The very last words that Jesus spoke to his followers were marching orders—you will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all of Judea, and to the ends of the earth. Then He was gone. But this was too much! Surely there were people better suited? After all, Jesus’ followers were ordinary people, not kings or queens able to march armies across the land or change the world with a snap of their fingers. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and to the ends of the earth” But the city was vast, and the nation was vast and the ends of the earth stretched farther than they even imagined.
The women and men who had been given this daunting task, they all gathered in a house together—how to begin? And the breeze moving outside on the spring air turned to loud gusts which turned to a terrible howling like a tornado shrieking through the walls as if they were tissue paper. And the sound filled up the house, and filled up their ears and filled up their minds, so there was room for nothing else. And into that space in their minds that was made open for God there came a fire. Tongues of fire touched each of their heads and they burst into bonfires that engulfed their heads and shoulders. The fire poured out from their eyes and mouths and minds. They burned like bonfires stretching to the ceiling, engulfing the house, burning with the fire of God, a fire that burned, but did not consume.
Then all together they opened their mouths and all together they began glorifying God, their words flowing over one another and into one another and out of one another onto the street where a crowd gathered. All together they praised The Son of God, the Prince of Peace among those whom God favors the least and the lost and the lowly manger born of a virgin ears open to the good news of great joy for all God’s people of Israel’s God is great and a what a prophet mighty in word and deed, and what does it profit a man to gain the world was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested in the tomb for three days and on the third day rose petals drifting from the sky like fire.
It was the birth of the Church, born of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand people were baptized that very day, because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Those people were given ears to hear and opened minds, because of the power that was carried in that fire, that special fire, the fire that burns but does not consume.
It is a fire that appears only a handful of times in the Scriptures. The fire that burns but does not consume appeared at the burning bush. Moses was touched by that fire and he left carrying God’s word of freedom and set a whole people free. The fire that burns but does not consume also appeared to the prophet Isaiah in a burning, living coal of fire. Isaiah’s lips were touched by that fire and he carried in his mouth God’s word of reconciliation and homecoming for a people wasting away in exile. On Pentecost, the disciples were touched by that fire and they carried God’s word so far and so well that even we sitting here across a vast gulf of time and space have heard of what they did. The fire that burns but does not consume appears only a handful of times in scripture. And every time it appears it has only one purpose, it empowers ordinary people to mighty works of grace and mercy.
And you, Old South Church, you too have been fire-touched. Again and again in the history of this congregation we have been touched by the fire that burns but does not consume. We were touched by the fires of mass-hysteria in the witch trial days, but we were not consumed. We took that fire and shined a light of sanity and mercy and repentance. We were touched by the fires of revolution, but we were not consumed and instead joined in fanning that fire into the birth of a new nation. We were touched by the cleansing fires of abolition, and we had to touch that fire to our own flesh and we helped to cauterize the wound of human bondage from this land. We were touched by the fires of pestilence as our beloved gay brethren fell victim to the early days of the AIDS epidemic. But we were not consumed and with that fire we have lit a lamp of compassion and equality that still lights a pathway to the truth of God’s love for LGBT people. We are fire-touched, Old South Church, invested with and inhabited by and a favored implement of the Holy Spirit. And every time that the fire has touched us, we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do mighty works of grace and mercy.
And once more the fire has come upon us. Once more we have heard the rush like a violent wind. And we have seen the portents: blood and fire and smoky mist, the sky turned to darkness and the air to razor blades. Fire has visited our very doorstep. And this time, it is a fire of terror and hatred and anguish and violence.
And just as it always has in our history, being fire-touched has made us powerful, more powerful than before. In the days following the 117th Boston Marathon, people sought out our voice, chased us down, hounded us for our thoughts and to share our faith. On airwaves and newsprint and Wi-Fi, in public ceremonies and in the halls of power and in our own house of worship, the city and the nation and the world turned to us and asked: what does the church say in the face of this carnage? What would the church of Jesus Christ have us do? In a land where people do not listen to one another anymore, Old South was touched by fire and it gave people ears to hear what we say.
And it is not just me or Anthony or Nancy who have the power to share our faith. People will listen to you because you are from the church of the fire-touched, you are able to speak with authority about the bombings while others must demur. When there are angry words of hate or suspicion or vengeance spoken, you have the power to speak back words of peace and comfort that can prevail.
And that power, that power which is not our own and we did not seek and we would not have asked for had we known the cost, that power can grow. We can cherish the fire of the Holy Spirit and strengthen it. We can strengthen it if we comfort those who are shaken and grieving, or support those who are healing and trying to rebuild lives, or build bridges of friendship with faith-communities that have fallen under suspicion. And we will need that power very dearly, because the slow yet inexorable wheels of this nation’s justice have already begun to move. And there will come a day when we must as a commonwealth and a nation must decide what we shall do to a murderer who has fallen alive into our hands.
And there will come a moment—just a moment—when the whole world will once again turn to this fire-touched church and ask: what does the church of Jesus Christ say we should do? Let us be at the work of prayer and study and healing and listening so that when that moment comes, the words are second nature because we will know how to be Christ’s witnesses, in Boston and in all of the United States of America and to the ends of the earth.