Romans 8:14-17

John 14:8-17

We’ve replaced the normal image on our bulletin cover with the symbol of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), this stylized cross: The PC(USA) seal is the exclusive property of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is registered in the U.S. Copyright Office. This cross was developed at our denomination’s reunion, a new symbol for a new denomination. This denomination was made from earlier Presbyterian groups, the northern and southern churches that reconciled after 150 years at odds. The symbol was developed from the Celtic cross, which is usually elaborately carved with Christian images or geometric patterns. The artists played with the idea, and the lines started to find their own meaning. Eventually, they arrived at this symbol with several meanings contained within it. We’ll highlight pieces of this symbol for the next several weeks as they reflect different aspects of our life as the church. Today, the symbol is the flame.

The flame is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, of God’s presence. At the first Christian Pentecost, tongues of flame sat on individuals’ heads when they spoke by the power of the Spirit. Before that, fire burned offerings to God on the altar and candles burned in the temple to indicate God’s presence (like the candles on our communion table). Long before that, a pillar of fire led God’s people through the desert at night, and before that, Moses saw a bush on fire and heard the voice of God. Fire is vital for life, but it’s a little dangerous to touch. Fire is unpredictable, like it has a mind of its own. The Holy Spirit is like that: unpredictable, hard to direct, but always transforming and recombining what it touches.

That Spirit was present in the design of this symbol, the process of creativity that spends time with an idea, plays with it, and teases out new thoughts. The symbol was not planned top-down, it was explored and considered until it was as if the lines had their own ideas: they spoke for themselves. That sounds cosmic, but it isn’t. The Holy Spirit is the wisdom behind all creation, but it’s not just “out there” somewhere. God is within us, too.

This is part of the most dangerous idea in history, Jesus’ idea that we already know God. We see God in human love and kindness. The deeper and more radical the love, the more truly we see God. Philip asks Jesus to see God (the Father), and Jesus says, “You’ve already seen me.” That’s not the only place we’ve seen God; there are many different expressions of love in our “God-sighting pyramid” (with more to come). But God is more fully revealed in greater love, and so we recognize Jesus as love incarnate. God shows right through him. All we need is the perception to see/hear/feel/smell God in each other. That’s why Jesus can say that we’ve already seen God.

I called it a dangerous idea. This is an idea that transforms our relationship with each other and the world. We see God within each of us as we love, and none of us here lives without love. We all have at least an ember of that Holy Flame within us, the Spirit that gave us life. Don’t be thrown off by Jesus’ apparently radical difference from “mere humans.” Jesus is completely human. He eats and drinks just like us. There’s no difference that he’s animated by God’s Spirit – so are we, from the very beginning (if Genesis 2 is to be trusted). Jesus’ radical improvement on humanity is only about degree: he’s fully alive to the Spirit of Love, and we are only partly aware.

We can become more aware. Our limited awareness of God doesn’t make us any less God’s children. The Spirit is still acting within us. The fire still burns within us, with the warmth of God’s original love for us. There is a flame dancing, leaping, and changing us from within. It’s changing us to recognize more of God. When you have a “God sighting,” that’s the Spirit working in you. When Jesus’ followers recognized God in him (so far as they did), the Spirit in them was recognizing itself.

Then, like a firestorm, the Spirit exploded one Sunday, and people heard and saw what each other knew of God. Acts describes it as a cacophony of languages, different people speaking each other’s languages. And perhaps most remarkably, everyone understood! The church is full of many gifts, gifts of healing, reconciliation, teaching, and service, but they are all based on this first Gift. This is the Gift of understanding each other’s ideas, a blessed openness to the idea that someone else also sees God.

That’s a particular gift of this congregation, that it’s open to many visions of God. We see God in scripture, nature, icons, or just “non-religious” conversations with friends and family. We don’t all put the same language on God. The Spirit has seen fit to show us many different (and even conflicting) visions, but within our different ways of naming God and relating with Him/Her/It, God is somehow mysteriously present. God is present when we gather and share each other’s prayers, sing each other’s hymns, and reflect on scripture together. Psalm 150 invites all living creatures to praise God, each in its own language and with its own voice. You can do it too!