The Flames of Pentecost, Racism, and Repentance
The celebration of Pentecost this past Sunday called upon followers of Jesus to remember that the church’s very existence is founded upon fresh movements of the Spirit breathing through us like fire, opening our eyes to the scripture in new ways, sparking our hearts to repentance and action. The lectionary reading from Acts 2 reminded us that all the believers were together in one place when a sound like a violent rushing wind filled the entire house and something like tongues of fire came to rest on each of them. The Holy Spirit filled each of them and they were empowered to speak so that even those who did not share their language understood them. Peter was empowered to speak words of new life through Israel’s scriptures, to see them in a way he had never seen them before. He declared that what was happening among them was what the prophet Joel had declared so long before when God promised to pour out the Spirit on all humanity, not just a few chosen servants, but individuals of every age, gender, and social standing. Peter similarly proclaims that Psalm 16, a Psalm accredited to David, is actually about Jesus and his being rescued from the grave. According to Acts, the resurrection of Jesus and the power of the Spirit caused Peter to see these scriptures with new eyes, to read them in new ways, and to understand that a new claim was being made on his life. Likewise, when the crowds heard Peter’s interpretation of these scriptures, they recognized it demanded action from them, asking “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter’s response: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
This past Sunday was also the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. A black teenager named Dick Rowland had been arrested after Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, had screamed and Rowland had fled the scene. All charges against Rowland would later be dropped but not before a group of white men appeared outside of the courthouse where he was held and demanded that he be turned over to them. A group of about 25 armed black men came to the courthouse to help protect Rowland from being lynched. The sheriff sent the black men home but they returned in greater numbers later as the white mob increased. The standoff at the courthouse escalated for the next several hours until 1500 whites were present at the courthouse; shots were fired and chaos ensued. Over the course of May 31-June 1, 1921, thousands of whites looted and burned businesses in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK, an area renowned for its black wealth and success, earning it the nickname Black Wall Street. By the end of the riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed, 1256 houses were burned, and likely hundreds were killed though an exact count has been difficult to ascertain since many efforts were made to erase records of the events. For more on these events, see “Tulsa Race Massacre” History.com.
Neither of these events – the flames of Pentecost or the flames of racism – are merely events of a distant past. I believe that the flames of Pentecost still burn among Jesus’ followers today; the Spirit still wants to breathe new life into us, rushing through our life together like a mighty wind. But there can be no doubt that the flames of racism are also far from extinguished. Indeed, there are times they more closely resemble the well-kept coal fires that drive our machines and institutions, even Christian ones, than the flicker of a lone burning brand. Our brothers and sisters of color have long been reminding us of this reality and call us to confront it even now, if we are willing to listen. And I dare say to my white brothers and sisters, the ability of that first flame of the Spirit to empower our churches is directly related to our absolute refusal to allow the embers of racism to be stoked among us. How can we hear the voice of the Spirit among us if we have not heard the voice of our brothers and sisters? How can the breath of God breathe new life into us if we stand by while members of our own body tell us that they cannot breathe?
There is yet another fire of which the scriptures speak – the refiner’s fire. It is the fire that melts precious metals, not for destruction, but so that it might be made more pure, more perfect, and more beautiful. The prophet Malachi speaks of the refiner’s fire as a day of judgement on God’s own people, one of pain and suffering, not for their destruction but so that they may ultimately draw nearer to God. “Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord…”. Malachi, like Peter’s speech in Acts, proclaims that this way of return to God is one that comes through repentance. However, such repentance must not be mistaken for mere remorse concerning past actions or confession of wrongdoing. Although it may begin there, repentance as characterized by the Christian scriptures demands action, a change in direction, setting a new course.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, could it be that the Spirit is calling us to repent? Could it be that if we put aside our defensiveness for just a moment, we might find that it is the very voice of the Spirit we’ve been keeping out? Could it be that the scriptures have something new to say to us if only we will allow the Spirit to empower us to read them with fresh eyes? Might the discomfort we feel in this moment be the work of the refiner’s fire among us? Will we respond as that Pentecost crowd did, asking “What should we do?”.
What is God calling you to do in this moment?
May the Spirit of Christ blow through our churches like a mighty wind, setting our hearts aflame with repentance leading to action, so that all the members of Christ’s body may breathe deeply of the Spirit which makes us one.
David Young, Ph.D.
Dean of the Chapel
Assistant Professor of Biblical Literature
Eastern Nazarene College
Religion and Culture Program