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The Most Beautiful Shining Fire

Acts 19:1-7; 8:14-17

Perhaps like me, with this New Year you have resolved to make this year better than the one before. Hopefully though, neither of us have been trapped in the mass-market-snake oil salesman scam like the ones I stumbled upon. This is real by the way!

Simply wrap the AB Energizer belt around your waist and with just the press of a button you’re on your way to tighter abs…. Say good-bye to strenuous, time-consuming workouts because you can use the AB Energizer while you continue with your day-to-day activities such as working, shopping, or watching TV. All for only 47.95…

America seems to have a proliferation of miracle products.  Those devices and gadgets we spend billions of dollars a year on trying to find that magic shortcut to a better, richer, more prosperous life. Apparently, any problem can be fixed for a mere $19.95 plus shipping and handling. However, one glance at the landfills filling at an ever-rapid pace is proof that in life there are no short cuts. It seems that no area of society is immune from this noisy, money-driven face marketing. Listen to this one…

STOP! Here is important information you simply MUST know in order to DOUBLE . . . even TRIPLE your [returns]…! If you check out this material on…you will see that this material lists there for a full $147 …But now here’s the good news… you WON’T have to pay $147, or even $97! Follow this special link and order your own personal copy of Double Your Church Attendance Deluxe Edition…all for a mere $37!” 

“Here’s the good news” … $37 to double your church attendance” …$37 for good news. I seem to remember the good news being free, but churches, in their desperation to fill their pews, will resort to any measures whether it is reducing the Gospel down to a slick slogan, watering down worship, or becoming a consumer-oriented institution which exists to meet the consumer demands of its members. In the process the church growth industry thrives by tempting churches into believing it is as easy to obtain as rock-hard abs without any sit-ups. However, instead of filling up landfills they are emptying out denominational churches.

Peter’s response to Simon who wanted to buy the Holy Spirit suggests that the Gospel is not something that can be sold at any price and that attempting to do so perverts and destroys it.  

Church growth comes by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, “pre-packaged programs” for growth cannot produce true fruit because the Spirit cannot be controlled. That was Simon’s error. As a practitioner of magic he believed he could, with words and gestures, summon and control the spirits but the Spirit cannot be summoned by magicians nor packaged by marketing guru’s. Churches are trying to “bottle” the Spirit as people try to bottle fame and fortune. No, the Holy Spirit, that vital force of God which breaths vigor and life into creation and people and churches, only comes as divine gift.

I do believe churches truly want to be faithful to God in their quest for service and that our scripture points to a dual focus to this end: 1. Preach the Gospel 2. With the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Whenever I read this passage, I am taken aback by the phrase, “they prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)”  Other passages and orthodox Christianity do not provide for the separating out of God in such a fashion. However, in many churches it seems indeed that the Spirit is not present—the spirit of joy, the spirit of hope, the spirit of love, the spirit of forgiveness.

The apostle Paul used the Greek word pneumatikon to describe the non-material body of the resurrected. This word refers to a physical body totally energized and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Witherton and Wright). 12th century Benedictine Hildegard referred to the third member of the Trinity as the “most beautiful shining fire.”  

Imagine if someone off the street came in, became a part of our community, and described this congregation as the most beautiful shining fire of the Spirit. For the frozen chosen churches this analogy has definitive implications.  

Such an empowerment would drive disciples into the world. The Alban Institute for church consultation had this to say, “When we really live in community—as if our very lives depended on practicing our faith—I guarantee that our congregations will be more vital.” … Notice this guarantee does not point to a numerical return on investment but vitality.  

To be vital is first of all to be alive, and where does life come from but the Holy Spirit. When we practice our faith as if it were crucial for the world’s well-being the Spirit grows. The eminently quotable 18th author Doctor Samuel Johnson declared, “Nothing focuses the mind like being sentenced to a hanging.” Practicing our faith as if our lives depended on it means that vital churches believe that matters of faith are vitally important. We may not believe as some churches do, that we can save people, only God can do that, but that does not mean the message God has given us is not absolutely essential for the world to hear. Churches are not to be institutions but vital bodies sharing the good news of the Gospel. And it is good news! Which leads us to the other piece of the equation – the Good News of the Gospel.

That iconoclastic Methodist Bishop William Willimon had this to say:

…In a time when the community was fighting for its very life, it fought not by reducing its witness to the lowest common denominator, a catchy slogan fit for a bumper sticker or a billboard…but by carefully defining itself…rather than baptizing the status quo or resorting to mushy affirmations of popular practices (even though I disagree with some of Simon’s techniques, he does draw a lot of people)…the church demanded repentance.

Essentially, Willimon is telling us that the early church did not focus on institutional growth but on spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The future of our congregation, indeed our denomination, will not be decided in the halls of General Assembly or the Book of Order, or even by our committees; but in the hearts of believers just like you, burning with the fiery passion of the Spirit by spreading the Gospel in these ways:

  • To the husband who cares for his Alzheimer-afflicted wife, who receives a few hours respite from people in the name of Christ, the Good News is peace.

  • To the woman who has been told she is worthless since she was a child, the Good News is Christ’s love.

  • To the businessman who has raced to the top and found he was at the bottom, the Good News is purpose in serving the church.

  • To parents who lose their children to war, disease, and poverty, the Good News is the hope of reunion.

When each of us, as Christ’s disciples, allows the shining fire of the Spirit to convict us of the magnitude of the Gospel we will have the courage to remain true and the Spirit of God will baptize the fruit of efforts by blessing the world. Amen. 

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