Holy Land, Holy Fire – Part 2

May 19th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”

The story we hear in the book of Acts today is one we hear every Pentecost.  It is the story of the arrival of the Holy Spirit in a manner that changes all people, including Parthians, Medes and Elamites, as well as people from Mesopotamia, Pontus, and Pamphylia; but also Greeks and Palestinians, Russians and people from Georgia, Romania and Kazakhstan, and maybe, just maybe, people from a little parish in Seattle called Epiphany.

You may recall that 19 of us just returned from pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our time there coincided with the Eastern Orthodox Holy Week. Jerusalem was packed with people from all over the world, on a journey to see the Holy Fire come out of the tomb from which Jesus rose victorious.

That was my hope as well, as you heard in last Sunday’s sermon, when I told of our romp toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I’ll finish that story this morning because it is the story of Pentecost. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is considered the holiest sight in Christendom, built over both the rock of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb in which he was buried and rose again.

And while it is the holiest place it is also rife with tension.

One of our pilgrim’s witnessed this one morning when he was there exploring. He saw a Catholic Priest chasing a group of Ethiopian pilgrims out in front of the tomb itself,
where he was about to celebrate Mass, yelling: “Go back to your own place, go back to your own church, go back to Nairobi where you belong…” which is wrong on so many levels.

The organizing modality of life in the Holy Sepulcher is tribalism. It is a core human instinct and a stumbling block in the kingdom of God. For 150 years six Christian denominations have operated there under a tense détente, penned in 1853 by the Ottoman Ruler who controlled the city.  The tribes that beat their chests in that church then and now are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptics, and Roman Catholics.

Now in a place where power comes from the tribe, 19 Episcopalians from Seattle were not the most formidable force in town. But, luck was on our side as we managed to get tickets through the Armenian church for the service of Holy Fire.

Saturday morning we were outside St. James Armenian Cathedral with a few hundred others ready to march to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But the Israeli police had other plans.  After the Armenian Patriarch passed through the Israeli checkpoint the police quickly closed ranks denying us and many Armenians, permission to proceed.

We stood behind barricades as the tribe of Serbia passed by with their Patriarch, and then we saw the tribe of Romania coming down the street. That is when I acted, morphing into a Romanian as I told you last Sunday. Now after Sunday’s service a friend leaving church asked, “How could you have ditched your flock and taken off with the Romanians?”

So I explained: our guide had made it perfectly clear that getting in to the Holy Sepulcher would be pandemonium, and there was no way he was going to be able to keep us all together… and so in truth, it was every man for himself. Now, I’m an American, so I know what that means. We are trained from our earliest days for this. Come on, it’s not a real test unless you’re on your own.  No one gets help on the SAT’s or the LSAT’s.  Americans are fighters, we’re scrappy, we hustle, and so I slipped in with the Romanian’s as any red blooded American would do, and ran with them to Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Five other pugnacious Americans did the same thing. I didn’t know this at the time. I only thought Diane Carlisle was with me. Together she and I crunched our way into the Holy Sepulcher and then up some stairs and through an opening the size of a bathroom door guarded by two Israel police.  How we got through I have no idea, but we came squirting out into the Greek Orthodox sanctuary along with about 2000 other people.  It seemed like a miracle to us. Moments later I saw another miracle, as Jonathan Roberts was birthed through the same doorway and then wrestled his way to us.

There we were crunched with thousands of others, pushing and swaying like kelp in a rough ocean.  There were scowls and curses in foreign languages. I know what a curse sounds like whether I speak the language or not. There would have even been fistfights if people had been able to lift their arms. You could see wooziness in people’s faces as they were pushed and prodded by the mass of humanity.

We had water, we had Granola bars, we were OK, but somehow our being OK wasn’t good enough. So we broke the bars and passed them around, and offered water to any one in need. There was a group from Kazakhstan near us sent to retrieve the Holy Fire and take it back on a private plane to light the Pascal Candles in that country.  There were women from Tbilisi in Georgia, and a man from Heifetz.  There were the folks from St. Petersburg, and even a guy who grew up in Jonathan Roberts’ hometown of Kenmore, WA. I’m not sure how many spoke English, but somehow we shared a common language.

At around 1 o’clock, the ancient chant pilgrims have cried for 1000’s of years began to be heard…“We are the Christians. We are the Christians.” Tribalism seemed to falter, and self-possessed seemed to fall away, as thousands of people called out in their native language, standing feet from the place Jesus rose victorious from the dead, “We are the Christians. We are the Christians.”

At 2PM the lights went out. At 2:15 a roar went up like a last minute goal at a World Cup final. The Patriarch from the Greek Orthodox Church had gone into the tomb at some earlier point. As tradition indicates he took off his robes and knelt down in prayer waiting for the appearance of the Holy Fire on the stone where Jesus’s body had laid.

They say a blue light collects like a cloud on the surface, hovering, then gathers into a flame that the Patriarch uses to light a bundle of candles.

At 2:15 he appeared with the light and a roar went up. Thousands and thousands of hands shot into the air, holding big bundles of candles.  People were shouting, they were weeping, as the flame leapt from hand to hand chasing the heat it generated. We could feel it on our faces. I have never been so terrified, and I’ve never been so mesmerized; it was like standing in front of a wild fire.

And as the light burned toward us a line jumped to mind from The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe. As Mr. Beaver says, “Safe!?Who said anything about safe? ‘Course Aslan isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

And I thrust my hand into the air holding this bundle of candles, and it ignited, and Diane’s ignited, and Jonathan’s ignited, and there were flames all around dancing across the heads of every person in that room – it was Pentecost.

Tribes wither in the heat. Individuality dashed from the room, as the light of Christ burst forth from the tomb and everyone was changed, and everything was changed. We were galvanized each to the other, bonded, I believe, in a common destiny which is our universal destiny to be the body of Christ.

Yes, it is true, tribes will reconstitute, and selfish ways return, but the world is different because of Pentecost. The light of Christ came and continues to come to reboot our hearts, so we perpetually know the shape of our belovedness, the shape of our divine purpose, our unique shape in the body of Christ, made for eternity, made to matter, because we matter to God!

That service of Holy Fire in Jerusalem is just like the service we are having here today; meant to call to mind moments of light and heat that have come at us and continue to come at us: both terrifying and mesmerizing.

And when they come again, remember the ancient pilgrims chant, “We are the Christians! We are the Christians!” We are bigger than tribe, and more glorious than any individual accolade. We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, as well as people from Mesopotamia, Pontus, and Pamphylia; but also Greeks and Palestinians, Russians and people from Georgia, Romania and Kazakhstan, and without doubt people from a little parish in Seattle called Epiphany.

And here is the epilogue. Somehow each person in our group who wanted to get into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that day did so. Each has their own remarkable story to tell and I hope you ask them.

And we brought back the Holy Fire to share with all of you. Tradition tells us that if the Holy Fire touches a wick and then is extinguished, when relit, the flame lives on. When you leave today you’ll carry a candle with you. It is the fire of Pentecost that unifies us, all straight from the tomb where Jesus rose victorious from the dead.