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Church News Volume 6, Issue 6 (June 2005)

Dear friends,

"I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams." (Acts 2:17)

Fire can be frightening; even the tiniest flame can prove unpredictable and intense: leaping and dancing, crackling and roaring, or smouldering unseen. For early humankind fire may have been the most obvious indication of its supremacy over other species. Harnessing its power, and especially discovering how to kindle it for ourselves, may have seemed to give almost godlike status to humanity. Nevertheless, while fire was prized for supplying heat and light, as a means of cooking food and later for generating energy to drive machines, it was still obvious that it was dangerous and tricky - to be treated with enormous respect. However human beings tried to domesticate it, there was still a chance that it could escape our control and quite literally backfire on us.

If we stop to think about it, the idea that the Holy Spirit first appeared like fire, irradiating the disciples, is quite unnerving. For, in a secret, enclosed location in Jerusalem, two of the most fickle and elusive elements known come together: fire and a strong wind. Unreasonable flame, and invisible, erratic currents of air. Materialising from nowhere, they rush over the apostles like waves … and something extraordinary happens to them: they can suddenly do things which they never could before.

So startling is their transformation that bystanders seek an explanation; in human terms, this simply isn't possible. One minute these men are a demoralised remnant, the next they are leaders and preachers, visionaries and martyrs; before they are a ragbag of northern labourers and after they are the "A" team: skilled in communicating the gospel across the culture and language divide. For the average Pamphylian or Egyptian, finding the man who had to wave his hands to make himself understood at your market stall yesterday, suddenly fluent and persuasive in your mother tongue, is odd to say the least! Something is out of control, behaving as it ought not to: this is something we humans don't like much.

Some years ago there was a British Gas advertising campaign, where various celebrities would snap their fingers and a blue flame would spring up at the end of their thumb: "Don't you just love being in control?" was the slogan. It was seductive. Of course we love being in control: air conditioning, central heating, 24-hour supermarkets, cable TV, flexitime … we want to choose, to please ourselves in as many ways as possible. In the prevailing Western culture, the will of the individual is supreme. So God is becoming confined to smaller and smaller boxes, domesticated and sugar-coated for Sunday TV programmes, crammed into a shape and size that seeks to place him at our disposal. We might imagine that we are in command and feel rather sorry for those who are less able to snap their fingers and get whatever they desire. The people of the developing world, for example, the poverty and uncertainty of whose daily lives are scarcely imaginable to us, can choose little. Yet in many ways they display an openness to God, and especially the enabling power of his free-flowing Spirit, which does not impose the same human limitations on divine capabilities. St Paul has seen the Spirit in action; he describes to the Corinthian Christians the way it brings to light different gifts in different people.

Somehow we must come closer to the Spirit's flame, removing the narrow limits we seem to have applied to God, in all his persons. It's not easy. We are embedded in a culture that often cannot hear the claims of a higher authority. Accepting that God is God, that Jesus uniquely revealed him on earth and that his Spirit abides with us - not a destructive force, but a constructive, saving one - moves us to commit ourselves to a mutually trusting relationship; to hear ourselves called and to be open to possibilities. That may mean that we are in for a surprise - for the divine spark may turn us into something new: prophets, dreamers, even visionaries. The tiniest chink of openness to the Spirit can enable us to do things we never believed we could, help us weather storms of great devastation, uphold us in the deepest sorrow … even make us heard in languages we have never studied. This is why the Church is here: to proclaim who is really in control and to participate in his mission. Each with our various complementary gifts, we are the ones who, like the apostles before us, can, together, make God known and his kingdom come.

Revd Ian M. Finn

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Last Modified Sunday 04 March 2018