Fire and Water: Pentecost as Covenant
Acts 2:1-21; Jeremiah 31:28-38
When Joe and I prepared to be married 10 years ago we were seminary students. It was important for us to choose a scripture that would speak both to our choice to be married and our commitment to each other, but also a word from God to God’s people – of whom we were and are two. We chose a text that continues to be special to me to be our wedding text. At the beginning of Isaiah 43, God addresses the people of Israel.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
Water and fire. We see them here before us.
In scripture we often see God’s appearance and presence in a flurry or torrent of water or fire – a fire that burns not but does not consume and a water that does not overwhelm. Like this from Judges 5: “Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water.” Or in Exodus 3 burning bush from which God’s name is proclaimed: I AM/YHWH. And Moses is called – by name – to bring liberation to God’s people.
Those images are repeated again here today in the flame of Pentecost and waters of baptism. When Moses first encountered God in fire it was in the burning bush. God appeared again in fire at Sinai – “To the Israelites,” says Exodus 24:16, “God’s presence looked like a glorious fire.” At Sinai the people of God enter into covenant – they accept God’s invitation and in mutuality agree that they will be for each other: these people will be God’s and it will be God to whom the people are loyal, whom they worship, and whose teaching – in the form of the Torah, received by Moses – that they follow.
Threaded throughout the Bible are these themes of invitation and covenant. We hear it again in Jeremiah. God is longing for the covenant to be re-established between God and the people. There will be a new covenant and it will not be like the old one – the one you broke, even though I was their husband says the Lord. I will write my instruction on their hearts and they will know me. (paraphrase)
God’s relationship with the people is likened to marriage! The marriage covenant that Joe and I made with each other, and the covenant that any couple makes with each other, is a tenuous thing. Our humanity gets in the way. In our humanity sometimes things get broken – including our promises and our commitments and feelings and relationships. What God is promising is that for God ‘always’ means always. And the prophetic in Isaiah and in Jeremiah word is that God’s promise has not gone anywhere. The fire of covenant will be renewed – and we will be God’s people.
The disciples who were ‘all together in one place’ would have been steeped in covenant – known themselves to be covenanted people. But maybe unsure of what a covenant relationship with God looks like in the age of the resurrected Jesus. When Luke, who was author of both Luke and Acts, was telling this story, he also knew the depth and importance of covenant relationship between God and God’s people. When he wrote this story, he understood that there was a connection from the Exodus to Pentecost. With the rushing with and the tongues of fire, Luke’s story tells again that God is here! The fire recalls to the disciples that God is anointing this new thing. This new movement.
The wind and the tongues of fire drive them out of their room and into the street proclaiming the good news of a covenant resurrected. It gives them a courage that they didn’t have before – a certainty that they are called by God. They leave their locked room to tell it: there is new life here and now God’s spirit – as Joel prophesied – is being poured out on all people – on all nations, ages, genders, status – lavishly and indiscriminately. You get the Spirit and You get the Spirit and You get the Spirit. Spirit for everyone!
The moment is electrifying and crowds are compelled by the sound and the sight of Spirit in action. So what next? What shall we do? That is what the new believers ask after they hear the story of Jesus. How shall we respond God’s promise and desire for that intimate heart-written relationship? The spousal relationship? Peter’s answer: receive baptism and commit yourselves to a life of service to Christ and his people (that is, all people) together. Covenant belonging – unlike membership, as in a club or society – is about mutuality and how we are together in Christ. It is not coming to receive a service but a commitment with other believers (a specific group of believers) to be the body of Christ together in the world.
Joe and I picked the text of fire and water because of the protection and companionship of God promised in those words. Because of the assurance, ‘do not fear’. We knew, and we have since experienced that relationships of marriage need protection and care when they endure difficulty. And we saw heard in the text the tenderness of being called by name and the belonging – to each other and to God. We picked a text of covenant language because marriage is a covenant – of two persons to each other and of those two with Godand among the communities of faith of the partners.
Like marriage, baptism is a covenant – certainly it is the response to God’s invitation to an individual into intimate relationship. And it is also a covenant with the body of Christ – the church as God’s agents in the world. We together are covenanted community. Our desire here in this congregation is for each person to experience both the flame of the Spirit and the water of new life. We also understand that there are different levels of interest or readiness and we embrace that, at the same time welcoming and desiring that each person name for themselves and community for this time. Saying, “This particular member of the body of Christ is ‘mine’” and allowing this particular body of Christ to say ‘you are mine, and you are precious in my sight and I love you!’ that is covenant. to write our names on each other’s hearts
Christian community became like the intimate community of family created in marriage when it was born on Pentecost. Acts 2 goes on after this passage to talk about how Christians shared what they had with each other and with those who had need. They spent time together in the temple and at prayers. They ate in each other’s’ homes and shared meals. These new Christians were bound together in covenant not only with God but with each other.
Marriage break up; churches split and divide; friends fall out and falter. As we know all too well, the reality of being Christian community (or spouses, or friends, or family) is not always easy. Even as the early church grows, it struggles to define what it means to belong and be God’s people with varieties of gifts and understandings and backgrounds. Paul’s letters are reminders to church of the covenants they’ve made with each other. Reminders to honor those – even as our many gifts complement and work together , having a variety of gifts causes conflict! We heard it in Cor. and we hear it in a different way in Romans:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.
Our covenant to each other and God places unity of body over individuality. While our ability to keep this covenant may be limited, God’s is not. The welcome is always there and always available.
Because we are a people who has grown out of covenant faith we seek to extend that to those who desire to join us as members in the body. We welcome by baptism and by profession of faith, new members into our body and so we too will recommit ourselves to being the intimate body of Christ in all its facets. Because God’s welcome is always new, the Pentecost flame and the water of baptism are always available. The leaders of this congregation are committed to exploring together with members what it means to bemembers. What are we saying yes to and how do we do that in a discerned and on-going way? We want to this to be the body in which individuals find ways to connect to others, encourage each other in discipleship, and live into Christ-embodied life.
May the spirit come and enliven this movement. In the weeks and months to come, may we engage the question and act on the fire of Pentecost, into the baptismal spirit of covenant.
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And speaking of covenant, here’s a picture of the wedding couple themselves. Joe and me on the day of our wedding.