People from across The Church of England in Lancashire have been participating in our first ever online conference #HomeGrown: Hearts on fire with love for you.
Our Blackburn Diocese conference has featured a number of live YouTube sessions over two days (October 13 and 14); as well as Zoom-based seminars and live online prayer.
In the third main YouTube session, Bishop Philip gave a talk on the topic ‘Spirit and Fire’.
You can watch the full talk here via this link directly to the YouTube recording (watch from 1h 07m 27s).
And you can click this link to go to the general YouTube site and catch up on, or watch again, all the other recordings of the live sessions from across the two days of #HomeGrown.
Below you will also find the full text and here is a downloadable pdf version of the talk as well.
Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to be the cleaner of the Upper Room? I find myself wondering that quite a lot. She was probably some poor, low paid Jewish peasant girl and as a by-product of God’s plan of salvation she got put through 50 days of unremitting hard labour.
First, she had to clean up all the muck from a very long Passover Meal at the Last Supper. The bread baskets, the greasy lamb joints and the sticky horseradish sauce. Those wine goblets don’t clean themselves you know.
Added to that all the mess of the foot-washing. Bowls and towels and filthy, stinky water slopped all over the place. She must have got through gallons of Febreze. And you can bet Jesus didn’t have time to do his own laundry, what with a world to redeem that night.
Next, just when she’s got the place tidy, those filthy disciples turn up all over again and hang about, along with his mum this time, praying day after day, as if there’s nothing better to do. And to cap it all the Holy Spirit comes in power. Think of the mess! All that wind blowing up the dust and knocking down the ornaments. And all those flames of fire – that won’t have done the paintwork much good. The poor woman!
But it’s in the nature of redemption to cause absolute chaos. Engaged women get pregnant. Wise men turn up out of the blue. Pigs jump into lakes. Demons scream and howl. There’s feasting and there’s drinking.
There’s fury and there’s pain. Onlookers are terrified. The self-righteous are noisily denounced. The silent find their voice and shout and sing. Like child-birth, there is nothing quiet or organised about salvation.
In Acts Chapter 2 we encounter the chaos of Pentecost. Wind. Flame. Crowds. Sermons. Allegations of drunkenness. Repentance. Conversion. New life. In Psalm 29,7 we read: ‘The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.’
That’s just what happens in the Upper Room. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. No wonder the authorities got so worried.
So, what is actually happening in the midst of all this Pentecostal bedlam? In a word, baptism. And if that sounds a rather gentle outcome from all that chaos it’s not because Pentecost is an anti-climax. It is because we have shockingly allowed ourselves to forget the life-transforming, world-changing, awesome power of the sacramental gift of Baptism.
In Luke 3, 16, John the Baptist prophesies of Jesus: ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’
In Acts 2, 3, that prophesy is fulfilled. For the disciples and for Mary the long years of preparation and training are over. Jesus has done his work amongst them. Now they receive baptism in the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit’s flame resting upon them, they are sent into the world as fire carriers. They go to set the world aflame in the power of the Gospel as the spirit strengthens them to carry the news of the Risen saviour.
I wonder if you ever feel any jealousy towards those disciples? A lot of Christians do. They think ruefully, ‘If only I, like Peter and John and James and the others, had heard the words of Jesus spoken by his lips, had received bread from his own hands and been in the Upper Room to receive the Spirit, it would be so much easier to believe, to proclaim, to live faithfully.’
Well the answer is, you have. Jesus speaks to you when you open the Scriptures. Jesus feeds you with his own hand when you go to the Eucharist. And you have been in the Upper Room for the day of Pentecost. You have received the gift of the Spirit in just the same way and with just the same power. It happened at your Baptism.
When you were baptised you were born anew of water and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit rested upon you. The priest prayed that you would be renewed daily by his anointing spirit. And then, for those of you who have been confirmed, at Confirmation you claimed for yourself that spirit-filled Baptismal identity.
A mind-blowing prayer was prayed over you, “May the Holy Spirit rest upon you, the spirit of wisdom and understanding the spirit of counsel and inner strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness.” The spirit was sealed into you with the touch of oil. The flame-shaped Bishop’s mitre was a potent visual symbol of the Spirit’s presence.
These acts are your identity. The Spirit has entered into your life with the same chaotic, wild, furious power as he did on the day of Pentecost when he made such a mess of the Upper Room. You carry fire. It rests upon you.
