God at Work Away from the Sanctuary

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
May 28, 2020


Pentecost is usually a grand celebration of God’s revolutionizing Spirit at work in the church. Sanctuaries fairly explode with sights and sounds celebrating the day two thousand years ago that the Holy Spirit visited waiting disciples in spectacular fashion, and the Christian Church began its meteoric rise.

This coming Sunday, Pentecost will be entirely different. Most of our sanctuaries are shuttered, and the few that are open are sparsely populated by stalwart souls who remain physically distant from each other, wear protective masks, and remain largely silent because singing spreads airborne germs widely. COVID-19 seems to have brought Pentecost to its knees.

Pentecost did not happen in the temple or a synagogue. It took place in a “secular” space, a non-descript upstairs room. (Acts 1:13-14) It was likely an ordinary residence, with guest accommodations upstairs.

The Bible contains several stories of special things happening in upstairs rooms. Both the prophets Elijah and Elisha were given upstairs rooms for lodging, and in both cases those rooms became places where new life was breathed into lifeless children. Similarly, Peter brought new life to Dorcas in an upstairs room. One of the most revolutionary episodes in the book of Acts was when Peter, while in an upstairs room, had a vision of God’s command to welcome those who receive the Spirit, even if it means setting aside ancient Jewish categories of “clean” and “unclean.”

When Jesus sent his disciples into the city to prepare for his final Passover, they found an upstairs room that fit the bill. It is likely the same upstairs room in which they sequestered themselves once again several weeks later, after Jesus’ ascension. And it was precisely there that God’s Spirit engulfed them and equipped them to change the world.

It may or may not be in an upstairs room, but ever since early in Lent most of us have had to find some corner in our homes to sign on remotely to worship, or Bible Study, or fellowship time with our sisters and brothers. We have of necessity stayed far from the sanctuary, something we have found especially distressing through Holy Week, Easter, and now Pentecost.

We haven’t been able to congregate, yet we have not been alone. We have stayed connected or been reconnected through telephone, mail, and social media. Many of our congregations report that they have restored connections with members who have been away from worship for one reason or another. In some respects, we have become more united in spirit, even as we have been separated physically.

The disciples on Pentecost were “all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1) While being physically scattered, some among us have found new levels of connection. Being “together in one place” neither requires, nor is guaranteed by, physical proximity.

Pentecost happened away from the regular houses of worship. It required togetherness of a sort different from “assembly togetherness.” Pentecost required that they be united in obedience and hope that anything was possible. Nothing from old playbooks could have launched Pentecost’s outpouring of new life.

The earliest Christian believers did not abandon the Temple – in fact, they gathered there daily. (Acts 2:46-47) The apostles went to the synagogues wherever they traveled, declaring the message of Jesus in established houses of prayer. (Acts 13:5Acts 13:14, etc.) Pentecost did not turn Jesus’ followers away from houses of worship, but toward them.

Yet Pentecost itself happened away from the sanctuary. Resurrection stories took place away from the sanctuary. Peter’s revelation of God’s plan to welcome all peoples unfolded away from the sanctuary.

Pentecost is a story of Jesus’ followers coming together. Yet the stories of “upstairs rooms” in the Bible, including the Pentecost story, highlight that God repeatedly surprises the faithful by breaking in with something new and revolutionary while they are away from their beloved places of worship. And we don’t have to read too far into Acts to learn that the first Christian community that was brought together by Pentecost was soon scattered, and began to bear witness to Jesus beyond its comfort zone. (Acts 8:1-4)

So, beloved, let us not lose hope when we are kept away from our houses of worship. God can do mighty things for us when we are away from our sanctuaries. Indeed, even when we are “stuck” at home God can do in us and through us abundantly more than we can imagine!

And so I invite us amid our temporary physical separation to lift up our hearts and hopes. God is not done with us. We may not be able to embrace each other physically, at least for the near future. Yet as we nurture our love for our Lord and for each other remotely, who knows what wonders the Spirit may accomplish among us?

Yours in Pentecostal hope,

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