Pentecost 2020: George Floyd and the Holy Spirit

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” - Those were Jesus’ final words to the disciples before he ascended to sit at God’s right hand in glory. The disciples returned to the holy city and waited for this promised coming of power. Ten days later, the city was packed with Jewish pilgrims from all over the world. It was the Festival of Weeks, a festival celebrating the spring harvest, anticipated since Passover. It was a time of covenant renewal with their faithful God.

So it was an ideal time for the Holy Spirit to show up! Maximum potential to reach as many as possible with the Good News of Jesus. The wind of God blows through the room where the disciples are gathered, transforming them into apostles-- teachers, not students. The Holy Spirit alighted on each of them, as it had done at Jesus’ baptism in the form of a dove. They begin speaking in languages they had never spoken before. The crowds gather outside of the house, and they hear the apostles’ message in their own native language; it’s not that the crowds hear in Hebrew. The Egyptians hear in Egyptian; the Romans in Latin; the Arabs in Arabic.

How is this possible?? Is how they respond. They do not realize it in the moment, but the gathering of a large crowd from all over the Jewish Diaspora, hearing the Good News in the own native language, is both a reversal of an ancient story and a preview of things to come at the end of all things. In Genesis 11, all people spoke the same language. They were creative and ambitious, and built for themselves a large city with a giant tower at the center. They did this for two reasons: to make a name for themselves, and to prevent them from being separated from each other. They believed the city and tower would unify them in a way they didn’t currently enjoy. God, however, only sees their pride and arrogance, and after taking a moment to gaze at humanity’s ingenuity, separates them by geography and language-- the thing they feared most.

Now at Pentecost, everyone is unified for real, hearing the inclusive gospel in their own tongues. Every single pilgrim. They are dumbfounded: “How is it then that each of us can hear in our own language?” The Holy Spirit reverses the sin of Babel, bringing unity where there was division. The difference is this is God’s work, not humanity’s, and it’s offered as a gift of grace, not as a symbol of pride. This unity is also foreshadowed in John’s vision in the Book of Revelation:

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (7:9-10).

People from every corner of the earth join together to worship God, every person celebrating in their own native language. A vision of an eternally unified humanity.

Peter hears the pilgrims’ questions about how all of this is possible, as well as the jeers of the naysayers, they are always present somewhere, claiming the apostles are merely drunk. Peter’s not having it. “What you are seeing and hearing here was promised long ago by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Bishop McKee in his greeting to us mentioned Peter’s quoting of Joel, specifically the line about dreaming dreams and seeing visions. Every year at Pentecost I too reflect on that particular part of Joel’s prophecy, but this year, specifically the last two days, I’ve been drawn into the end of the Joel quotation: “And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” These promised signs mark a sea-change. It’s apocalyptic language, normally found in places like Revelation, but also scattered throughout the Bible in the prophets, Daniel, and some teachings of Jesus. You might even recall from Easter Sunday that Jesus’ death was marked with darkness covering the earth; his resurrection was likewise announced with earthquakes.

After the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police officers in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the world; even as far as Iran and Germany. Years of frustration, compounded by the virus and crash of the economy, led people to take to the streets, demanding justice. I saw portents in the streets: chaos, violence, buildings and cars burning, protesters targeted with pepper spray and tear gas. Darkness, blood, fire, smoky mist. The barriers of racism, distrust, powerlessness, grief, and anger exposed.

In Hebrew, the word for Spirit can also be translated as wind and breath. Psalm 104 is a good example:

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
   when you take away their breath, they die
   and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
   and you renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:29-30).

Breath and spirit are the same word. When people experience God’s absence, we die and return to our pre-creation state, the dust of the ground. But when we experience God’s presence, creation and renewal occur. This year at Pentecost, we are stuck somewhere in the middle of those realities. Maybe we are seeing signs of a new in-breaking of God’s Wind/Breath/Spirit. As Joel prophesied, God’s Day may be approaching.

Beyond the burning cars and cries of anguish, there have been signs of renewal and possibilities for justice. Some police leaders and rank and file officers marched peacefully alongside protesters, joining their voices for a more just society and fairness in policing. I saw captains of police in large cities walking amongst people, listening, nodding, smiling. I saw white people in at least two cities standing together, forming barriers between Black protestors and the police-- using their privilege as a shield rather than a weapon. I saw Black protestors form a protective barrier around a white police officer separated from his unit.

At another harvest festival, the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles, Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive…” (John 7:37-39). We are thirsting for justice and peace; not peace only. We are thirsting for a renewal of community; not a return to the way things were. We are thirsting for healing of brokenness and mistrust. The living water Jesus promises is another mark or sign or portent of the Holy Spirit. It is housed within the hearts of believers-- yours and mine-- waiting to burst out in a flood of mercy and love. How do the pilgrims at the festival respond to Jesus’ words about living water? You could probably guess, since this is before the gift of the Holy Spirit is received:

“When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.” I told you the naysayers are always around somewhere! It’s kind of where we are today, isn’t it? Restless, longing for a renewal of the ground.

Pentecost 2020. We’re still waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up and share the Good News in words every single person can hear and understand. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we will know it: new life will come to a defeated church and society. Until it comes, we wait expectantly.

Spirit of God, Wind of God, Fire of God, make known your presence, your work, your justice, and your love real to the world through us. Here we are, your church on mission, your hands and feet in the world. Set our hearts on fire.