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Pentecost, Prejudice, and Pandemic

 

Ahmaud Arbery
George Floyd
1,000 names
100,000 dead

(Silence)

Pentecost is the noisiest of all Christian holy days – a party, the “birthday of the church,” celebrated with banners, red balloons, and cake. We hear rushing wind, tongues of fire, and cacophonous crowds. We re-enact Acts 2 in multiple languages, reminding us that God sent all humankind a gift – the spirit with its promise of peace and portents of the healing of the earth.

Alleluia! The long awaited day of the Lord is here!

But this week, names:

A man, panting, running, and fighting for his life.

“I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe…” and, then, no breath.

A thousand names in print takes our breath away.

100,000 stopped breathing.

A celebration, a birthday?

No thank you.

I feel like we are being strangled, the life choked from us – disbelief, sorrow, fear, rage. Violence in the streets, jails, and cages at our border, targeting black and brown men, women, and children; a virus stalking us all, turning familiar comforts into threats. We are hunted and haunted by guns and germs, prejudice and plague. And the victims mount. Each with a name, many known, some known only to God. From a single name to the many to myriads, this unholy litany of grief.

Pentecost is no party this year. Indeed, this feast falls on the eve of a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, June 1, to be marked with silence at noon. Silence, more than shouting this year. Mourning, not celebration.

This discomforting Pentecost drew my attention away from the traditional readings. (Although I confess it would be tempting to preach on fire, myself wanting to call down the fire of heaven on this whole, unjust, unfair, unwelcome mess!) Of all the alternatives offered by the lectionary, a single verse –1 Corinthians 12:13 – spoke to most deeply my heart:

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 

by Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Pentecost is, of course, not only about birth but baptism. And here, in 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks about what it means to be baptized and to live in the Spirit. We are in one Spirit, with one body, he insists. And then, in words that sound familiar – he reminds of that oneness, whether we are “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free,” we all drink the same Spirit.

That short clause echoes Paul’s other (and more extended) use of those words, found in an older letter, in Galatians 3:27-28 – “As many of you are were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Galatians 3:27-28 has long been one of my favorite bits of Paul. And I’m not alone in that. The words have been referred to as Paul’s finest writing, his best religious vision and poetry, and the lens through which the whole of Pauline theology should be read. For centuries, Christians have drawn inspiration from them for causes of justice including abolition, economic reform, and women’s rights. Galatians 3:28 is Paul’s rallying cry to overcome divisions of race, class, and gender, poetically and theologically interwoven with baptism, proclaiming justice as heart of life in Christ.

Like most readers, I have attributed their lyrical and political power to Paul. However, New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson has recently offered a far more provocative understanding of the origin of these words. Paul, he insists, was not their author. Paul was quoting them from an older source. With close historical detail, reconstructing and comparing texts, Patterson argues that these words were the very first Christian creed. Paul was quoting an ancient liturgy dating from the earliest years of the Jesus movement, said by the first baptized, a credo that probably went something like this:

For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek,
There is no slave or free,
There is no male and female;
For you are all one in the Spirit.

This forgotten baptismal creed, with its powerful words, was perhaps shouted by some baptized on that very first day, the day of fire, wind, and water.

Patterson goes on to say: “If you are interested in the origins of Christianity, in those first ten to twenty years when the memory of Jesus was still fresh, before Paul came along and made his distinctive impact on the Jesus movement…In the earliest years of the Jesus movement it was repeated again and again by people who were baptized as followers of Jesus.”

And he continues, pointing out that this forgotten creed:

“…is a statement of convictions of the Jesus people. It is not a statement about God, or about the mysteries of Christ. It is about people and who they are, really. In baptism, they were committed to giving up old identities falsely acquired on the basis of baseless assumptions—Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—and declared themselves to be children of God.”*

Of course, it is our “baseless assumptions” that made this week, these weeks, all the sorrows of human history, so unbearable. We assume we are better because, as our own president recently said, that “good bloodlines” make some smarter, more deserving. That breeding and wealth and blood entail status, naming some as superior and consigning others to less-than, less than privileged, less than human. This is the baseless assumption of Cain, that his offering was better than his brother’s, that he deserved more than Abel. Our baseless assumptions have dogged us since exile from Eden, we have almost forgotten how baseless they are.

Pentecost burns away those baseless assumptions in a fire from heaven. The Spirit incinerates our old identities – inherited status from our ancestors, our senses of innate superiority or inferiority, our privilege or poverty, freedom or bondage, the roles assigned to us by biology. Yet, this baptism leaves us not as ash. For the baptism of fire is followed by the more mundane one, the baptism of water. Fire is quickly followed by the flow, the pouring out of Spirit, the living water. We are washed, refreshed, and remade. We drink of one Spirit and find a new identity: Child of God.

We are named, each with our individual names, and with that familial name: Child of God. We have names. We share a name. We are fully ourselves; we are fully one with each other.

The ancient baptismal creed marked that new identity as neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. As Patterson points out, it proclaimed “a world in which…female slaves could be leaders of free men, where foreigners and native born stood with equal power and equal rights. ‘You are all one’ signifies solidarity.”

Our names are our individual beauty, uniqueness. And our Name is our solidarity.

Pentecost this year is not as much party as protest. To name is to mourn the loss of individuals with gifts and loves. But Pentecost calls us to take another step beyond our personal laments and to be found together in a shared name – child of God. In this relation, Pentecost emerges as human solidarity. We stand together, in the same family, the same name, with and for and (even) as victims of the violence sadly endemic in this broken world. We are all Ahmaud, we are all George, we are all the thousand, we all the 100,000. What happens to one, happens to us all. We are not separate, not really. The fire of God has burned into the world, reducing to ash all division. A new human family has been born: sons and daughters dare to prophesy; old and young dream dreams; and slaves, men and women alike, announce God’s justice in the world.

The great and glorious day is truly here: You are all children of God.

May we live in the reality of Pentecost. Even now. Especially now, children of God.

Visit Diana Butler Bass’ website here.

* Stephen Patterson, The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism (Oxford, 2018), quotes from page 29. Patterson’s book won the 2019 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

This sermon was first published on the Church Anew blog, a fabulous new site that offers “spiritual reflections, imaginative biblical commentary, and thoughtful ideas for innovation.”

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