Fire and Dust

© Michael Clarkson, 2018.  Preached at St. John’s, Ithaca, NY, May 20, 2018, for Pentecost, Year B, and my graduation from Education for Ministry.  Texts:  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15, and Acts 2:1-21.  Image: Pentecost by Duccio.

What would it be like to have a tongue of fire over my head?  What would it be like to look out and see tongues of fire above all our heads?  Would we feel the heat?  Would it illumine our sight?  Or burn so brightly we couldn’t bear to look?  Would we be like Moses’ burning bush—unconsumed?  Or would the flame reduce us to ash, and the wind blow it away—like dust?

That’s where this story began, with dust, back on Ash Wednesday.  (You remember, Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.)  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Then the 40 days of Lent, culminating in the completion of Jesus’ Passion, the triumph of the resurrection.  Then the 40 days from Easter to Ascension Day, when the WORD made flesh (as we celebrated at Christmas), returned glorified and enthroned in heaven—the flesh made WORD, as it were.  But the story didn’t end there.  Jesus promised not to leave his first disciples, nor us, alone.  And so today we celebrate the 50th day since Easter, Pentecost.  In the liturgical calendar, an “octave of octaves.”

So we are carried along in the story of salvation, from dust to fire and one day again to dust.  But not just dust.  Beloved dust [the title of book by Robert Hughes, Prof. of Divinity at Sewanee, one of our Episcopal seminaries].  So beloved by God that the Holy Spirit comes to animate those first disciples on Pentecost with tongues of fire, transforming their story once more.

That same Holy Spirit comes today and every day to transform us.  To convert each person from sin and despair to new life and new being.  Like all developing life, that conversion requires growth, and growth can come slowly.  In the Christian life, we pass through birth into the world, birth into the Church through baptism, maturity marked by the Rite of Confirmation.  All the while deepening our understanding through worship, Sunday School, catechism, Bible study, shared service (perhaps Loaves and Fishes).  All creating a gradual revelation of God’s eternal purposes.

Gradual revelation is hard though.  We want the answers, and we want them now.  I imagine Jesus’ disciples faces falling when he told them, “I still have many things to say to you,” … then refused to go on.  Sitting there, on the edge of their seats, waiting for wisdom.  But no.  “You cannot bear them now,” says their master.  In modern language, “No spoilers.”  “That would be telling.”

Certainly our shared understanding of the Holy Spirit has been gradual.  “God” or “Creator” or “Father”?  Sure.  We have loads of Hebrew Bible for a start.  “Jesus” or “Christ” or “Word” or “Son”?  Sure.  We have the New Testament for that.  But what is this Holy Spirit?  What meaning are we to make of it?

The Nicene Creed—the original creed of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that is, not what we find in the BCP—doesn’t offer much help.  After the bits we all know and will soon recite about “We believe” in God the Father Almighty and in one Lord Jesus Christ, it more or less ends just with this abrupt statement:  “And in the Holy Spirit.”  Full stop.  No more explanation.

It took another half century until the Council of Constantinople (381) or maybe even another century or so until the Council of Chalcedon (451)—the record is obscure—to reach more or less what we have in the BCP:  proceeding, worshipped glorified, one holy catholic and apostolic church, etc.  And even with all that, how much do we really say about the Holy Spirit?  So many words for the first and second persons of the Trinity, so few for the third.

Alistair McGrath, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, writes, “The Holy Spirit has long been the Cinderella of the Trinity. The two other sisters may have gone to the theological ball; [but] the Holy Spirit got left behind.”  (The Trinity as Sisters!) We see that Cinderella story in the text of the Creed, though with the charismatic movement in the 20th  century perhaps the times are changing.  Let’s stay with the Creed, though.  After “we believe in the Holy Spirit,” and the worshipping and glorifying and speaking through the prophets, what do we get next?  The Church.  This is important.

We don’t see God the Father.  No one does, according to the prologue to the Gospel of St. John our patron.  We don’t see Jesus.  He lived and died and was resurrected and ascended, but we don’t live in 30-ish AD Palestine.  What do we see?  The Holy Spirit in the Church.  Which is to say, the people here.

Look around you, if Episcopalian social politeness will allow it.  If not now, look around you during communion, or during coffee hour.  Dare to see those tongues of fire hovering over each of you.  Dare to believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in each of you.  Dare to be transformed by that life-giving power into the beloved dust that you truly are.  And have the audacity to take that transformation out of these walls into the world around you:  Ithaca or Lansing, Cornell or IC, business, home or school, and be part of the gradual revelation of the Kingdom of God!

Make no mistake.  The Kingdom of this world does not welcome you.  The RCL (as it is wont to do) excerpts from the Gospel today instead of reading continuously.  In part because what we skipped itself wouldn’t make sense without backing up even further, where we read that Jesus said, “Be aware that the world hated me before it hated you.”  When Jesus goes on to foretell the sending of the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Greek word used is parakletos.  A legal term, essentially an attorney.  “Para” meaning close beside.  “Kaléo” meaning to make a call.  Someone who is able to make a right judgment call because they are close enough to the situation.

Knowing that, re-read John 15:25.  The Advocate will do what?  Testify on Jesus’ behalf.  To be Jesus’ attorney.  Jesus was on trial by the world.  Is still on trial by the world.  And the Advocate comes to testify in Jesus’ defense.

