This morning I want to tell you a story that’s a little different from the usual because it’s about a place rather than a person. It’s a story from the New Testament, but it doesn’t stand alone. It runs like a thread through several other stories, but today I want to tell it straight through on its own. I want to think about how much this place meant to the people who sheltered there.
I’m talking about the Upper Room, which is also sometimes called the Cenacle, where the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to them in the form of rushing wind and tongues of fire.
This room had been so important to them. It had been a refuge—a place of safety—and also a place of prayer. It’s a place where they were changed, so they were never the same once they left it behind.
The first time we hear about the Upper Room is when Jesus tells his people to talk to a certain man in Jerusalem about using a large upstairs room at his house for the Passover meal. And the man lends them the space they ask for, and that’s where they have their last supper together.
So it’s where Jesus blesses bread and wine and tells his friends to keep doing this exact thing, in his memory.
It’s where he washes their feet and gives them the command to love one another “as I have loved you.”
It’s the scene of the long farewell talk he gives them in the Gospel passages we’ve been reading over the past few weeks.
When they leave this room the first time, Jesus is on his way to die. He won’t return to that place until after the Resurrection, although his followers will be back.
They scatter in fear that night, one so terrified, when he’s grabbed by the temple police, that he lets them pull off his garment andhe runs away without his clothes. And of course there’s the story of Peter denying that he even knows Jesus three times before the cock crows.
When Jesus is crucified, his mother and some of the women stay with him at the foot of the cross, but we don’t see most of the men again until after the Resurrection. And where they’ve been in the meantime, apparently, is back in that Upper Room.
That’s where they are on Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene brings them the amazing news that she has seen Jesus and he is alive!
Later that evening he’ll come to them there himself, entering that room mysteriously through the door they’ve locked in fear that what happened to him might happen to them, too.
And later still when the man Jesus leaves them for good, taken away by a cloud on the day of the Ascension, they return to that same Upper Room.
Now they’ve lost their leader again, but they seem stronger and more resolute than they were the night of the last supper, and they continue to gather in the Upper Room and pray while they wait for whatever it is that’s going to come next.
Perhaps they’re already beginning to realize that they couldn’t stay in that room forever, but they know it’s where they need to be for the time being.
And then one day they hear that wind and see that fire—fire that divides into tongues and rests on each one of them—and the next thing they know they’re out there preaching and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that everyone could understand, no matter what language they spoke—Peter himself so eloquent and convincing that 3,000 new followers were baptized that day.
It’s no wonder we call this feast of Pentecost the birthday of the church.
So if you trace the story through, you can see just how important that Upper Room was to the early church. It’s a place where they were safe. It kept everyone together —and it kept them praying together—so they were ready for that moment when the leading of the Holy Spirit became so obvious and intense they knew it was time to leave that place.
And even today we look to the Upper Room—the Cenacle—as a model for a place of refuge, reflection, and refreshment. Sometimes you just have to step away from the world, as those disciples did.
And then one day, at Pentecost, it was time for them to come out again.
And I wonder if there isn’t a sort of parallel between what happened with those first followers of Jesus and the place where we find ourselves today.
When our crisis came—when the coronavirus arrived and the world fell apart last March—we withdrew from the world. There was a tremendous amount of fear at that time, and also a lot of wisdom in realizing that closing our churches was the right thing to do even if it was something that was unprecedented for us.
We had to do it, to keep ourselves safe, and also as an act of love for all of our sisters and brothers to keep from spreading the disease as much as possible.
And perhaps to our surprise, we found that there was a place where we could go. You could say that the online spaces we retreated to—places like Facebook Live, and Zoom—became our own Upper Room. They gave us a place where we could safely gather, to keep our community together and keep us praying together. And in this togetherness we found strength.
Like those disciples who were together in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost, because Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, who would come to guide them, to comfort them, to protect them … to be the Spirit of truth for them and for the whole world.
The Holy Spirit was with the church at the very beginning, and is with us now, leading us in endlessly creative ways to be God’s church in situations we could never have expected or planned for.
The Holy Spirit is with us now—that really is the message of our Gospel today. The enduring message of the story of Pentecost.
With the inspiration of the Spirit, I hope we’ll look back on this strange time of online church as more than just something we had to get through. I hope we’ll remember it as a graced time when important things happened in our own faith development. A time when we were changed, like those first followers of Jesus. A time that wasn’t spent just waiting for something to end—but rather, a time when we were getting ready for a new beginning … getting ready for the next chapter in our own story.
Because you know, these stories we tell are so important. Telling stories is one way we reflect on who we are, who we want to be, and what really matters to us.
And we don’t just tell these stories—we live them. It turns out that we ourselves are part of this continuing story, the story of the church.
So I leave you now with two questions, and they’re two questions we should never stop asking ourselves. The first is, what is the story we want the world to know about the church in the year 2021? And how is the Holy Spirit guiding us to live that story now?
Preached for the Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA