too late.

Then some art students at RISDE (Rhode Island School of Design) got
involved. The first thing these RISDE students did with their grant money was
to become turn the water experience upside down. The art students
commissioned the construction of a couple dozen huge cast iron
cauldrons that they permanently anchored in the middle of the rivers
and waterways riddling the downtown. Special gondolas were designed and
dedicated for filling these giant buckets with firewood to create huge
bonfires in the middle of the river (this expanded from a few dozen to
almost 100 braziers lit over 25 times in the summer of 1999, see The History of WaterFire).

If you had to come up with an image statement for us, what would it be?

Can you imagine a better one than "WaterFire?"

  • Just as the Hebrew people were led through the wilderness by WaterFire – a cloud of water by day, a pillar of fire by night:
  • Just as the Hebrew people were given the Ten Commandments from the
    words of God spoken out of the fire and rain (Deuteronomy 5:22):
  • So Christians are baptized by water and baptized by fire. What did
    John say? "I have baptized you with water, but he who is to come will
    baptize you with fire."

From the moment we throw water on a baby’s head, water marks us and
fire molds us. God’s grace is a cleansing stream; God’s grace is a
consuming fire. Jesus calls us to a waterfire discipleship. We’re more
familiar with the water component of waterfire than the fire component.
We’re more comfortable talking about a soul awash than a soul aroused
and on fire.

Myles Horton was the founder of the Highlander Center. This was the
training center for dozens of the nation’s most influential civil
rights workers. This is the place where Martin Luther King Jr. heard
Pete Seeger sing the song "We Will Overcome," and came away resolving
to adopt and adapt the song with one significant change – "We Shall
Overcome" – as the theme song of the civil rights movement. In his
autobiography, Horton has this to say about his mission:

had to turn my anger into a slow – burning fire, instead of a consuming
fire. You don’t want the fire to go out – you never let it go out – and
if it ever gets weak, you stoke it. But you don’t want it to burn you
up. It keeps you going, but you subdue it because you don’t want to be
destroyed by it. (Myles Horton, The Long Haul: An Autobiography (New
York: Doubleday, 1990, 80.)

This is what we often
forget about the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3:2. A bush on
fire is no big deal in the desert. Lots of bushes spontaneously combust
all the time. The big deal here is that the bush was on fire but wasn’t

We’re called to burn without burning up to burn without being
consumed by the fire. An inflammable faith isn’t a biblical faith.
Jeremiah didn’t really want to be a prophet to Judah. But he found that
"If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’,
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:9). In
another place Jeremiah records God saying, "Is not my word like fire,
says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?"
(Jeremiah 23:29).

Jesus said (Luke 12:49 REV) "I have come to set fire to the earth,
and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to undergo,
and what constraint I am under until it [the ordeal] is over."

In Revelation 2:18-29 Jesus is described as the one "who has eyes
like a flame of fire." When did Jesus’ eyes flame forth? What did Jesus
get freaky about? Whited sepulchers, brood of vipers, Satan, dogs,
foxes, hypocrites, dirty pots. Jesus even threw a "Temple Tantrum."
Sometimes Jesus wasn’t what we would call "nice."

  • "If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want
    to be wet you must get into the water." – C.S. Lewis, Mere
    Christianity, rev. and enl. ed. [New York: MacMillan, 1960], 137.)
  • Soren Kierkegarrd once said, "We do not require a revelation to
    grasp that we have been saved but rather to understand that we are
    sinners" (Quoted in "Persecution Complex," Context,
    April 2005, 37:4, p. B3). Its the consuming fire of grace that
    convinces us of our sin and the sin of the world.  Today I leave you
    with a word … do you burn for yourself?


Fire purifies us. This week ponder again the great commandment to love God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.  And to love your neighbor as yourself. Ask Jesus as you rise in the morning to help you love better this day.  As the sun sets on your day, ask the Spirit to remind you of how you have done in the loving.  Be burned, remember the hurt, resolve to act differently, ask Jesus for the grace to walk in a new way, and yield to the Spirit that you might have life to the full.  Amen.


Notes from Leonard Sweet, New Life in the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982):

The Burning Bush, the pillar of fire, the Mt. Carmel altar, the Pentecost flame — all evidences of the most alluring and menacing symbols of the Holy Spirit.

  • The Encounter at the Burning Bush: "Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6, see references in Deuteronomy 33:16, Mark 12:26, Luke 20:37, Acts 7:30, 35).
  • The Pillar of Fire to Light the Way:  "When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people" (Exodus 13:17-22, see references in Exodus 14:24, Number 14:14, Nehemiah 9:12, 19).
  • Elijah and the Prophets of Baal at the Mount Carmel Altar: "Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, "I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. … At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back." Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God." Elijah said to them, "Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape." Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there." (from 1 Kings 18:21-40).
  • The Flame of Pentecost: "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." (Acts 2:1-4).

The purifying power of the Holy Spirit constantly judges the world.

  • John the Baptist preached to those who came to him, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11).
  • This fire was often seen in relation to Judgment Day.  Franz Kafka reminded us that this day was more than just a day, God’s Judgment Day is a "court in perpetual session."

The purifying power of the Holy Spirit burns down that which stands in the way of new creation.

  • Weld characters into communities afire for justice and peace,
  • Scorches the last bit of lukewarmness from our beings, and
  • Kindles our spirits into living flames that burn (and burn out) with passion for humanity.
  • "I would rather leave behind on this earth a pile of ashes than a pile of dust" (Sweet, 24).
  • From the funeral rite — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

We come to worship to be reminded of our judgment and set free to be a new creation.