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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

All Gathered Together

Acts of Faith, a sermon series on the early faith of the church in The Acts of the Apostles, from Ascension through Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, preached May 28, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service.


Context

We’ve only known church and religion after Jesus. There was a group of women and men who knew life before Jesus, beside Jesus, without Jesus when he died, life with Jesus again when he rose from death, and finally the only life we’ve known, life after Jesus, after he ascended beyond them.


Over these four Sundays, our series is called “Acts of Faith”. We are reading from the first two chapters of Acts, the beginning of faithful church community right after Jesus. Church was born as a people who lived his way in loving just community, what he called the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven.


Last week was Ascension Sunday, and we read how Jesus ascended from them, and left Holy Spirit with them. They had asked Jesus is today the day we win and they lose. Jesus corrected them. That is not your purpose, to judge who, when, or how the fullness of God’s Kingdom is revealed. Your purpose is to go and be my witnesses, near and far, to friend and foe, and trust.


Today is Pentecost Sunday, when Holy Spirit reveals herself in a new and beautiful way. Let’s listen for the early church’s Acts of Faith on Pentecost.


Let’s pray, and listen for the words of the Lord from…


Prayer for Illumination


Scripture Acts 2:1-21

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.


5 Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”


14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews[a] and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:


17 ‘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.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit,

and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)


Sermon All Gathered Together

I love Montreat. Montreat is an old campground which grew to become a conference center, a college, and a neighborhood in the mountains of central NC. Billy Graham lived there. Many retired Presbyterian pastors move there. High school youth assemble there for summer camps. College students go there for the annual college conference. Church staff and lay leaders enjoy the Worship and Music conferences every summer. People vacation there, rent homes, camp, unplug, walk the mountains and trails, and rock hop in creeks. It’s a holy place, a place set apart where the veil between us and God is very thin.


For a long time, my family went there at least once a year. Jill’s mom and dad rented the same house every summer and Jill and I took our three small boys there for vacation and “camp.” At my first two churches, I regularly attended Montreat with the High School youth, and sometimes on the side for a con-ed conference. Jill and I would sometimes sneak away by ourselves, and have been back with our grown boys.


I’ve loved walking the trails and creeks with our dogs over the years. When I’m walking with dogs, I’m alone with my thoughts but not alone. I know the dog will not ask me any questions, or start any conversations. I can think, feel my way through whatever junk I’ve brought there with me without interruption, without having to navigate a conversation. These times are worshipful for me.


I meet plenty of people who agree. They will often say how they worship best on a run, or in nature, on a hike, or on a bike ride, in a kayak, even on a treadmill. Some try to tell me they worship best at their coffee table in their living room, or on the back patio, in a deer stand, or out on a golf course.


I know what they mean. It seems like there, alone, away from other voices, other human voices anyway, we might have a better chance of hearing the bigger, greater voice of God. With our bodies mindlessly going through the motions and exertions of hiking, swimming, moving, with our minds quieted in the quiet of a deer stand with nothing to do but wait, or with the simple rhythm of shot, walk, next shot, walk again… maybe our spirit does have a better chance to hear God, to feel the beat and rhythm of God all around us. Maybe, out there alone, we can get in tune with God, what God is doing, or even asking us to do.


Yes, those little hikes, walks, moments out there away from civilization are worshipful for me too. And God’s spirit does do amazing things to people sometimes when they are pulled away from others. Moses, out on the hillside, a burning bush, Moses sees it approaches it, and there Moses realizes who he must become, and what he must do for God. Jacob, off by himself, ends up wrestling with God. There he realizes his future is not just about getting over his old squabble with his brother. God is calling him to continue growing a people, a nation, a family of God, and God renames Jacob Israel to remind him of his struggle. Even Jesus understood it, praying in the dark alone for the cup to be taken from him, as one of his own had gone to get the authorities to arrest him, and as the other disciples who were supposed to be keeping watch, slept. There, alone, under the trees, Jesus discerns and discovers the resolve to continue anyway.


There are many other stories in scripture where individuals are approached by God when they are alone… Eli, David, Mary, Joseph… the list is very long. Meaning, retreats, private prayer time, devotionals, nature walks, back porch rocking chairs, kayaks, fishing boats… all of these are beautiful ways for us to hear God’s spirit. Private moments apart from others are worshipful and important on our journey, and are often used by many to justify why they worship better alone.


Pentecost is God’s default response to those who say they worship best alone. Sure, our connection to God can feel more personal, and our ability to listen for God might even be improved when we are alone. There are some things God prefers to communicate to us when we are set apart from others and open enough to hear it, or at least not so distracted we stand a chance of hearing it.


