May 8, 2016

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
John 17:20-26

“God’s Fire”

When I read this morning’s Psalm earlier this week, I kind of shuddered. It was the imagery of fire, and lightning, and mountains melting like wax that caused that reaction. As I thought about the terrible fire burning in Fort McMurray, the power of the flames struck me as immense. I heard a fire chief on CBC radio describing the fires that continued to rage in Fort Mac. He explained that there were some sections and neighbourhoods of the city that were untouched by the fires, but that might not last. The fire is powerful and determined, and it will find those areas, he explained. It wants to find those areas.

I don’t know what experience the psalmist had with fire, whether he had seen a blaze grow out of control, or lost his home to a terrible fire, but I think he understood the power, determination, and danger of a fire. But instead of describing tyrants or evil powers as being like fires that seek to destroy our lives and livelihoods, the psalmist instead describes the Lord our God as being like fire.

He writes: “Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side. His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory.”

As we think about the challenges we encounter each day, or imagine ourselves in the position of the residents and workers of Fort McMurray this week, the psalm proclaims to us that God is more powerful than any other power in the world: “For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.”

When our troubles seem ready to overwhelm us, the psalm encourages us that, “The Lord loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of his faithful; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.”

And when it seems that darkness and despair have been surrounding us for a long time, we are reminded that, “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.”

But if the power of God is not aimed at destruction like the fire that is destroying Fort Mac, what is God’s power determined to do?

The Book of Acts makes it clear that God’s power is all about getting the good news about Jesus the Christ out to all the people of the world. Next Sunday we will read Acts, chapter 2, and celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the church on the day of Pentecost.

The Spirit gave the early disciples the power of God to share the gospel in all the languages of the world so that all people could hear them proclaiming the mighty acts of God in their own languages. In that story also, fire shows up. The Spirit is described as being like tongues of fire alighting on the disciples and filling them with powerful gifts.

And the fire of God is not aimed at destruction, but it’s goal is blessing: Blessing the disciples with new abilities, blessing the people from every nation under heaven with the good news of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.

The fire of God destroys boundaries, barriers, and limited views of who might be a part of God’s family on earth, as the gospel is proclaimed with joy to Jews and Gentiles alike.

If you were with us last Sunday, you may remember that we shared a story from Acts 16 about Paul and his friends going to Macedonia, meeting Lydia, and Lydia and her household being baptized. This morning we continued reading through the same chapter of Acts and heard about Paul and Silas exorcising an evil spirit from a slave-girl, and then getting flogged and thrown in jail.

While in jail, they keep their spirits up with singing hymns, and in the middle of the night there is an earthquake that causes all the doors of the jail and the chains to become unfastened. The jailer freaks out and is about to take his own life, thinking that all the prisoners are going to escape and he’ll be in big trouble.

But Paul and the others stay put. They reassure the jailer that everything’s going to be okay, and the jailer and his household end up getting baptized and following Jesus with their lives.

The Book of Acts provides us with so many wonderful stories of conversion! So many different people, hearing God’s Word, experiencing God’s grace, seeing God’s love in action and turning their lives to follow Christ! But Paul Walaskay, reflecting on these stories, notices especially the diversity of those who are called and the unity they share as they become members of the body of Christ, the Church.

Walaskay writes: “Our narrator has skillfully expanded Paul’s groundbreaking statement in Galatians 3:28 into an elegant story.

Here is that verse from Galatians 3:28. Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Walaskay notices that the stories in Acts 16 include people of all these varieties receiving the care and protection of God, and coming to faith and the freedom that comes from knowing Jesus:

‘There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the slave-girl, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the slave-girl] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer] and female [Lydia, the slave-girl]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’”

In all our diversity of background, culture, social standing, and gender, there is room in the Church for us all. These distinctions no longer matter within the Christian community, for we are one in Christ Jesus.

As Jesus’ earthly ministry was drawing to a close, John’s Gospel records a long discourse that he gave. It included instructions, and encouragement, and promises for his disciples. And then it moved into prayers. Jesus prayed for his disciples, asking God to send the Holy Spirit to help them, and asking God to make them one.

And in the short passage we read this morning, Jesus prays not only for his first disciples, but for all who will believe in him through their word. Jesus prays for us. We’re the ones who have believed in Christ through the word and witness of Jesus’ first disciples, through the Scriptures and the Tradition of those who came before us in the faith.

What a gift! What a wonderful and powerful gift! Jesus is praying for our unity and peace, that we may be one as Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one.

I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the fire at Fort Mac is not God’s fire. Even the events that people so often refer to as “acts of God” are most certainly not God’s activity in the world. But in the midst of that tragedy and destruction and human suffering, God is nonetheless at work among us in amazing and powerful ways.

I am thinking of Byron, the son of our church members Don and Donna Bailey, who lived in Fort McMurray, at least until this week. He was downtown on Tuesday when the evacuation order was announced, and he couldn’t even go back to his house to get a few things. He lost his home and all his possessions, but when I last heard what he was doing on Thursday, he was up in Fort McKay, working alongside the volunteers serving food in the shelter.

Like me, some of you may have heard the story about the Calgary-based Syrian refugees. Many of them have only been in our country for a few months. They are only just beginning to rebuild their own lives – with their homes and cities destroyed so completely that they had to begin again in a new land.

But they are grateful for the help they are receiving from Canadians, and they already want to give back. And so a project quickly formed this week, an effort to help the refugees from Fort McMurray, giving as little as $5 per person, but giving nonetheless to assist their new Canadian neighbours in need.

Besides those specific examples, people throughout Canada are praying for one another, sending money, sending clothing, doing what they can to help others who are struggling because of the fires.

That is the power of God at work in the world… and it is more powerful than the Fort McMurray fires. Those fires will go out. People will work together to make that happen. But God’s Spirit of love and care in the world between people of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and experiences will not be extinguished.

As the psalmist encourages us, let us “Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!” Amen.