Race and Pentecost

May 13th, 2016

Fear of persons of other races began, for me, in kindergarten. It came with my epiphanic recognition that there were children  people my size  with different skin colors. They "talked different," though we were all talking in Englishes which flourished under the piney woods of Southeast Texas. We did not, for the most part, play together on the playground, and I did not know why.

The fear I felt, and still feel at times, is both a failure to communicate and a fear about communication's failure. Will I be able to hear and understand? Can I talk and be understood? Or will I misunderstand or misspeak and so offend, or mishear or miscommunicate and so expose my ignorance? These fears are not unrelated to the reason I dislike loud parties, or at least those which are not concerts: I feel trapped in a social environment in which I am expected to meet people when I can hear and understand maybe half of what they're saying.

These fears are knots that disrupt our human sociality. Acts 2:1-11 shows how God is at work unraveling them.

When the Holy Spirit fills the united disciples, they "began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Their diverse onlookers are struck with wonder: "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God."

The paralyzing fear and demonic immobilization attendant on racial divisions are overcome, not with anyone's cosmopolitan diversity project, despite the fact that such projects may be in many ways both good and necessary. Racism is finally overcome in the Spirit-powered praise of God. Said positively, race relations are consummated in spiritual doxology, in the kind of unity and the kind of love that the Holy Spirit gives as we join together praising God and sounding God's mighty acts in Jesus Christ. Praise of God creates a space and context of freedom in which we see and remember, and so relate to, others as created in the image of God.

Babel is unraveled, and humanity re-formed, at Pentecost.

Pentecost is the manifestation in the church of the promise that God will turn the human cacophony into a symphony, that God will replace the darkness of our sin and our aggressive divisiveness with unity: a union in dignified difference in which God's light refracts and reflects brilliantly through and in all. In the light of Pentecost, our many voices sing as one, across divides and down through the centuries.

When the disciples speak in other tongues, responsive to the Spirit's utterance, God reveals that all the languages of the earth have been conscripted into the scriptural praise of Israel's triune God. It gets even more bodily than this: all the tongues of the earth declare diversely as one the praises of the Incarnate One. Right onto our unified, praising tongues, the Spirit places a foretaste of the day when every tongue will proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).

Thus, as intimate with all humanity's destined praise of Jesus Christ, Pentecost means at once resurrected life for the whole of humanity, and is simultaneously the graveyard of all fearful and triumphal nationalism, and of every xenophobia.

This meditation could easily become a full-fledged sermon, but instead, let's pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you died for us in a way fully oriented to the Father. You rose and ascended and have gone before us to bring us to the Father. In dying and rising you have surpassed, among other weighty things, all our fear. Lord Jesus, you are the perfect love who drives out all fear. Today at Pentecost we celebrate that it is your Spirit who is in our hearts crying out "Abba, Father", orienting us to the Father through and past all our fears just as Christ himself is always oriented to the Father. Spirit of truth, orient us today to the Father in such a way that all our human sisters and brothers are enfolded in the arms of our words and hearts, just as the Father enfolds all lost and prodigal children in the twin arms of the Son and the Holy Spirit. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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