TONGUES OF FIRE A SERMON FOR PENTECOST
ACTS 2: 1-21
We Presbyterians wrestle with the Holy Spirit. We don’t know quite what to do
with it. Half the time, in our creeds and in the words we sing every Sunday, we
call it the Holy Ghost, and since we don’t believe in ghosts, that puts us in a
The Westminster Divines, who wrote the confession of faith that was the
foundation stone of American Presbyterianism, neglected to write a chapter
about the Holy Spirit. While the Confession was written in 1647, it wasn’t until
1942 that the present Chapter Nine was added. That doesn’t mean we didn’t
recognize the Holy Spirit for almost three hundred years, or that it wasn’t at work
in the church and in the world. We just couldn’t seem to grasp it.
In that bestselling book, The Shack, the Holy Spirit is depicted as a woman
named Sarayu (which I think rhymes with “where are you?”). But that woman is
hard to visualize, seeming to shimmer, and change shapes, colors, clothing,
before one’s very eyes. It is a fitting metaphor for the Spirit.
When I was in seminary, the debate was over whether to call the Spirit he or it.
Today, the pronoun “she” is also applied to the Holy Spirit. The word used in the
New Testament, pnuema, is indeed a feminine noun. The Old Testament
equivalent, ruach, is masculine. However, both translate as “wind”. The Spirit,
like the wind, is something difficult to visualize, but which has lasting effects upon
what it blows upon. The Spirit, like the wind, is an invisible force that produces
visible results. The Spirit, like the wind, is something that can be felt, but not
seen. We can only see the effects of, or the response to, both the wind and the
The church I served for 26 years had a Pentecost stained glass window that
gave a traditional view of the Spirit: a dove, descending. But if one got close
enough, one could see the tongues of fire upon the heads of all those depicted in
Tongues of fire.
Would that our tongues would burn with the fire of the Holy Spirit, that we might
speak words that would communicate the gospel and lead the world to Christ.