The Flames of Pentecost, a World on Fire, and the Hope of the Kingdom

Today we are supposed to talk about the miraculous birth of the church in the flames of Pentecost when tongues of fire descended upon those gathered and the gospel was heard in the varied languages of the world. Pentecost is the miracle that follows on from the miracle that occurs in the aftermath of a wonder. Jesus, Israel’s king and Messiah, was crucified and raised from the dead. He then ascended into heaven so that in the words of St. Paul God might fulfill his promise “to put all things under the feet” of our king.

Paul also says that God made Christ the head over all things “for the church.” Christ rules over all things for our good. In a world that is burning this is indeed gospel. 

If the first Pentecost is the miracle that follows the miracle that occurs in the aftermath of the wonder, this Pentecost finds the American church in a much different place. It feels like this Pentecost occurs in the aftermath of a woe, following a trauma, in the context of a tragedy. We gather virtually to talk about the flames of Pentecost while Minneapolis and so many other cities burn. The protests and riots of Minneapolis 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 a man’s neck while he called for his mother.

This occurs in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. All this takes place within the wider context of a country in which 100k people have died from a deadly virus and the church is physically scattered.  It feels more like we are in the middle of an extended Lent rather than the end of Eastertide.

Some will hear me talk of these events and assume that I am bringing ‘politics’ into the church. They will wonder why I am not upset about black on black crime or the black family or abortion or looting or whatever topic that avoids looking at the thing itself. The thing itself is the 400 year history of racial trauma and oppression that stalks black life in this country.

Some might wonder what riots and a black man dying at the hand of the police have to do with Pentecost and the actual passage in Acts 2:1–21. Don’t we understand, brothers and sisters, this is the question! Does the gospel, the death and resurrection of the Messiah for our sins, have anything to do with how 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? Cities are burning and a country is divided, what do the words of the gospel mean in this context. There is no other world to talk about Jesus than a world in which black men have their necks steps on for nine minutes.

The only way to answer that question is to look at the thing itself, the words of Scripture.  I want to make three points from our reading today: (1) The gospel brings us together (2) The Spirit moves us toward people very different from ourselves; (3) our hope is the gospel of the Kingdom

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 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 rag tag group of a 120 mostly regular folks who had encountered the living God. Among them were women like Mary 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 the 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? What united them? What unites us as a church now? What united them was their shared convictions about Jesus. They were together and that is what the gospel does. It unites us around the lordship of Christ

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 with the Black community in the United States who have experienced kidnapping, middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow, and the Litany of suffering that marks our life here? Would it not mean, as an act of love, to say it should not have to be this way, and I will spend my life beside yours to testify to the value the Christian tradition places on your black life?

The same Spirit falls upon all in the room. There is not one holy Spirit enabling women to declare the word of God and another for men. There is not one Spirit that gives words to the rich and another for the poor. There is not one Holy Spirit that enables us to speak to African peoples and another that allows us to speak to Asians or Europeans. The one Spirit send the one Gospel to varied peoples of the earth. The same Spirit is able to minister to all people because it reaches our common humanity. The Holy Spirit didn’t have to work extra hard to convince African peoples of the gospel because there is some flaw in us that makes us hard to reach. The singularity of the gospel’s work through the Spirit arising from our common status as image bearers speaks to our common humanity. We are all fallen and in need of God’s grace. Any ideology that functionally or verbally denies that common status is a heresy. Anyone who denies that the heresy of racism infects this country and many Christians in it does so in the face of facts that would make the soldiers at the empty tomb seem like reliable witnesses.

The Gospel moves us out

The gospel drew them outside their own culture to speak and eventually do life together with people 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 bring people together under the Lordship of Christ. If the gospel draws us together to hear the mighty works of God has it lost its power to do so among us? Why aren’t we together anymore? And what would it mean for the watching world to see a Christianity that was together spiritually and practically? 

Black Christians can deal with the 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 very right to exist and find that the enemy we see is someone who is our brother. What is that passage in the Psalter? “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” (Psa. 55:12–14 NRSV). Our life together, if we are to be together, can’t be at the expense of my freedom. I shouldn’t have to fight my brother to obtain it.

The nations are being drawn to together and there two responses: (1) They are just drunk; (2) What does this mean? One response refuses to acknowledge the facts of what is going on and draws upon their know experience to dismiss the work of God. It’s just alcohol. The second asks a deeper question: what is God up to in their midst?

I will get back to Pentecost. Let me say this about the world that is on fire all around us. Some look at the black demands of justice and can only reach for some political explanation. 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? What does it mean? What is God up to?

Peter dismisses the first question with a sentence or two, but addresses the question of meaning more deeply. He tells them that they are experiencing the Spirit promised in Joel. Joel says that when God acted to redeem his people it would universal – men and women, young and old, rich and poor. The universal gift of the Spirit that manifested itself in the shared public ministry of the whole church (women, men, rich, poor) is a testimony to the universal saving power of the gospel. In other words, the form of Pentecost supports the theology of Pentecost- the gospel of for everyone.

The hope of the Kingdom

I am convinced that the hope for this country is not in any election or political party. Votes matter, but neither the Democratic party nor the Republican party is our savior. What we need is a Spirit filled Christianity big enough to draw the varied peoples together.

This involves two things. The first is to recognize that the problem is not just out there. It’s in our hearts. The problem isn’t just that there are racists 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. If Jesus had a theme for his ministry it is repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent personally for your sins. Why? Because (secondly) the Kingdom is coming. This kingdom is depicted in Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth where he proclaimed good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. It is the kingdom articulated in the Psalter rooted in justice and righteousness. 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. This Jesus you crucified God has made him Lord and Messiah. Who controls the future?  Who unfurls history according to his purpose? The one who is the Lion and the lamb at the same time. The one who is both God’s justice and his mercy. 

We do have a message for a city 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 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. He has given us his Spirit to make him known to the ends of the earth.

A Sermon on preached on Pentecost 2020

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.