"Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines."
No, you haven't tuned into the wrong station. This is not the radio broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, but this preacher has begun today with the phrase that launches this classic of auto racing. And I do it for two reasons. First, because I served as a priest in the city and Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis for over half my ordained ministry. And, second, because they fit the great celebration of God and the Church which we enjoy today.
The thing that makes the Indianapolis 500 what it is, is the great invention called the internal combustion engine. Somehow, and this is certainly beyond my feeble engineering understanding, fuel ignites, combustion happens, and off they go. Without the ignition there is no movement. Without combustion, there is no race.
And so it is with the Christian Church as well. The disciples of Jesus with other people from throughout the world were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost. It was a holy time, and the people were ready to pray. But something even greater happened...ignition, combustion. "Fiery tongues appeared on them, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit." The Spirit ignited a new moment and a new people. The fire of the spirit lighted a communication that overcame the former languages of division and competition with a new language of God's love and Spirit. The fire had begun.
One of the most ancient hymns of this feast goes this way, "Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire...and lighten with celestial fire." It is a prayer that the ignition begun on that first Pentecost day might continue to burn within the church so that we would not lose our fervor or our flare. It is a petition for the work of God's spirit to continue in us individually and as the whole Body of Christ, so that we might live our faith with zest and commitment and do the work of mission boldly and imaginatively.
The promise of Pentecost is that every person of faith, every person of faith can be ignited by the Spirit for a deeper expression of belief and a more powerful expression of Christian living. There are some remarkable stories of this throughout the past two thousand years. One of my very favorites is of John Wesley, a priest of the Church of England in the 18th century, who performed a faithful but cautious ministry.
But the Spirit of God put an end to that. John Wesley joined some Moravian Christian brothers and sisters in prayer, and something happened to him in the experience. As he put it, "My heart was strangely warmed...." His heart was set afire in a new way with the very Spirit of God. His faith and imagination for the Gospel were ignited for a new beginning of ministry, a ministry of teaching and preaching, proclamation and service that extended throughout England and abroad, an ignition that introduced a new reformation and awakening throughout English cities, towns, and countryside.
Now, I know that it is a grand story, but the experience of the fire of God's Spirit is not isolated to the "greats" of the Christian tradition. No, it burns in people who lead a much more regular existence in their living and believing. It burns nonetheless. I have seen the ignition of the Holy Spirit in people who have made decisions to change their lives in significant ways, who have taken bold new steps in commitment and generosity, who have discovered the capacity for service and caring deep inside of them. The Spirit is alive and active in people. It is alive and active in you and in me, guiding, inspiring, directing, renewing, advocating, re-making us in the very likeness of God.
There is an introduction often employed by preachers to begin their sermons. It goes like this. "O God, take my lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire." Well, that is certainly more than what we hope will happen in the preaching moment (although it certainly is what we hope will happen in the preaching moment). Rather it is a hope for the Christian experience, walk, life, and journey-that our lips, our minds, and our hearts will be set aflame by the Spirit of God.
What's true for individuals is true for the whole Church as well, whether it is a local congregation or some larger manifestation of God's people. Our prayer is the ancient song, "O Holy Spirit our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire...." We pray for the Spirit to ignite the Church for mission. That is always important, but I believe that it is especially important and indeed, urgent, for the church in our time.
It is a changing and challenging time for the Christian Church throughout the world and especially in American culture and society. Things are just not like they used to be. Neither Christianity nor any other given faith tradition is normative in American society any more. We find ourselves in serious competition with other endeavors in our daily life, yes, even soccer practice on Sunday morning. Most of Christianity is aging, and we are not successfully connecting with younger generations. Almost all of the traditional "mainline" denominations are in a gradual but continuing decline in membership. It's not a pretty picture.
It would be possible for all of us to glide along. We still have enough institutional mass to continue. We can deny or avoid hard issues. We can pretend that we still have the same cultural position that we once had. Or...we can be set on fire. We can pray for and claim the ignition of the Holy Spirit at this moment, in this church, in our church. We can become enflamed and inspirited in our work to serve with compassion and invite with fervor as God's people today.
Recently, a group of us met together as authors of a new series of books just published this spring in the Episcopal Church. The name of the series is "Transformations: the Church in the 21st Century." We talked about the present context and condition of churches and congregations in America today, and we realized that this is a pivotal and urgent moment for the Spirit. We must call on the Spirit of God to enkindle new vision, new imagination, new effort in evangelism, in leadership, in preaching, in congregational development, in a sense of call....It is not a time for a tepid or tired church. It is the time for a new church, a transformed church that is a vehicle of the Spirit to transform people and, indeed, the whole world.
The primary question for the Church at the beginning of the 21st century is precisely the question as it was for the Church in the Acts of the Apostles in the 1st century. Will we become alive and aflame with the Spirit of God? Will we let the Spirit of God transform us into the church of vitality and service, prayer and praise, evangelism and welcome, advocacy and witness that God intends us to be. There was no way the Church in the 1st century could do it itself, and there is no way that the Church in the 21st century can do it itself. It is the Spirit. It is the Spirit. "Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire!"
There is a story from the ancient Church which does apply to the Church in our day as well. It is the story of a young monk in the desert of Egypt who goes to a wise older monk and asks essentially what he should do to live a whole and faithful Christian faith and life. The older monk asks him what he does at present. The younger monk replies that he says his prayers, keeps his fast, adheres to his rule of life as best he can, and generally is kind to his fellow brothers. At that point the elder arises and stands with his hands extended to the heavens when, whoosh..., all ten of his fingers become lamps of flame, and he says to the younger, "If you will, all of your life can become as of fire."
That monk spoke to the younger brother and to the Church of his time, and he speaks to you and to me and to the Church of our time. "If you will, if you will...all of your life can become as of fire."
We can be ignited by the Spirit of God. We can be warmed up by the Spirit of God. We can be set aflame by the Spirit of God. Nothing less will do for us as individuals or as the Christian Church today. Lukewarm, burned out, tired, timid, tepid Christian faith and life are not what God wants for you and for me, and they are not what is absolutely essential and necessary for a vibrant, alive, and transformed Church today.
God promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit...if we will but access it....
"Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire...."
"Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines."
Let us pray.
Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire. Ignite our hearts, inflame our souls, and kindle our spirits that we may burn anew with your love. Overcome our timid and tepid faith with these encouragements of your presence and gospel. Warm up all that is cold or frozen in us. Give us the flame of lively living and believing. O Spirit of God, take our words and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.