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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

The Other Sanctuary

On Fire, a sermon series for Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, preached June 5, 2022 at the 930am worship


At the end of the Easter season are three special days in the church; Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. Caitlan and I put these three Sundays together into a sermon series we are calling ON FIRE, because fire needs three things… air, heat, and fuel.

Ascension is air. The Bible speaks of God in the air, the breath, the wind, the Ruach, the spirit that lifts Jesus on Ascension day, the Spirit God sends to stay with us always. God has protected us with rushing winds, can calm the winds with a word, and will raise the wind to fill our sails and send to us every corner of creation.

Last week, Caitlan imagined the air with us, the air that enters our lungs and gives us breath. We wrote on pinwheels those things that catch our breath or make it hard to breathe, and those things that give us good deep breaths or take our breath away in awe and wonder. For those of you who played along at the tables, thank you, good job.

Pentecost, today, is heat. The Bible speaks of God as the warm presence in the shadows. God inspired the heated words of prophets, called to Moses from a burning bush, and baptizes with fire.

Today, Pentecost, let’s listen for air or heat in the word of the Lord from…

Scripture Acts 2:1-21

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of an intense wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own language!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young ones will see visions, your older ones will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will preach. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood red before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

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

Sermon The Other Sanctuary

If I say sanctuary, what comes to mind? A cathedral you have visited in Europe? Your home church when you were a kid? Maybe even this space? Some of you might picture a vacation home by the lake, at the beach, or in the mountains? Some of you might picture a comfy chair in your den with a book and warm cup of tea. There was a time in my life where sanctuary was walking my favorite golf course. For one of my brothers, I would bet the deer stand is his sanctuary.

Whatever you picture as your sanctuary, close your eyes for a moment and go there. Be there in the middle of it. Are you there? Look around in your mind. What do you see?

Listen. What do you hear? Is it loud or quiet?

Is anyone else there with you? Is it crowded? Are you alone?

How does it feel on your skin? Is it cool or warm? It is still and calm, or is it busy and exciting?

Thanks everyone for playing along…

Jesus had sanctuaries where he escaped to be alone, be still, be silent. He treasured those moments and made sure to carve out time away from the crowds and disciples so he could pause, reflect, and pray. In that kind of sanctuary, we have room and time to gather and organize our thoughts. In that kind of sanctuary, we let some things go, and even important things we can’t let go, we let them rest for a while. Jesus made sure to show his disciples his practice of retreating to that kind of sanctuary.

I wonder if they knew this other kind of sanctuary. Last week, Ascension, we heard Jesus lifted away from them in the air. They were caught gawking at the empty sky. Messengers from God told them go to Jerusalem and wait. They did. They gathered together.

I wonder what their gathering was like? I imagine they were confused, together but not really connected. If it was today, they would probably be sitting on different sofas, quietly scrolling through their phones, sharing the same space but a million miles apart. When I think of this gathered, I imagine them still, quiet, waiting, just them, no one else.

Then, Pentecost. If our only definition of sanctuary is calm, quiet, and alone we will miss the holiness of sanctuary in a Pentecost way.

The spirit of God invades their space with power and force, rushes all around them in a wind that shakes and moves them from their comfy seats, and demands their attention. One translation calls it a violent wind, but I think the word intense is probably better. There’s no destruction from this wind, but there is overwhelming power in it. It sparks “awe” in them, you know, that wild mixture of amazement, fear, and wonder. A Pentecost sanctuary is not calm. It's intense!

Nor is it quiet. Something hot and alive enters the space. They sense it. It breaks apart and comes at each of them and lands on them or maybe inside them. Suddenly, there’s a cacophony of voices and languages. In the call of Isaiah, the prophet describes the Lord’s messengers shaking the doorposts and thresholds. One flies to Isaiah with a live coal taken from the altar of God and touches it to Isaiah’s mouth. Isaiah begins telling the people what God has done, and what God will be doing. That’s what’s happening here. Something hot and alive enters the room, then breaks apart and goes to everyone in the room. Like Isaiah, they are sparked to speak about what God has done and will be doing. A Pentecost sanctuary isn’t calm or quiet. It’s loud with the voices of God’s people.

Nor are they alone. People of all types and races, genders and nationalities, from every corner of creation show up because they hear God’s grace spoken in a language they can understand. A Pentecost sanctuary isn’t alone, or even a small group. It’s a party of radical hospitality and welcome to every possible person within earshot!

On that first Pentecost, there were some who complained. “Good grief, what is all this? Why all the fuss? Have they been drinking?” Energy, excitement, passion, volume, those things make some people uncomfortable, skeptical, or dismissive especially in church. Some people think of holy, sanctuary, as calm, quiet, respectful, reverent, polite, predictable, consistent. But apparenty, God doesn’t.

Sure, there’s a time for those things, like when we are pulling aside to pray alone. We need the calm and silence in prayer to focus and listen for God. We also need more room for calm or quiet when we gather as small groups to learn something or to support one another. But at times like this, in Sanctuary, this is Pentecost time. Sanctuary is a time and space of movement, inclusion of everyone, energy, and passion, many voices. The birth of the Church was a great diversity of expressions and a great diversity of people with high energy, and contagious passion.

Today is Pentecost for us. Imagine the very spirit of God entering into this space with enough power and presence to shock you from your wandering thoughts or distractions. Imagine the Spirit of God breaking apart into a swarm of hot little coals. Imagine those coals scattering and spreading out all over the sanctuary, through the world to everyone watching online. Imagine one of those coals from God’s own altar coming right at you. You flinch and recoil a bit because it looks so hot, but you can’t dodge it. It comes right at you and lands on you, touches you, goes right into you. It doesn’t hurt at all, but wow, it's so warm your toes tingle, your joints feel strong and ready, pain-free, your hairs on your neck are arms are on edge. You feel alert and alive, ready for anything.

At the four tables around the Sanctuary are candles and sharpie markers. Who would you tell what God is doing? Which person or group, near or far, do you feel called to speak to. Kate is going to play some music for us, and I’m inviting you all to come one of these tables and write the names of those who come to mind when God’s spirit is upon you. Who has God warmed your heart toward. If anyone needs, Caitlan and I can bring a candle and pen to you where you are. Then, when everyone has had a chance to write, we will gather together for a song…

To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.


Many of the prophets saw brokenness in the society of their time. They imagined a day when change would come, and the world would embrace one another. So many of the prophets were hated or judged by the people of their time for begging for change. They were considered radicals.

But here, Peter goes back to one of those prophets and pulls those words of radical hospitality and inclusion forward. Peter says them again with the passion and heat of a prophet. Peter imagines again a world where every age, race, and gender are empowered are included and active in the work.

That kind of change creates friction. Friction creates heat. But it's worth it if the result is a world that looks more like the kingdom of God.


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. Amen.

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