And if those events seem remote, or if you regret that you did not at the time grasp the potency of the gift you were receiving, no trouble. Pray for the Spirit’s gift to be stirred up in you now. Prayer that simple but thrillingly dangerous prayer, ‘Come Holy Spirit,’ and the Spirit will rest on you again in the power of Pentecost and set your heart aflame.
Like Peter, like John, like Matthew, like Mary, like Paul, you are a fire carrier. That is your vocation. The fire of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost goes with you.
What does that mean in practice though? How does being a fire carrier make a difference to our lives? The easiest way to answer that question is simply to think about what fire does.
Well first and most obviously, fire destroys. The Californian wildfires show us its destructive power, and that makes it in many ways a strange symbol for God’s work because fire must have been a thing of real fear to the Jews.
The fire of the Spirit will destroy in you all that is not of God. If you let him work in you, the Spirit will cleanse, release, unbind, drive out sin and make you afresh. It is through the Spirit that Jesus is contemporary with us. So, the Spirit animates the power of Christ to forgive. If your life is held back by sin or guilt, ask for the Spirit to destroy in you all that is not of God, and know yourself to be unbound.
Sin is destroyed in us by Jesus. That means that as fire carriers it is our job to show that Jesus can destroy sin in others and in his world. Paul tells us that, as those who have been reconciled to the Father through the saving work of the Son, we are sent with a ministry of reconciliation.
As fire carriers, we heal relationships, we mend friendships, we name and denounce injustice, we work for the good of our communities, we give a voice to the abused and to victims, we seek to undo the sin that renders so many lives miserable. It is not our task to judge or condemn. Rather we live lives that point beyond sin to a world redeemed. We bear witness to what Jesus does by destroying sin upon the cross.
Then secondly and by way of contrast, fire renews. When a fire sweeps through a forest or across a Moorland, it can seem like utter destruction. But very often a few years later the forest or the Moor will have recovered and be richer than ever before. These cleansing fires can be part of nature’s plan to renew and heal itself.
The Spirit likewise cleanses and renews with his holy flame. As fire carriers it is our task to point to the renewed life that is the gift of Jesus Christ. We carry fire whenever we share Jesus Christ with others.
That’s first about our words, for if the Spirit has filled us it won’t be hard to bear witness to our faith. When we pray for a non-Christian friend, when we speak words of faith or invite others to a service or an event where they will hear the Gospel, we are carrying words of fire. When we organise a mission event or put on a nurture course, we are creating spaces where fire can spread and renew. We must break our fear of sharing faith, because if we know freedom in Jesus, we have no right to deny that freedom to others.
And the other way we can carry renewing fire is as we share Jesus is with our deeds. We are facing a new era of poverty and mass unemployment in our nation. The urban and rural poor will inevitably pay a disproportionate cost of the pandemic. When we serve, when we place ourselves alongside the poor, when we feed the hungry, when we offer shelter to the homeless and when we do all this openly in the name of Jesus Christ, we carry fire with a raw and irresistible power that no words can ever match.
Fire destroys. Fire renews. And then third fire dazzles with irresistible light.
A survey on Sunday showed that two thirds of people in our nation now look to the future in fear.
Lockdown has brought about a pandemic of anxiety, of stress and of low-level depression. As the nights lengthen, many people find themselves gazing into the darkness and the gloom.
And do you know what light they are searching for? Not just a vaccine. Not just job security or financial security. Not just social pleasures and time with family. The light they seek is the light of Jesus Christ. And that’s the light you carry.
So dazzle with the light of Jesus. Be someone who carries his light wherever you go. That means a generosity with those who are struggling. It means a willingness to stop and listen. It means controlling our temper and refusing to join the ranks of those who long to blame and condemn.
It means having the patience to live with pain and suffering for a while and not to grasp too easily for solutions or resolution. And above all it means a deep-rooted joy, a joy that is not about superficial cheeriness or an inane grin, but a joy that is drawn from the saving work of Jesus and from his sure promise of salvation, one that nothing can take away from us.
Fire destroys. Fire renews. Fire dazzles. The spirit of Pentecost has rested on you in Baptism. So be a fire carrier. Carry the light of Jesus with you into a sad and suffering world. And remember fire is uncontainable.
Once alight it can barely be controlled. Let’s light fires across Lancashire with our love and our zeal, and let’s watch them glow and dazzle and spread to the glory of God the Father.
Ronnie Semley, October 2020