Signs Of Community – Created To Be Together

Steve Lindsley
Acts 2: 1-14a, 40-42, 47

Remember the song that goes:

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Over the next five weeks, British and I are going to try to read the signs – signs of community.  We’re going to ask questions like, what exactly makes a community a community?  Is it simply proximity, or shared interests or values?  Is it all those things, or is it something else?  And what are the obstacles to community, what are the things that make building community difficult; and how do we work through them and overcome them?

So we begin this “signs of community” journey with the birth of the church, the second chapter of Acts, Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  It was a wild and crazy scene that day, and as I read the passage I think you just might experience a little bit of it.  My friends, listen to the word of God:

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When the day of Pentecost had come, they 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. 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? Then 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….

 And those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is the word of the Lord:
Thanks be to God:

Let us pray: Spirit God, blow us away with your presence, light our hearts on fire, lead us to speak your praise in words we barely recognize, call us together as a family, and through it all, in ways we understand and ways we do not, instill your word in us.  In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN.

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 Lectionary purists will undoubtedly express confusion and perhaps dismay at the Pentecost story being read in September.  They will say, accurately, that Pentecost takes place much earlier in the liturgical year, right on the heels of the Easter season and before that nebulous period we call Ordinary Time.  Which translates, in our western calendar, to late May or early June – not September.

And so yes, this is not the “proper” time to reflect on the arrival of the Holy Spirit, with its mighty rush of wind and burning flames and cacophony of voices shouting out a multitude of languages, as you all just experienced a taste of this morning.  It was a wild and crazy scene that day – which is exactly the whole point.  This wild and crazy Spirit would equip the faithful to carry on the good work of Jesus in his absence.  The Holy Spirit is front and center in this Pentecost narrative – reflected in the red that, on Pentecost Sunday, adorns our sanctuary and pastor’s shoulders with paraments and stoles. 

But today, as we’ve previously noted, is not Pentecost.  And the Holy Spirit is not our main focus.  To discover what is, I challenge you to look.  Look at how this whole story begins, people of God.  Pay attention to the very first words of our passage and the foundation upon which this whole scene is built:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

All together. In one place.

That is significant, right?  It’s significant because the Holy Spirit did not make it’s long-awaited appearance to justPeter, or justJohn, or to any one of those disciples eagerly anticipating what would come next.  And certainly God had been in the habit of revealing God’s self on a one-on-one basis – Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah and the visions, Jacob and the angel, Elijahj and the chariot of fire.

But the way the writer of Acts tells it, it is almost as if the Holy Spirit was waiting, waiting for an assembly, waiting for everyone to be all together; and that the together-ness was critically important for what God intended to do next.  And “together” not in some loose sense of the word, like in our day and time with email, text, video conferencing.  We convene assemblies with people literally all over the world.  In a sense that is being together.

But not here.  Here it is “all together” and “in one place.” 

One envisions the Holy Spirit kind of waiting expectantly on the sidelines for this very moment; this intersection of time and space.  Waiting for these humans to get their act together!  And when they do, the Spirit bursts forth with such force, like waters held back by a damn for far too long, finally released.  It comes crashing in with mighty winds and tongues of fire and languages that no one could speak before.

All these years later, and we celebrate this day as not just the arrival of the Holy Spirit, but the very birth of the church. We mark this occasion as a transition from a rag-tag group of Jesus-followers to a collective movement; to the living embodiment of Jesus on this planet.  Which, it bears noting all these thousands of years later, is still very much here.

All of which makes me wonder, as perhaps you, whether the Spirit would’ve come crashing in, perhaps even couldhave, had the people not first come together. Think about that.  The beginning of the church is not something a committee could’ve voted on.  Not something a powerful human leader could’ve simply declared into existence. That’s because the only way community – realcommunity – ever truly happens is if everyone is first all together and in one place.

In his book The Art Of Community, author Charles Vogl defines community as “a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.”[1]  He takes it a step further when he makes the claim that community can only thrive and grow if we orient ourselves around some set of shared values.  And this doesn’t mean that everyone believes the exact same thing, or that everyone moves lock step together on the exact same path forward.  What it means is that amidst all the diversity that makes community so rich, we hold in common a core set of values that tie us to one another.