But the big story about God’s Holy Spirit, Pentecost, could not happen if people were alone. Notice how this story begins. They were all together in one place. They had gathered. They had other times alone, apart. Each had their own practices, habits, homes, families, their own opinions, experiences, ways of seeing the world. Each had their own favorite rituals and least favorite traditions. Some were morning people. Others were night owls. Some were introverts. Others were extroverts. Some were always seeking ways to lead or serve. Others did not feel qualified to lead or serve. Some were spontaneous, others were organized. Some were wise and careful, others were edgy and progressive. But on the big story of God’s Holy Spirit at the beginning of church, all these people were gathered together. None of them were alone.


Holy Spirit could have chosen to call each one of them while they were set apart, alone. Holy Spirit could have waited until they were all asleep and appeared to them simultaneously in dreams. Holy Spirit could have privately struck them all on their walking trails or treadmills, in deer stands or on golf courses, in coffee shops or at coffee tables. But Holy Spirit doesn’t do church like that. Instead, the big reveal of God’s Holy Spirit came when they were all together in one place, and there Holy Spirit did something bigger than could have been done had they been apart and alone.


Because there were not alone, but together, they all realized two things about God they could not realize alone…


First, yes, God does speak to each individual. Individually, God tugs each of us to notice, listen, get involved, give some time, attend a new thing, join a group, give the choir a shot, help out with a mission project… God taps individuals personally, and nudges individuals to personally get involved in God’s greater plan.


Too often, people assume they have to believe, even be like everyone else in church, to fit in. Churches sometimes make the mistake of reinforcing that assumption. Churches have habits of doing things certain ways and we often expect visitors, guests and new members to lay down their personality and fit in to the ways we do things.


But that’s not how Pentecost works. They were all gathered together and those who gathered did not believe the same things. When they heard the good news, it came to them uniquely, personally, wherever each of them was in their own walk of life and faith.


Some people worship privately and don’t go to communal church, because they assumption we all have to believe and agree in order to gather together. Not at all. The Pentecost story is about people who didn’t believe the same things or practice the same traditions all coming together, and there, in that diverse gathering of all of them, that is where Holy Spirit chose to descend, and to speak to them individually, every one of them, personally. Each was individually given the gift of hearing God in their own way. Each heard about God in their own natural, native language, and that was impressive.


But if they had all been alone, and had heard the good news privately in their language, there would have been no realization that God had somehow spoken to all of them, despite their differences.


That’s the second amazing realization of God at Pentecost. They looked around them and realized God was speaking to everyone around them as well! Yes, Holy Spirit cares about me and you, as individuals. Yes, God is willing and working to have a personal relationship with me and with each of you! But no true relationship with God stays private or personal only. This God is willing and working to have relationship with tons of other people all around me who are very different from me. This God is personal and private with me and wants something special for me and from me. But whatever God is doing through me, it’s never just about me. This God is crafting a healthy, growing, numerous, diverse community, a church, where everyone of us has an individual place and purpose, and our individual purpose is like one unique thread woven into God’s great tapestry. God wants each of us, individually, and needs each of us to be involved. God has something important for each of us to do. AND, the personal, individual callings are a part of God’s good purposes for all God’s people.


I have heard people say their faith is just between them and God. I’ve heard people say they need to work on something alone with just God, and they don’t want to share or talk about with others. I’ve heard people tell me worship is personal, private, just between them and God. I’ve had people tell me their beliefs, their study, their morals, their giving are no one else’s business, and are just between them and God. Well, Pentecost says different.


Everything we do IS between us and God. But NOTHING we do is JUST between us and God. That decision to “worship” over a cup of coffee and a newspaper, or over an early morning round of golf, or sitting on the dock to watch the sunrise… yes, God was with you and speaking to you there… but I promise if it was really God you heard there, then the words were calling you and me and all of us back together, calling us all uniquely, in a voice and language each of us can understand, but with the intent of gathering us all together again. God’s plans for us individually are always to the benefit of others, the church, and through the church, the community.


They were assembled, called together by Holy Spirit. They were spoken to, each in their own language. They looked around and realized God was also speaking to many others in their own language. Each realized they were a unique, chosen, named, and commissioned individual with a purpose that was much greater than themselves in a plan that was much bigger than themselves.


NOTHING, NOTHING is just between me and God. Everything God’s Holy Spirit asks of me or sends me to do affects the church and community around me, because that’s who God is and that’s how the God of Holy Spirit operates… asking each and every one of us in our own unique way to be involved, doing so in such a way the whole community is affected for the better.


What is it God is calling you, personally, to be, to do, to give? Listen for God, personally, privately. Now look around. Be amazed. God is asking something unique from that child, that widow, your spouse, that stranger in their own way. God trusts you and depends on you with you calling, and God is weaving wide, diverse, inclusive group of people to do something together, so all the community will see who this God really is.


To God be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen.


Charge


Benediction

Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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