(Note: This sermon was delivered to Journey Church in Dallas TX on June 9, 2013)
Joel 2:28-29 “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions, Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”
Acts 2:5-6 “Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.”
So most of us probably know the story of Acts 2, it’s the story of that little community of the crucified, instructed by the risen Lord to go to Jerusalem to a room and wait. For what? For the Holy Spirit of course, that Spirit of Christ, that mystery of His continued presence among us. It’s the reason we can say today that because two or more are gathered here – Christ is here. It’s the reason we say that everywhere the thirsty are given sparkling cold water, the shivering naked are clothed, and the swollen bellies of the starving are fed – Christ is there. It’s the reason we can say with confidence that on this earth, our hands are Jesus’ hands, our feet are Jesus’ feet, and that we are now the agents of healing and reconciliation for a world desperately in need of such things. Not because of some pietistic inwardness that makes us worthy to make such outlandish statements, but rather because like little children we have received the gift of the Spirit. But who is this Spirit?
The Spirit & Filioque
One of the more famous doctrinal disputes that contributed to the split between the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic & Protestant) churches, is a controversy about the nature of the Holy Spirit, that’s often referred to as the (Fily-o-kwe) Filioque controversy. Filioque is Latin for the phrase “And from the Son”, so the dispute centered around the addition of that phrase into the Nicene Creed. The original Greek version of the Nicene Creed reads “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, from the Father proceeding” while the later Latin rendering is “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who from the Father and the Son proceeds.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. Who the heck cares? Seriously, this is the problem with theology right? These stupid theologians have no lives and so they spend their miserable existence getting all bent out of shape about some obscure doctrinal point that ultimately ends up splitting the Church! Good grief. Now there’s a grain of truth in that, because there was certainly a political power struggle going on there, however at the risk of being lumped in with people who don’t have interesting lives, I’m going to suggest that this does offer a helpful clarification, and here’s why.
The Spirit at Barnes & Noble
Walk into any Barnes and Noble and you’ll see a whole section devoted to New Age and Spirituality. Apparently, the idea of the spirit and a vague notion of spirituality is extremely popular in our culture. We all know the folks with a sort of pseudo western Buddhist notion of how “like everything is one man, and how you, like, just need to get into the spirit and you’ll see that we’re, like, spirit too. Like, everything is spirit.” And I think sometimes we need to be reminded that the Spirit spoken of throughout the Scriptures isn’t just any spirit, but the Spirit that proceeds from Christ. So whatever it was that Jesus was up to: bringing people who normally tried to avoid each other around tables for meals, expanding our concept of who we call our “neighbor”, or announcing that the family of God is bigger and more expansive than we ever thought possible, then the Spirit of Christ will be up to very similar things. In other words, this Spirit is the continuation and expansion of the reconciling, healing, and unifying work of Christ in the world. And of course, that’s exactly what we find in Acts 2. We get this expansive stunning picture of a God poured out. But there are two important questions that need to be answered.
Where is the Spirit Poured Out?
First, where is the Spirit poured out? Notice that it isn’t in the opulant or powerful places of the world. There is no talk of palaces, temples, or holy places. Instead this is a Spirit of the common people, one who is found literally in the streets. Which again, makes perfect sense if this isn’t just any Spirit but the Spirit of Christ; the Christ who had harsh words for the high and mighty but was known as the friend of sinners, beggars, and ragamuffins. If that’s true then it’s no surprise that Spirit isn’t found where incense burns and candles flicker surrounded by clean people whispering hushed words, but instead right in the middle of the world. Right in the middle of a crowded corner: with the shit of donkeys as her incense, the broiling heat of the sun for light, with dope dealers on the and the the yelling of merchants hawking their wears as the background for this momentous occasion. This tells us something very important about who this God has always been. He has always been God-with-us. With us in our fleshly, smelly, bodily lives.
Who is the Spirit Poured Out On?