First:  the world believed Jesus to be sinful.  He blasphemed!  He made himself the Son of God!  Heresy!  WRONG says the Advocate.  Jesus did not sin.  He is the Word made flesh made Word again.  And by the power of the Spirit, we may believe that truth.

Second:  the world believed Jesus to be unrighteous.  He had a demon! He died shamefully on a tree!  WRONG says the Advocate.  Jesus ascends to receive glory and honor and power.  And by the power of the Spirit, we may believe that truth.

Third:  the world believed Jesus to be condemned in judgment.  WRONG says the Advocate.  Jesus is not the one pronounced guilty.  The dark powers of sin and wickedness are themselves found guilty and revealed for what the ultimately are:  nothing.  Powerless in the face of the Easter triumph of the Lamb.  And by the power of the Spirit, we may believe, share, and be transformed by that truth.

Now on to verse 27.  “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”  That charge is to the first disciples, yes.  But it echoes through two millennia to us today in this room.  We are advocates.  We are close at hand.  We are asked to make the right judgment call.  What an awesome responsibility.  By myself I could never accomplish it.  How good then that God the Holy Spirit dwells within me and you.  That same spirit that inflamed the disciples at Pentecost.

In the Acts story, the Greek word for the spirit is different than in John; Acts uses Pneumatos.  “Wind” or “breath” or “spirit”.  Wind can’t be seen.  Only how it moves other objects, carrying them along, lifting them up and setting them down.  Breath can’t be seen.  Oh, you can see a person breathing, you can see moisture escape your lips in a cold Ithaca winter (or spring, or this year, summer).  But breath itself is usually imperceptible.  We can’t touch wind or breath, but we can feel them.  We hear their impact.

And so it is with that third meaning of Pneumatos:  spirit.  We feel the spirit.  We hear its impact.  And we as advocates become that impact, transforming the world, gradually revealing the Kingdom of God.

Which brings me at last to EfM, Education for Ministry.  Actually, I’ve been talking about EfM all along.  Let’s rewind.

I started with story, the story of Christmas to Ash Wednesday to Easter to Ascension to Pentecost.  EfM is about story.  Each year every participant practices telling their own story of the Christian faith as shown forth in their own life.  “Spiritual autobiography” is what it’s called.  Hearing the stories of other participants is one of the great gifts of EfM.

I continued with gradual revelation of the Holy Spirit.  EfM is about that continued, gradual revelation of the Christian faith.  Year 1 reads the Hebrew Scriptures.  Year 2 reads the New Testament.  Year 3 reads church history.  Year 4 reads theology.  It’s a process of continued maturation.  God still has many things to say to us through that scripture and tradition, things that in our prior Christian education we weren’t ready to hear.  Maybe things that are hard to hear.  There is horribleness in the Bible.  There has been and is horribleness in the Church and the history of Christian thought.  It’s there because all Christians, you and I included, have that horribleness within—that sinful, fallen nature.  EfM will not spare you that.  But EfM will give you a community of brothers and sisters with whom to share that burden, and discover beyond it a new salvific beauty.

After gradual revelation, I talked about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  If we were to read just a few verses ahead from where we stopped in Acts today, we’d reach 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.”  Teaching, fellowship, bread, prayer.  All are signs of the Holy Spirit.  All are present in our group here at St. John’s.  Teaching one another.  Fellowship with one another.  Sharing the Eucharist with one another.  Prayer with one another.

And I finished by remarking on the effects of the Spirit and how it is felt through and by all of us.  That effect is the end and beginning of Education for Ministry.  Application of what you learn in EfM is the point:  to take your own experience, put it into dialog with the Christian tradition, to make meaning out of that dialog, and to apply that meaning in realizing the Kingdom of God in the world around you.

Thanks to EfM I am here today, doing my best to proclaim the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that I feel called to do.  I can’t tell you where your EfM experience will lead, or what EfM will be like for you.  (That would be telling.  Spoilers, remember?)  Your Education for Ministry waits with eager longing to be revealed.

Let me close by quoting Presiding Bishop Michael Curry from the royal wedding at which he preached yesterday morning, himself quoting Jesuit scientist and theologian, Pierre de Chardin:  “What paralyzes life is a lack of faith, and lack of audacity.  Spirit must be a condition of progress.  The day will come when, after harvesting the ether, the winds, the tides, [even] gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.”

So:  don’t “do” EfM.  Rather, grow in and be transformed by the Spirit.  Do the ministry to which you are called.  Consider whether EfM might empower you to discover that ministry more deeply.  As that ministry is revealed, as it is being revealed, as it gradually will be revealed, that tongue of fire is burning hotter over your head, blazing to reveal you as the beloved dust that you are.


One thought on “Fire and Dust

  1. Not bad at all. I like your reflections on spiritual autobiography, and I suspect more of yours will come out in future sermons. Theology nerd may be where you are at now (and perhaps where you will remain in terms of teaching and academia), but I hope that is not an ultimate goal. Dialogue with your audience/congregation over time will help you better communicate at their level, using word pictures instead of theological jargon–think Jesus’ use of parable vs. Paul’s letter to the Romans: very powerful, but difficult for a young Christian to follow. I still struggle with that one, and still feel more at home with a small group discussion than preaching. Two more comments/sidebars. First, I had already read Michael Curry’s homily, although we skipped watching the royal wedding. And, second, it occurs to me that you might get more out of my 2 vol. commentary on John by Raymond Brown than me. If you don’t have a copy in your library let me know and I will give you mine the next time we get together. Peace.


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