This weekend, churches around the globe gathered virtually to celebrate Pentecost, that miraculous moment when tongues of fire descended on the followers of Christ and the gospel was heard in the varied languages of the world. Pentecost is the miracle that follows another miracle (the Ascension), which occurs in the aftermath of a wonder (the Resurrection).
In contrast to Christ’s disciples, we experienced Pentecost this year in the aftermath of a woe, following a trauma, in the context of a tragedy. The protests and riots of Minneapolis (and so many other cities) follow the death of George Floyd, who was choked to death while handcuffed and pleading for his life. For nine minutes, a police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck while the man called for his mother. This occurred in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And all this takes place within the wider context of a global pandemic that has killed 100,000 people. It feels more like we are in the middle of an extended Lent rather than the end of Eastertide.
Some will assume that I’m bringing politics into the church. They’ll wonder why I’m not upset about black-on-black crime, or the breakdown of the black family, or abortion, or looting, or whatever topic that helps us avoid looking at the thing itself. That “thing” is the 400-year history of racial trauma and oppression still plaguing blacks in this country.
What do protests, riots, and police brutality have to do with Pentecost and the passage in Acts 2:1–21? Does the death of the Messiah for our sins have anything to do with how we approach the flames of Minneapolis? Does the church have something to say, or will we be discipled by Fox News on the one hand and MSNBC on the other? As our country is divided, what do the words of Scripture mean right now?
There is no other world in which to talk about Jesus than a world in which black men can have their necks stepped on for nine minutes. That is to say: The only way to answer these questions is to look at the words of Scripture with the burning cities as our interpretive backdrop.
Here’s what God’s Word tells us.
First, the gospel brings us together.
Acts 2:1–21 opens with the followers of Jesus gathered in one place. It is amazing to think that at one point in history, all the Christians in the world could fit into one room. Despite what the history books will tell you, Christianity is not some state-sponsored religion of terror created by Constantine to keep the populous in check. It began humbly with a ragtag group of 120 mostly regular folks who had encountered the living God.
Among them were women like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who came from rural peasant stock, and people like Matthew, the former tax collector. The two of them could not be more different. Matthew collaborated with the oppressors of Israel and extorted money from people to line his pockets. Folks like Mary were the victims of such atrocities.
What kind of church has room for both the oppressed and former oppressors? The Christian church. What united that early church? Their shared convictions about Jesus.
What unites us as a church now? What would this unity look like today for the family of George Floyd? What would it mean for us to be together with them? What would it mean to be alongside the black community in the United States, which over the years has experienced kidnapping, slavery, the injustice of the Jim Crow era, and the litany of contemporary sufferings that mark our lives now?
It would mean that, as an act of love, the church says, “It should not have to be this way, and I will spend my life beside yours testifying to the values that the Christian tradition places on your black life.”
The church has the power to make this statement because the same Spirit falls upon everyone in the room. There is not one Holy Spirit that enables women to declare the word of God and another for men. There is not one Spirit that gives words to the rich and others to the poor. There is not one Holy Spirit that allows us to speak to African peoples and another that allows us to speak to Asians or Europeans. The one Spirit sends the one gospel to varied peoples of the earth.
The gospel’s work through the Spirit arises from our common status as image bearers. We are all fallen and in need of God’s grace. Any ideology that functionally or verbally denies that common status is a heresy. And anyone who can’t see that the heresy of racial bias infects some Christians in this land does so in the face of overwhelming facts.
Second, the gospel moves us out.
The gospel drew the early disciples outside of their own culture to speak and do life with people who were very different from themselves. Everyone at Pentecost was Jewish, but that Judaism had been moved into the varied languages and communities of the Roman Empire. The first thing that the gospel did was to bring people together under the lordship of Christ.
If the gospel draws us into a shared space to hear the mighty works of God, why aren’t we together anymore? And what would it mean for the watching world to see a Christianity that is actually together, spiritually and practically?
Black Christians can deal with people who have no reason support us. We can deal with secular racists. What is heartbreaking and exhausting is to find ourselves fighting for our right to exist and then find that the enemy is our brother. As the Psalms say, “It is not enemies who taunt me—I could bear that; but it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God” (Ps. 55:12–14, NRSV).
Our life together, if we are to be together, can’t come at the expense of our freedom. We shouldn’t have to fight our brothers and sisters to obtain it.
Here again, the story of Pentecost provides insight. As the nations are being drawn together, there are two responses: One group says in so many words, “They are just drunk” (Acts 2:13). The other asks, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). One group refuses to acknowledge what is going on and draws upon their known experience to dismiss the work of God. The other asks a deeper question: What is God up to in their midst?
Peter addresses the first group with a sentence or two but takes more time to address the question of meaning. He tells the crowd that they are experiencing the Spirit promised in Joel 2:28–32. The prophet Joel claims that when God redeems his people, he will redeem men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Peter wants to remind the early church that the universal gift of the Spirit is a testimony to the universal saving power of the gospel.
In other words, the form of Pentecost—women, men, rich, and poor declaring the mighty works of God—supports the theology of Pentecost—the idea that the gospel is for everyone.
That held true for the early church. It also holds true for the American church of the 21st century.
Today, some people look at the black demands for justice and can only reach for a political explanation. These critics respond by saying, “They are just Democrats trying to ruin the church,” or “They are really theological liberals beholden to Marxism.” But maybe those are ways to avoid looking at the thing itself. What are black, Latino, and Asian brothers and sisters really saying when they call for justice? What does it mean? And what is God up to? He is drawing diverse people together and then moving us into new gospel spaces by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Third, the gospel gives us hope in the coming kingdom.
I am convinced that the hope for this country is found not in any election or political party. Votes matter, but neither the Democratic party nor the Republican party will save us. What we need is a Spirit-filled Christianity big enough to draw different people together.
This unity involves two things. First, we have to recognize that the problem is not just “out there.” It’s in our hearts. The problem isn’t just that racists exist in the world. The problem is that we all in various ways live in rebellion against God and his will for us. The gospel demands a decision from each of us about our own sins. One of Jesus’s oft-repeated messages was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
He calls us to repent personally for our sins. Why? Because—and here’s the second point—the kingdom of God is coming. This kingdom is depicted in Jesus’ first sermon, in which he proclaimed good news to the poor and liberty to the captives (Luke 4:16–21). Jesus came to save sinners, but those saved sinners now bear witness in their lives to God’s kingdom vision. We know that this kingdom is coming because Christ is risen. Peter says it this way: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).
Who controls the future? Who unfurls history according to his purpose? The one who is the Lion and the Lamb at the same time (Rev. 5:5–6). The one who embodies both justice and mercy.
We the American church have a message for a country and a world on fire: There is a God who loves you and died that you might know him. This love is sufficient to gather the divided peoples of the world, even when all the politicians and philosophers fail. There is a God of justice who sees and acts on behalf of the beleaguered peoples of the world, people like George Floyd. There is a king and kingdom. And he has given us his Spirit to make him known to the ends of the earth.
Esau McCaulley is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and the author of the forthcoming book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic).
This piece was adapted from a sermon preached at Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro, North Carolina on May 31.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.