What’s Up With Church: Leaving Faith in the Pews

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on May 23, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

Acts 2:1-21

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.’

As we continue on in our “What’s Up With Church” series, our theme today, on Pentecost Sunday, is the critique that church people leave faith in the pews. The stories I have heard in preparation for today range from Christians not doing anything with their faith besides Sunday morning worship all the way to Christians claiming that the only way to experience God is in a church building. These deeply troubling assumptions though, do carry some important weight, in that we can’t pretend like we are faultless in those things. 

Today, we encounter a biblical basis for making those assumptions wrong, by not only experiencing our faith in the pews, but beyond them as well. We’re about to explore a Pentecost faith. Having a Pentecost faith means practicing the truth that faith didn’t start in the pews, and it can’t stay there either. Let’s go deeper into that.

The Pentecost story, which Robbie read, talks about the prophecy from the book of Joel being fulfilled. There, it says that the spirit of heaven would be poured out on all people, and the systems of division would be dissolved. Further, this prophecy says that God would be in all places, through all things, and for all people. Goel says that God would be revealed not to reside in human-made temples, but in the temples of the Spirit, which are human beings. 

This experience we call Pentecost was an incredibly exciting one, dramatic even in nature. The tongues of fire, speaking in all languages, and we can’t forget those gathered being accused of having a few too many glasses of wine to drink. Yet, even with all the chatter and excitement, the celebration isn’t what Pentecost is truly celebrating. 

In this Pentecost story, we see God’s image moving from a physical location to the revelation of God in our hearts, those temples of the Spirit. Today’s passage shows the revealing of God’s presence in the form of a wild flame over the temple, an outward sign of God’s grace. 

That imagery of where the flame was is just as important as the fact that it appeared at all, because it reveals two things. First, God showed up, and God made God’s presence known in big ways, ways we can understand. And second, the flame appearing outside of the temple tells us that the Holy Spirit is not beholden to a church building. In fact, sometimes God’s presence becomes more known when we notice it in our life beyond our worship services, no matter how well-planned out they happen to be on a given Sunday.

Where have you all experienced God this week? Was it in a church? Or a chatroom? Or social media? Or with a friend? Where have you experienced God’s presence this week?

The popular belief that churchgoers leave faith in the pews is important to take seriously, because it speaks to the ways we share God’s presence in our lives with those around us. If faith is simply a Sunday morning experience, where we check in, read a page or two in the bible, sing a few songs, then leave unchanged, then why is church even important? 

As a pastor, my job is not to manufacture 60 minutes of material for the sole purpose of keeping folks entertained once a week. My job is to create opportunities for the Divine to be seen and known, both inside and outside the church. So, it’sas  just important to me that you notice God through a longtime friend you run into at the grocery store as it is that you notice God during a sermon. We cannot allow ourselves to treat the physical building like God Godself. Because the truth friends, and the Good News, is that God’s presence is not limited to the temple, and it can’t be, for us to truly be church.

What we learn from this Pentecost story, and what I hope you’ll take with you today, is that our ability to see God as bigger than a church building, an institution, a worship service, is our ability to see God for who God really truly is. 

So my challenge for you all as you go out from this place, outside of the temple, is to seek sacred moments in the everyday. Do not limit your image of God to the familiar, but instead, look beyond your normal in order to seek that “tongues of fire” kind of knowing. 

As you leave this place, may you allow yourself to know that God comes too. May you take what you’ve experienced here and bring it into the world in profoundly divine ways. And may you practice a Pentecost faith, a faith that was never meant to be limited to a building. 

Let us pray: God of fire and wind, we thank you for today, an opportunity to see the scope of your presence. Help us to see you in more places, to challenge ourselves so that Pentecost can be lived, not just heard. In your name we pray, Amen.

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