Rev. Caroline Barnett
All Together in One Place
Preached by Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich
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 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.'
This is the Word of the Lord. Thank be to God.
Thanks be to God, indeed.
Thanks be to God, that new life can be breathed into dry bones.
Thanks be to God, for the gift of the Spirit and the birth of the church.
Thanks be to God, for the ministry of this church, First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, Alabama, and for the connections that make it possible for us to be in this together.
I’m so glad to be with you all today, both in person and those of you joining us via the miracles of technology. I’ve admired the ministry and fellowship of this congregation for a long time now, and, I have to tell, the fact that you are making it possible for Nick and Kathy to be on sabbatical together this summer speaks to the health and goodwill in your midst. Congregations sometimes forget over time the promises they make to take care of their pastors, but you are honoring your vows to Kathy and Nick, and to the church, and I want to thank you for that. I know you love them and you will miss them, and I know you are in very capable hands with Caroline, but you are doing faithful work here, and it’s a blessing to us all. So good on you.
Before we get into the text, I have a confession. When I agreed to preach on Pentecost, I thought I was taking the easy way out. I’ve got a few decent Pentecost sermons- it comes around every year, same story. And y’all have never heard my take on it, so I figured we were set.
But when I opened up this text this time, I heard it differently than I ever have before. In fact, I couldn’t get past the first line. They were all together in one place… Do you hear that differently now, after so much time apart? Does your chest fill with a sense of longing? Do you feel the grief of people and opportunities and precious time we’ve lost? I sure do. But there they are, all together in one place. Do they know how lucky they are?
I’ll remind you of the basics of the story. The disciples and lots of other folks are in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the Jewish festival that comes 50 days after Passover. Jesus has just ascended into heaven, and disciples are all together, they have reconvened after the trauma of the death and resurrection of their friend and teacher, and they are- we can assume- confused and uncertain about what to do and where to go next.
I find that particularly relatable right now.
And all of the sudden, a holy hurricane, the very breath of God, the wind of the Holy Spirit, blows through. Tongues of fire are upon them, and they are suddenly empowered to speak in languages they do not know, to be heard and understood by those native to other places. Jesus has told them this was going to happen. He told them, before he ascended to heaven, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And now they are seeing that promise brought to fulfillment on a scale that they must not have dared imagine.
And, in this event, we see the birth of the church. This is the story of how we came to be- from a small group of bumbling Jewish disciples who followed Jesus around, to the body of Christ on earth, those commissioned to continue Christ’s work here and now. And look who is there, attending the birth. Men and women. Jews and Romans and Pagans. People from a long list of tribes, races and places, as varied as any group ever assembled. There are even groups on the list that didn’t exist anymore by the time Jesus lived. That’s not a mistake- that’s the writer of Acts telling us that even the limitations of time and history do not restrict who God calls together to be God’s people.
There are several miracles playing out at once here. First, it feels utterly miraculous right now that they were all together- all these different kinds of people, in one place. And then there’s the fact each is understood and can understand the call of the Gospel in their own language— also miraculous. That kind of understanding is far too rare, isn’t it? And, then, there’s the presence of the Spirit and the way it equips them. These people are going to leave this place and go back to their communities and share what they have seen a heard. Pentecost was a superspreader of good news! And it worked, because here we are.
Here we are, in this moment of regrouping ourselves. We’ve been through so much- an exhausting list really, from a novel virus to political turmoil to a long overdue national reckoning on race- plus all the things we live through in our own daily lives. And now we have to figure out what is next. The new normal, or the next normal as I recently heard it described, because normal isn’t static. Can we take what we have learned and use it to live more faithfully? Things like how important it is not to take our loved ones and our communities for granted. Or how important it is to build equity into our systems and to seek to understand people who are different from us?
All of that is so hard to do and we aren’t very good at it on our own. So we are comforted by the fact that same Spirit that blew through at Pentecost that morning in Jerusalem is in our midst even now.
Friends in Christ, I believe we have hard days ahead of us still. We have suffered grief and trauma and disappointment, and we need to honor that. We live in a world and a culture that tells us we are supposed to be happy, polite, and presentable. But we follow a God who tells us we are beloved, even in our brokenness, who hears our sighs and counts our tears, and who promises abundant life, not on the world’s terms, but on holy ones.
Whatever this COVID season has been for you, each one of us has the opportunity now to re-enter the world in a different way. The coming season is going to be one of rebuilding systems, patterns, and relationships. We’ve seen close up there are many ways we can do better, from how we work to how we teach to what commitments we make to how we take care of each other. There’s much to be done, and there’s no doubt this season has changed us forever. As scary as that might sound, I actually mean it with great hope. Pentecost is a turning point in the text and it is one now as well. We don’t want to miss this moment!
So I invite you to settle yourself for a minute. Take a deep breath. Fill your lungs.
We’ve spent more than a year thinking about breath- worrying about masks and anxious about what an airborne virus might do to us or other people.
We’ve suffered losses, we’ve adjusted our routines, and adopted new habits to try to keep ourselves and the people we love safe.
And here we are. In a moment of pause.
Many of us blessedly vaccinated.
All of us grateful to see the numbers trending the right direction.
We are not yet all together in one place,
but the time is coming when we will be able to do that again safely.
Whether you are at home or with us in the sanctuary, think about your breath.
The breath of life that is still within you.
Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s grace.
Breathe in Easter. Breathe out Pentecost.
Now think about the air.
That air is ancient.
It has been here since the dawn of time,
since God’s Spirit blew across the waters at creation.
That air you just inhaled, it has traveled and it could have been anywhere.
It could have been dinosaur breath.
It could have been the very air that gave life to those dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley.
It could have been someone’s dying breath, or a new born baby’s first breath.
It could contain oxygen from the rainforest, or mist from the polar ice caps.
It might carry the faint scent of Alabama spring or incense from the Vatican.
It might be air Jesus breathed,
or the wind of the Spirit that swirled through Jerusalem that day.
It is in us, it moves through us, and it is all around us.
It is the life-giving Spirit.
It will sustain us as we go forward, whatever the future holds.
In the name of God, the breath of life, Amen.