By Paul Baxley
The second chapter of Acts makes clear that from our very first day, the Church of Jesus Christ included people “from every nation under heaven.” By the powerful gifting of the Holy Spirit, the first disciples were able to preach the Gospel in ways understandable to people who came from many cultures and spoke many languages, drawing them into a community held together by Jesus Christ. If you look at the list of nations mentioned, it is clear that Africans, Europeans and Asians all found themselves in one faith community because of their response to the good news of Jesus. Today there are Christians literally in every corner of the world.
Yet, on Pentecost Sunday 2020 this is an incredibly challenging vision. We live in a time when our nation and our communities are torn apart by racial conflict, intense anger, unmistakable fear and mounting violence. The global pandemic has afflicted people all over the world, but those most devastated were already those most at risk due to economic and racial injustice.
Now, a brother in Christ, George Floyd, was the latest to die the victim of senseless brutality, and the image of him pleading for life and breath has traumatized, terrified and enraged us. He died with a knee on his neck; to see that and not feel deep pain is to not be human at all. It was and is so difficult because George Floyd was not a stranger to those of us who follow Jesus. He was a brother in Christ, to whom we are joined in our profession of faith and baptism. We cannot help but be deeply moved by his death, for as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, if one suffers, all suffer. Furthermore, George Floyd is a beloved child of God, and that by itself is more than enough reason to grieve.
George Floyd’s death is also exceedingly painful because he is not the only person to die in acts of violence that were motivated by fear and racial prejudice. In recent weeks, we also saw Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor die in crimes motivated by the same kind of hate. We have seen these vividly, but we know there are others. The world around us on this Pentecost Sunday is diametrically opposed to the reality the Holy Spirit made on the first Pentecost: a community from every nation on earth bound together by Christ. The culture around us this Pentecost is torn apart by economic separation, even though the early church in Acts was a model of economic unity and mutual provision.
This moment requires that followers of Jesus around the world allow the Holy Spirit to bind us into one community where people of different races, cultures and experiences can be forged into oneness in Christ. Such a community is not about the erasing of racial difference—racial difference is part of the image of God. Every black person I know reflects the image of God at least as much as I do. The image of God is not racially constrained, it radiates beautifully in all of us. The Church of Jesus cannot be a community that practices racial division, traffics in fear and hate, preaches white supremacy or suggests that one nation is more loved by Christ than others. All of that is contrary to the Gospel, the love of Jesus and the witness of Pentecost. The Church of Jesus cannot turn a blind eye to poverty and economic injustice, because the Scriptures bear relentless witness to a God’s compassion for the poor.
How might the Church today take a step toward the first Pentecost? Those of us who are white Christians need to listen carefully to the pleadings, laments and testimonies coming from our black sisters and brothers, because hearing their stories and responding in faith is key to the healing and renewal of the Church’s divided witness. Those of us who are white need to be honest about our own experience with privilege and our own story of prejudice, so that when we confess our sins to God and our black brothers and sisters, we can experience grace and cleansing. We need to be clear that those of us who grew up white had very different experiences than our black friends and fellow disciples. More than ever we need to allow the Spirit to draw us into meaningful and transforming community across lines of nation and race so that our cities, our nation and our world can be redeemed.
In the midst of that, those of us who are white Christians need to ask ourselves what the bodies of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others are calling from us? More than a half century ago, the body of Emmett Till stirred some in this nation, including some white Christians, to begin a quest for racial justice in the United States. Several years later, Dr. King stood in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and prayed that the bodies of four beautiful young women, killed just as they were growing up, would awaken the conscience of the white Church.
Now, as we see the bodies of black brothers and sisters fall victim to senseless violence, and we know there are so many more, I am convinced that the Spirit of Pentecost is blowing among us and calling us to join our black brothers and sisters in the resolve that this cannot continue! That justice and dignity must be afforded to all the children of God! If we take seriously our calling to follow Jesus, we must participate in the repair of our broken world. We are called to a love marked by truth and action.
The Church needs to be an embodiment of the Holy Spirit’s ability to draw people who were once dramatically different into dynamic and real community focused on Christ and Christ’s mission. We cannot invite the world into a redemption we are not experiencing or extending.
We also need to call on the leaders of states and nations to lead by word and example. Democrats and Republicans alike must hold our leaders accountable to lead toward healing and away from division and injustice. For too long the fires of partisanship, discord and manipulation have been the order of the day in the political arena. Part of the Church’s prophetic responsibility is to speak boldly and truthfully to power, rather than either being co-opted by power or turning a blind eye toward its abuses. Peter and John did so in Acts 4, Paul did late in his life, and Christians of every generation have been called to follow their example. Today, I ask the leaders of our nation and our states to lead in ways that inspire rather than divide, that put the common good above personal accomplishment, and to decide that this moment requires something better. Our nation’s founding documents speak of a government for the people, not against them.
We must also ask local, state and federal government officials to deal swiftly and systemically with police brutality and racial profiling in law enforcement wherever they exist. While there are certainly outstanding and admirable law enforcement professionals who are of every racial identity, our history clearly reveals brutality and profiling targeting black and Hispanic persons. If you are white and are blessed as I am to have black or Latino friends, you know this is true because you have heard testimonies that have opened your eyes. A Church truly drawn from every nation under heaven cannot turn the other way as systems and structures hold back or hold down other children of God. The gifted and just law enforcement officers I have known in my life are absolutely scandalized by the abuses. The Church must be as well.
What about our common life as Cooperative Baptists? Our congregations and our Fellowship are called to be instruments of grace, repair and love in this time. That will require listening. It will require breaking silence. It will require confession. It will require speaking. It will require acting. It will require courage. This is about the redemption of the world and the repair of our own souls. In other words, it is not optional. It is what a Church born from every nation under heaven is called to do.
Pentecost reminds us that, planted deep within the Church’s soul, is a yearning for a community that binds nations, cultures, races and languages so that we can be a witness to love that causes the world around us to ask: what do these things mean?
On Pentecost Sunday 1990, I was in Jerusalem with a professor from Wake Forest University and a group of traveling pilgrims. We worshiped in an Anglican church that Sunday, and I still remember what the priest said in his sermon. “What the world needs now is another Pentecost. Who among us is willing to pray Lord, send your Holy Spirit and begin with me?”
Thirty years later I believe we need another Pentecost. I pray that Cooperative Baptists will join Baptists and Christians from every nation under heaven in praying: “Lord, send your Holy Spirit and begin with us.”
Paul Baxley serves as the Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.