This is a sermon that I recently preached at a meeting of New Hope Presbytery, our regional body of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in northeastern North Carolina. As a Presbytery, we are embarking on a pilgrimage of discernment called “The Pentecost Project.” We are longing for God’s Spirit to fall afresh on us, and we are prayerfully asking these questions:
- What is God up to among us?
- What is God aiming to accomplish through us?
- What entities and structures will best help us answer God’s call?
Here are some thoughts on getting ready for a new Pentecost.
Join Us in the Upper Room
A Sermon on Acts 1:1-14 and 2:1 and Isaiah 43:15-21
Meeting of New Hope Presbytery
Saturday, February 23, 2013
“You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus said. That part was clear: Be my witnesses.
What wasn’t clear was how. God’s new thing was springing forth, but it didn’t spring forth fully formed. No detailed plans, organizational charts, manuals of operations or guidelines for best practices sprang fully formed from the mind of Jesus. His followers were at square one. What should they do first? Who is going where, and when, and how? How should the church “do church?”
No wonder Jesus didn’t say, “Now hurry up and get going.” He said, “Stay put and wait in Jerusalem until you get baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
And so the small church of about 120 souls gathered and waited in the Upper Room somewhere in Jerusalem. Like all church councils they conferred and took care of business. They elected Matthias to take Judas’ place as one of the twelve.
But the main thing they did was pray. And pray. And pray. They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Given all the unanswered questions, I imagine their prayers sounded like this: Show us the way, Lord. Give us the strength. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.
When the Day of Pentecost arrived, there they were. Together and praying.
Here we are, the Presbyterian Church in Northeast North Carolina: 126 congregations, plus specialized ministries. But we used to be 136 congregations. We used to reach out to young people through three camps. What’s ailing the mainline church and the church in general is ailing us: shrinking numbers. Shrinking resources. Shrinking influence.
It’s tempting to think that if we just did church better somehow, then people would come. If we could just be more exciting, more “with it,” more attractive, that would fix the problem.
But as writer Reggie McNeal puts it, people are not waking up in the morning thinking, “If only there were a good church around here I’d go.” (See this video on the PCUSA Engage website for the quote.)
Church is not even on many people’s radar screen, and there are many who are so turned off that they don’t want church to come up on their radar screen.
I was watching one of the new PC(USA) Engage videos online this week, and the speaker, David Loleng, compared the church’s situation to a bridge and a river, with the bridge being the church spanning the river of the cultural flow in which we live. The church is a connector, connecting people to Jesus.
Then he described this picture that you can see on the Engage website of a big, strong, beautiful bridge in Honduras. But it’s sitting off byitself on dry land! The river is off to the side. Why? In 1998 Hurricane Mitch was so strong that it shifted the course of the river. Most of the bridges got washed away, but this one was well engineered and it still stands. But now it’s irrelevant. It’s a tourist attraction. People go there to gawk at it.
The cultural river in which the church lives has moved away from the bridge, and we’re not making the connection. How can we reconnect?
Jesus’ call sounds as clear as ever: Be my witnesses. The need is as great and as clear as ever: people need a life-giving connection with Jesus Christ. If doing what we’re used to doing, only better isn’t the answer, what is? If tweaking our organizational charts and revising our procedures as a presbytery and local faith communities isn’t the answer, what is? We are right back where the first church in Acts was—if not to square one, then near it.
The first church of Jesus Christ gathered in the Upper Room, constantly devoting themselves to prayer. And there they were when Pentecost dawned. Just as Jesus promised, the Spirit of the Living God fell afresh on the church, and they got the direction, they got the power and they got the resources they needed to move out of the Upper Room, and into the community, and to the ends of the earth.
If our call to be witnesses is still there, so is the promise of the Holy Spirit. So is the promise of Pentecost. Square one is a very exciting place to be because behold, God is up to something new here and now. Even now it is springing forth. Do you not perceive it?
New Hope’s coordinating body perceives it, and they asked a team of seven elders to help us tune in to what God is doing in our midst. Our team of seven is here today to invite the whole presbytery to gather in the Upper Room. When you’re at square one in ministry, the Upper Room is the place to be.
Join us there. Join us in listening to scripture afresh. Join us in sacred conversation and listening to one another. Literally this morning we invite you to join us around the table to talk. Join us in prayer: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on New Hope Presbytery, on all our local churches, on all our ministries. Melt us, mold us, fill us, heal us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us, so we can help people connect with Jesus.
Remember who our faithful God is—the one who makes roads through the wilderness and rivers in the desert; the one who makes a way where there isn’t any way. The one who always keeps promises. This God is going to make us into a way, a bridge for people to connect with Jesus.
This promise is sure: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says our Lord Jesus Christ. “And you will be my witnesses…
You are going to be my witnesses
• In the Triangle and all the surrounding counties.
• In Angier, Willow Springs, Oxford, Henderson, Louisburg and Roanoke Rapids and Littleton, Selma and Smithfield, Goldsboro, Newton Grove, Mt. Olive and in all the surrounding counties.
• In Rocky Mount, Tarboro and Wilson and in all the surrounding counties.
• In Greenville and Farmville, Swan Quarter, Williamston, Ahoskie and Scotland Neck, Snow Hill and Kinston, Edenton, and New Bern, Manteo and Kill Devil Hills and in all the surrounding counties.
New Hope Presbytery, you will be my witnesses in all of northeastern North Carolina, and to the ends of the earth, says the Lord Jesus.
And you are going to get baptized with the power to do it.
Friends, join us in the Upper Room.