During the Pentecost Season, the longest season of the Christian year, we celebrate God’s enlivening and unifying Spirit.
We need this Spirit now more than ever. No people have been more global than persons in the 21stcentury. In real time, we can see photos of flames at Notre Dame, villages bombed in Yemen, children facing malnutrition in the Sudan and locked in cages on the borderlands. We can talk to a good friend in Italy or a relative in England on “What’s App?” “Zoom” or “Skype.” At the click of a mouse, we can explore hundreds of religious, lifestyle, and cultural possibilities.
Yet, we are also profoundly polarized. The more united we become technologically and culturally, the more diversity we affirm in terms of race, lifestyle, and human uniqueness, the more anxious we have become about those “others” – pilgrims at our borders, people of different religious traditions, and persons of varied sexual identities and expressions. We worry that our ways will get lost in tsunamis of pluralism and social change. The globalism and technology that was supposed to unite us as a human family has tragically divided us into siloes and inspired growing nationalism and persecution of minorities.
We can lament with poet T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Last week we celebrated Pentecost, and the message is still fresh: fifty days after Easter, Jesus’ followers, both women and men, were still trying to discern their vocation. The Risen Jesus had given them a spiritual mandate, but he had left the details to them. Now they were on their own: would they stay in their comfort zones, a small sect, restricted solely to the Jewish people, or would they go out into the world sharing the good news of God’s abundant love?
Out of nowhere came a mighty wind and flames of fire. No doubt, they ducked for cover, overwhelmed by the cataclysm. But then they noticed a power coming from within, they had become fire themselves, they felt a Spirit animating and inspiring them, and driving them out into the streets. Words flowed easily in unfamiliar languages.
Passersby were astounded. They heard the gospel message in their language, in concepts they could understand. The barriers of race and ethnicity, class and gender, wealth and poverty, were broken down in a wondrous symphony of faith.
One of them, Peter, steps forward and shares an unbelievable message:
‘In the last days, God declares, 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. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Imagine that! Every division broken down. Uniqueness affirmed as part of God’s lively and diverse creation. Breathing together, they saw themselves as one people, animated by one spirit, and embracing strangers as God’s beloved children.
In a world of division, the Holy Spirit inspires empathy, and empathy is always at risk in human relationships. Just think about the many ways women’s gifts have been ignored or diminished or ridiculed based on passages from scripture.
Think about our own nation’s racial divisions, reflected in two stories from one of my mentors Howard Thurman. One day young Howard was raking leaves for a local businessman. The businessman’s daughter followed him across the lawn, spying colorful leaves, and then spreading the piles Howard had just raked. When Howard became frustrated and threatened to tell her father if she didn’t quit, she stuck him with her hat pain. When he yelped, she exclaimed, “Howard, you can’t feel.” She had been raised to believe that black people were no better than animals, insentient and able be abused without feeling pain.
Years later, now a well-known preacher, Thurman was seated in a passenger compartment on a train traveling through Kentucky. A woman took offense at his presence in the compartment, and acting as if Thurman wasn’t even present, complained to the conductor, “What’s that doing here?” To which the conductor replied, “That has a ticket!”
As we ponder God’s Pentecostal Spirit, we discover that everyone has a ticket in God’s realm of Shalom. Everyone who calls upon God – no exceptions of race, religion, ethnicity, age, economics, or sexuality – will be saved.
The Holy Spirit has no outside: as I’ve said many times, God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. No one forgotten, no one abandoned, no one lost.
My parents were conservative people in many ways. They were, for nearly twenty years, the most conservative members of a very liberal church. They often thought that their church was leaving the old- time religion behind, but they stuck around, kept up their pledges, and volunteered in outreach programs. When my Dad died, I was surprised when the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church wanted to give a eulogy at his memorial service. You see, when the church decided to invite the Metropolitan Community Church, a haven for gay, lesbian, and transgender Christians, to share their building, my parents dissented. My mom even worried about using the restroom.
The pastor talked about how, despite their conservatism, my parents grew to be the personal greatest supporters of the Metropolitan Church. They looked beyond doctrine and discomfort to see people who could feel – who had joys and sorrows, who felt the pain of being treated second class, most especially by Christians who believed their lifestyle was a sure ticket to hell. My mom and dad found a new language – not the language of fear, judgment, or a few scriptural passages invoked to denounce homosexuality. They found the language of the Spirit – the language of love, that sees nothing but Christ in the stranger, the neighbor, the outsider. They felt the pain of discrimination, being bullied, and seen as less than human, and responded with love.
Yes, see nothing but Christ – nothing but Christ in the pilgrims from Central America, nothing but Christ in the inner-city child, nothing but Christ in the white supremacist or the judgmental Christian, nothing but Christ in our gay, lesbian, and transgender neighbors. Thank God for diversity, praise God for the rainbow, bless the Spirit for hospitality, and let God’s breath flow through you, joining you with all creation.