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1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 7, 2007
The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide with a question about the next steps in his spiritual journey. The monk described his monastic solitude and daily rituals, and then asked what more he could to in order to experience God in his life. His spiritual guide simply responded with the words, “Become fire!”
Today’s scriptures invite progressive and mainstream Christians to “become fire.” This is the heart of John the Baptist’s response to the messianic question. “I baptize with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, it surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives. Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the “big bang” or “big birth” of the cosmos. God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment. We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant, to use Whitehead’s language, not only to live, but to live well and live better. Abundant energy and life flow through us, God’s passion awakens, guides, and inspires us, but—for the most part—we are oblivious to its intensity and guidance.
“Become fire,” even as you remember Jesus’ baptism! Where is your congregation lying dormant? Where are you only half-alive? What will you do, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “with your one wild and precious life?”
God is a lively fire. God’s fiery aims inspire, comfort, and challenge, and within each aim is all the energy necessary to achieve the vision God has placed before us for ourselves and our community. This is the heart of the Acts passage and we can affirm the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, described in this passage, provided we allow room for varied manifestations of the spirit. Sadly, many Christians see God’s Spirit moving primarily in one particular way—speaking in tongues, dramatic cures, and ecstatic experiences. Surely these experiences are part of God’s movement in the human adventure, but ecstasy (self-transcendence) can also be experienced in Quaker silence, centering prayer, walking meditation, energy work, chanting, and in service to the marginalized and vulnerable in our daily lives. Healing can be gradual as well as immediate, and even persons who are not cured by touch or prayer can experience a healing peace which passes all understanding.
Once again, it is good that the meaning of “receive the Holy Spirit” is also vague and polyvalent. Such vagueness is a spiritual virtue if it allows us to see God’s lively spirit moving everywhere, in the expected and unexpected, and in the ordinary and extraordinary events of our lives. Perhaps today’s passage shows us that our vision of God, reflected in our doctrines and rituals, needs to be completed and transformed by a lively experience with the Holy Adventure in our lives. Theology – even process-relational theology – is not enough. Theology must “become fire” through practices that make our beliefs come alive and change the world. With John Wesley, our hearts can be “strangely warmed.” The fire of the spirit can illuminate our spiritual pathway and enable us to claim deeper experiences of God’s presence in our lives and the world. In worship and prayer, we are invited to “taste and see that God is good.” Progressive and mainstream Christians need to emphasize new forms of worship and spirituality, expanding and updating traditional practices and rituals, to nurture a “practical divinity” for our time.
Over the years, I have invoked the words of Claremont, California, and United Church of Christ, spiritual guide, Allan Armstrong Hunter, who advised his spiritual directees to “breathe the spirit deeply in.” What would it be like for every breath to be a prayer and every encounter centered in God’s lively spirit breathing in and through us?” What would it be like to experience divine energy flowing in and out of us with each breath? The Spirit does not need to be invoked by our rituals or prayers, for the spirit does not come from the outside, but is an inner fire and healing breath moving in us and in all things.
Fiery followers of God will encounter challenges that threaten to overwhelm us. To become fire is to take risks, test new behaviors, and embark on adventures to new and strange places. Exciting as these new adventures may be they may also heighten our anxiety, and we may turn back from the pathway God has invited us to follow. There is no all-protective safety net on the Holy Adventure, but there is the companionship of God and faithful spiritual friends, and this is our healing, salvation, and sustenance for the adventure.
In the risks of life, we need to remember our baptism and other significant moments of transformation. While God’s love and guidance does not depend on the ritual of baptism, remembering God’s word to Jesus, “you are my child, my beloved,” reminds us of God’s unconditional for every child and at every season of life. Breathe in God’s spirit, bathe in God’s healing waters, radiate God’s fire. God is always with you, enlightening, illuminating, soothing, and inspiring.
The universal God is intimate, calling us by name, knowing our lives, embracing our uniqueness, allowing our adventure to shape God’s adventure. Though God cannot provide an impregnable shield to protect us from harm, God does provide resources for safe and healing journeys into the unknown – possibilities, intuitions, companions, and God gives us God’s own companionship, feeling in and with us, and remembering our lives forever. As Isaiah proclaims, “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame will not consume you.”
Psalm 29 describes the majestic voice of God. In our quest for non-hierarchical and non-coercive images of God, we progressive and mainstream Christians have neglected the grandeur and glory of God. Though we may not affirm traditional doctrines of divine omnipotence and omniscience – God determining and knowing everything things in advance - we can affirm the dynamic presence of God. We can rejoice at hymns such as “God who Stretched the Spangled Heavens” and, apart from one apocalyptic verse, “How Great Thou Art,” when we bathe our spirits in images of the Milky Way and the creation of solar systems as well as the intricacies of our immune system.
God’s creative voice (dabhar) resounds in all things, calling them to life, love, and creativity. We can sing the wonders of creation, praise the Creative Power flowing in all things, and, in appreciation, commit ourselves to becoming God’s partners not only in healing, but also beautifying, the world.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.