I’m asking our ministerial staff – British, Jodi, Chris and myself – to read The Art Of Community prior to a retreat the four of us are taking next month, where we’ll look at 2020 and what kind of community we hope to help build here at Trinity.  I’d invite you to check out the book as well.  Because community is not something that just happens – those followers of Jesus all those years ago did not just randomly show up “all together in one place.” Community is, by its very nature, intentional in some form or fashion.  And the core values that a community orients itself around are most effective when the community itself acknowledges them and lifts them up for all to see.

We get a taste of that at the end of this Pentecost story: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Those were the core values of the early church on the heels of Pentecost – teaching, fellowship, sharing a meal, prayer.  And we are told that the church grew by leaps and bounds because of this – presumably because it provided the people something that was otherwise missing from their life.  A place to be with one another.  A place to wrestle and think about big things with one another.  A place to eat a meal with one another.  A place to pray for and be prayed for with one another.

And what strikes me as I read this is that nothing much has changed all these years later, don’t you think?  The church thrives and the Spirit abounds when it focuses, at its heart, on this simple set of core values: to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  For all our wonderful programs and ministries, for all our efficient Presbyterian-ness, the church is perhaps at its most communal when it focuses on its core values.

So, to ask the obvious question: what are our core values as Trinity Presbyterian Church?  I imagine if you ask fifty people you’d likely get fifty different answers, most of them probably similar in one way or another.  But I’d like to lift up one example in particular,.

Back in the fall of 2014, the session appointed six Trinity members to form the Acts 16:5 Vision team, in conjunction with a presbytery-wide initiative to help churches wishing to revitalize and reenergize. Part of that journey was considering a new way to verbalize what makes Trinity Trinity by asking some key questions: 

Who is Trinity now, and what are we becoming?
What is unique about our community of faith?
What words and images best describe our past, present and future?

A mission statement was written and adopted by session, as was a “tagline” of sorts that was recently modified even further. This tagline is seen on most all of our church’s printed material; it adorns our website and social media posts. It is quick and simple and to-the-point:

Growing Together.
Welcoming All.

This, I would submit, are the essence of Trinity’s core values.  We grow together – that is to say, we imagine the journey of faith as one moving forward, not stagnant or still; where there is always something to learn, always a new experience to be had.  And we do this together – in fact, the togetherness is a critical component of the growth.

And we welcome all.  This is both a current reality and a commitment to future work, the “now and not yet;” for we are constantly learning how to do this; how to recognize and work through the societal barriers and cultural constructs that make it so hard to truly being open and welcoming of all.  We long for the day, and are committed to working toward the day, when barriers of ethnicity and class and gender and economy and sexual identity fade into oblivion, and that this church becomes a place where all are equal and welcome.

Growing together and welcoming all – that is who we are and who we strive to be as Trinity Presbyterian Church – to be a community where people know they belong.  To be a community where people know they have a community.  That book I mentioned earlier, The Art Of Community, shared a statistic that I find unsettling: that one in five people feel alone.  One in five people.  And what strikes me about that is not the number itself, but the fact that the vast majority of those people are rarely actually alone.  Far from it: we are surrounded by people throughout our day – at work and school, in the grocery store, at the PTO meeting, at the DMV.

Case in point: this past week, flying home from a NEXT Church meeting in Cincinnati, I sat window-side on a tiny American Eagle flight.  My seat companion was right there next to me; our arms brushing up against each other while resting on the same skinny arm rest.  Nowhere else would this be socially acceptable except on a plane. The person in front of me was close enough that, if I wanted to, I could reach out and put my hand on his head without leaning forward.  Same for the person beside him, as well as the people behind me.  All of us were crammed into this tiny metal tube less than the width of our admin building hallway.  We were practically stacked on top of each other, much closer than any of us would prefer.

We were very close in proximity.  But we were not a community. 

People in our day and time, they are searching for community, longing to be connected, longing to be more than just in the presence of other people.  No, people want desperately to be in relationship with other people.  And that is precisely what the church is called to do. In fact, it’s what we are createdto do.  Before we do the actual work of the kingdom, before we go forth with the Spirit to speak a good word into a broken world, we come together, in one place. We come together to share our core values.  We come together in order that we may grow together, so we may truly welcome all.

All of which I was reminded of this past week, when I got an email from a pastor friend of mine, a member of my preaching group. The email subject line read: “From a two-year old.”  In it she shared, “Tonight at dinner, my daughter asked out of the blue: “Mom, I have a question. What if church had no walls?”

May we at Trinity continue to grow together and welcome all, together and in one place.  The Spirit is just waiting to come crash in on our little party.

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.

[1]Charles Vogl, The Art of Community: Seven Principles For Belonging.