(If you would like to watch our online worship service in its entirety, click HERE.)
(Acts 2: 1-14a, 40-42, 47)
If it feels like Pentecost has come back around a little sooner than normal, it’s probably because I preached on Pentecost last September. You may not remember the sermon all that much, but I bet you remember the scripture. Do you? It was this mish-mash of all these different languages spoken by Trinity members who stood up right in the middle of worship and simultaneously shouted out the same simple message, over and over again. It was crazy-sounding; it was beautiful.
And nothing says crazy and beautiful like community, don’t you think?
This Sunday is the final sermon in our series on “Connecting With Our Church Family.” I know I’ve mentioned this before, but last year when we tapped May as the month to focus on connecting with church family, we had no idea the added significance this would take on. Nor could we have foreseen how fortuitous it’d be to conclude this sermon journey with Pentecost Sunday; a story which begins in this way:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
All together in one place. For the record, today is the last day of May, and it marks the 84th day since we have worshipped in person. I wonder if you remember that worship service. It was March 8th, our children-led worship service. They led the liturgy, sang a song, shared scripture, took up the offering. Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? That was the last Sunday we were “all together in one place.”
Seems so strange to talk about that now. Seems odd to think about groups of any kind gathering, honestly. Last month, our family watched the ESPN series on Michael Jordan, because when there are no live sports to watch, you watch sports docuseries. And every time they showed footage of those old basketball games, it felt odd to see those arenas full of people, places packed.
It’s a very different feeling we get watching the crowds gathering these days – Memorial Day weekend crowds at poolside parties, racetracks, beaches and parks; all in the midst of a global pandemic where social distancing and mask-wearing are an afterthought. And more recently, crowds of protestors gathering in cities all over the country including our own; the collective pain of racial injustice mixing with anger and fear to form a toxic mess that is unsettling, to say the least, and hard to wrap our heads around.
So yes, for all kinds of reasons, it seems strange on this Pentecost Sunday to talk about being “all together in one place.” And truth be told, it was probably just as strange for those at the first one. Those who had followed Jesus in his three years of ministry; those who had watched him die. Those who later saw Jesus in his resurrection glory; those who saw him ascend into heaven.
They were now all together in one place. And they had one question on their minds:
Jesus had told them help was coming, but he didn’t leave behind a manual, a strategic plan.
That’s got to be pretty strange – but not nearly as strange as when the fire and flame and wind came, and everyone suddenly started speaking languages they didn’t know before; speaking them as if they just completed a MasterClass online.
The fire of the Spirit burned brightly in that moment. That very first iteration of “church;” of the people gathered together. And if we read on further into the second chapter, we find that the fire of the Spirit led to many things. It led to a rousing sermon from Peter and others joining the fold. It led to a new way of living where people saw signs and wonders, where they held all things in common, where the profit of things sold went to the ones who needed it most, where they broke bread together and praised God together.
That was Pentecost then. And this is Pentecost now. And while it is true that we haven’t been “in one place” since our children led us in worship nearly three months ago, we have never stopped being “all together.” And I am certain the Spirit is the reason for that. Rebekah, Jodi, and I have seen countless ways that the fire of the Spirit has burned brightly among us over the past few months:
The fire of the Spirit burned brightly when our members and friends prepared over 400 sandwiches for Urban Ministry’s guests.
The fire of the Spirit burned brightly when one of our church members serenaded his Sunday school class with a timely and humorous tune – and if you missed it in this past Thursday’s “Connect” email, you’re going to want to make sure you go back and check it out.
The fire of the Spirit burns brightly as our church’s Prayer Team convenes weekly to actively pray for our community and neighbors.
The fire of the Spirit burned brightly when our youth encouraged one another during their Zoom Talent Show.
The fire of the Spirit burned brightly when the elementary children acted out, over Zoom, a puppet show of the Daniel and the Lion’s Den’s story.
And the fire of the Spirit burns brightly every Sunday morning in worship, burns in ways that do not just impact our church family but, through the magic of the internet, also impact countless others around Charlotte and beyond.
People of God, the fire of the Spirit continues to bring us “all together” – and for that, thanks be to God!
But if we think Pentecost, and the church in general, is simply about being brought “all together,” we are missing the whole point. For that is not the end of the story – not even close. Those brought “all together” were given a gift by the Spirit; as practical a gift as a church-in-the-making could ask for. We’ve already talked about this gift, but I want you to hear it this time; so listen now to the story of Pentecost as it was shared in our sanctuary back in September. Listen to this:
Did you hear the gift – the gift of all of those languages? In our Trinity version, it was around eight or so. At that first Pentecost, if I’m counting right, there were around sixteen named specifically, although scripture tells us there were many more.
Those languages were a gift because they gave those people the ability to literally share the Good News of God in ways everyone could understand. But they were also a gift because it made something very clear – that while being “all together in one place” sure was nice, that is not where the church was meant to remain. The church was meant to be church by going out.
Going out from what felt familiar into the unfamiliar; going out from people who looked like them and thought like them and prayed like them to people who were none of those things; going out from what felt safe and known into the uncertain and unknown.
My friends, as we continue to worship from afar, it is indeed a comfort knowing that we are not meant to forever be “all together in one place.” We are meant to go “out” – in other words, right where we are. In our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our city. That’s where we find the real church, because that is where the people are. And I know you know this; perhaps now more than ever. You know that church is not a building; you know that our church has never closed. You know we are meant to go out.
But the question we have to ask ourselves on this Pentecost Sunday – and it is a big one – is this: what kind of world are we going out into, and what are we called to do in it? What kind of world are we going out into, and what are we called to do in it?
That first question is a heavy one. What kind of world are we going out into? Our world is a world on fire, and I’m not talking about the Holy Spirit. Our world is ensnared in the grip of two pandemics: one, a virus of the body called Covid-19 that makes people sick and kills; and another, a virus of our culture called systemic racism that also makes people sick and kills. Our world is as polarized as we’ve ever seen it: over face masks and social distancing and reopening; over black and blue lives, race and white privilege, protests and riots and pain. It is a world fundamentally broken and crying out for healing and wholeness.
That is the world we are going out into. So what are we called to do in it?
We are called to do the work, friends. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I mean, a lot. And that work begins with working first on ourselves – confronting our own prejudices and biases, our errant assumptions and the ways in which we are complicit in broken, harmful systems. We have to do that work first. That is why tomorrow in my Monday Message, I’m going to share a little bit about an initiative I’ll be leading in June called, “Doing The Work: Confronting and Addressing Our Role in Systemic Racism.” I invite you to check it out and consider being part of this important work with me.
Once we do that work, we then do the work elsewhere. And there is plenty of work for us out there. Our voice matters, whether it is lifting up and working on behalf of those vulnerable to a virus, or lifting up and working on behalf of those vulnerable to racist systems and structures. Our collective power, and the sharing of that power, makes a difference as a force of good in the world. As the people of God, as the church, we must do the work.
And as we do this work, my fervent hope is that we might become something like what author Robert Louis Stevenson once described. As a young boy growing up in Scotland, he was often sick and spent a good bit of time in his bedroom looking outside his window. Looking out into the world. His family lived on a hillside overlooking a small town. And every night, young Robert was captivated by the work of the old lamplighters who went about town with a ladder and torch, lighting the street lights one by one. One evening his parents asked him what he was looking at. And young Robert responded with great excitement, Look, look at that man! He is punching holes in the darkness!
Dear friends, I cannot think of a more apt description for the work of the church in these times. The fire of the Spirit burning brightly in us, empowering our connected family of faith “all together” to go out into the world and punch holes in the darkness.
People of God, let’s get to work.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
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