But the second question is who is the Spirit poured out on? Notice, it’s not King Herod, or the Jewish religious or political leaders, as the Old Testament precedent had been. Instead, there is this eruption, this excess of God that overruns every border and boundary we could set up. The Spirit, as echoed in the book of Joel, is poured out on men and women, young and old, slave and free; but it doesn’t stop there. The Spirit of Christ begins to break down every cultural and racial border that we as humans erect. She is given to ‘Parthians, Medes, and Mesopotamians from the East, Libyans and Africans from the West, Romans and Asians from the North, and Egyptians and Arabs to the South. The Spirit is poured out on all known peoples at that time, and this is perhaps the most timely and prophetic point one could draw from the text in our 21st century context because let’s face it – we live in country with roots of racism that go deep into our collective subconscious. And unlike the expansive and diverse picture of the church we see operating in Acts chapter 2 the truth is that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Talking About Race
Of course, us white folks don’t like to talk about race. It makes us uncomfortable because we desperately want to tell ourselves a story about how we as a society are post-race; how we’re beyond all of this. We want to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day of remembrance for a battle fought and won long ago. We want to read about issues of race in musty history books, as if it were a problem of the ancients. We want to point to our black president as an example of our progress, sort of a “but my best friend is black!” type argument made on a national level. Yes, we really are quite progressive on this topic; certainly far superior to our racist forefathers. That is until we are accused of racism ourselves. Until we are accused of participating in racist structures and systems of thought. Until we are told that our privileged position as white people in a racist society makes us utterly blind to the suffering of people of color. Until we are told that it is our utter silence in the face of 1,000,000 young black men locked up in prisons, and millions more wasting away in ghettos all over this nation, that condemns us. Then we get downright defensive. How many of us have said ourselves, or heard our supposedly “non-racist” friends & family blurt out “Don’t blame me for the slavery my great grandparents participated in. Don’t blame me for the segregation and dehumanization among black people that occurred during my grandparent’s lives. Don’t you dare try to make me feel guilty about ghettos, violence, and despair occurring today.That’s not my problem.” But it’s the defensive tone that betrays us. The mark of a guilty conscience.
An example of how we’re far from post-race as a society is seen in how we as white Christian America responded to accusations of racism from the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church. If you’ll recall he was the pastor of President Barack Obama who came to national prominence during the 2008 election for his famous God Damn America comments, which he made during a sermon at his mostly African American Church. Here’s his famous quote in full – and let me warn you – it’s angry, biting, and incredibly courageous and true.
“And the United States of America’s government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”
Now the reason this quote is so helpful is because it’s an honest description of what many people of color feel in this country but aren’t able to say openly. And we must begin in honesty. We must begin in the truth as defined by the suffering of the oppressed and marginalized communities. In other words, we as a white progressive type Christian’s must relinquish control of this conversation. We don’t get to set the terms of the debate.
What must I do to be saved?
So this is our dilemma. We live in a racist society with profound inequality between whites and people of color. We all know this. Also, we have a complicated history going back hundreds of years. Oh, and finally we have no clear way forward. Which inevitably leads to the question uttered by Cornelius in the book of Acts and by countless Christians since then, “What must we do to be saved?” How do we move forward? How do we live into the powerful vision given us by Acts 2 that’s so blatanlty contradicted by our on-the-ground experience of the American Church? Well as the old saying goes, for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s usually wrong. In this case, I think that answer is a sort of easy appeal to becoming a multi-cultural church. In other words, we put on our brochures, website, or whatever that in the Spirit of Acts 2 we’re open to all of God’s children attending our services. While certainly well intentioned, I think the reason this strikes me as the wrong direction is because it casts us in the role of leaders and heroes. We come off looking oh so generous as we invite other people to join our culturally set thing. Of course, that’s not how we think of it, but that’s the reality. What if black people, Latinos, or other marginalized groups struggling for survival and a sense of identity don’t want to join our thing? Would we quote Acts 2 at them and condemn them for the boogey man” of reverse-racism?
Instead, I think we should cast ourselves in the role of the learners, the listeners, and the followers. In other words, rather than being the “get-things-done” white Jesus people, perhaps we should realize that we are part of the problem and we may actually have little to no clue on how to solve this. Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to admit that we have no answer. That we have no idea how to live into this Acts 2 vision. That as people who have been part of the ruling class in this country we really aren’t in the best position to judge how best to solve this problem. To me, that would be the radical move. To go to church leaders of other cultural traditions and admit, “Look, we don’t knw how to fight against a system that we’re complicit with, can you please help us?” So at least on an institutional/church level that’s how I think we proceed. But what about as individuals? Here are three things we can do.
First, admit that racism isn’t just an issue for some people out there, but acknowledge that having been born into a racist society we often function in ways that contribute to and perpetuate racism in America. In other words, we are the problem.
Second, listen earnestly to people of color and let them set the terms of the debate and propose the ways we move forward. In this conversation we are the learners and the listeners – not the finger shakers and soap box ascenders.
Third, branch out in terms of media/arts exposure. This means listening to diverse music, reading books by diverse authors, and getting our news from sources outside of Fox or CNN. If you’re on twitter follow people of color and learn from them. If you read blogs, don’t just read blogs by white people.
And maybe, just maybe after we’ve done that for awhile we will come to understand the ways in which we might live into the reality given us by the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. Let us pray.
Holy God, forgive us for the ways in which we’ve contributed to the hurt and pain in the world. Help us become a humble people: quick to listen and slow to speak. Teach us to weep with those who weep, and how we might best stand in solidarity with people who’s voice has been marginalized. And we take hope with us too: that in a world of Fridays, Sunday and resurrection is coming.