The following is the text of the sermon that I preached this morning for Race Relations Sunday. The Bible reading is out of Acts 19.1 – 7, which was one of the lectionary texts last week Sunday. If you would prefer to listen to the audio, click here.
I have been walking with Christ for over twenty years. I first came to faith back in 1992 at an Assembly of God church in Milwaukee, WI – Easter Sunday. From the moment that I made that decision, my faith in Christ grew significantly. I remember being baptized a year later, I was maybe 9 or 10 at the time, and shortly thereafter committed to daily Bible reading and prayer. I joined our church’s youth group in 1995 – that was the same year that I threw out all of my secular music in exchange for gospel and contemporary Christian sounds. In 1997, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, or praying/ speaking in an unknown language – an experience that my denomination took very seriously. That same year, I made a decision to attend North Central University for college, a small Christian college in Minneapolis, and did once I graduated from high school 4 years later. To many including myself, I was growing in my faith. I had a vibrant prayer life, evangelized fervently, and was reading the Bible like nobody’s business.
I just didn’t care about social justice. I didn’t care about the poor, I didn’t care about the marginalized, I didn’t care about those people – even though I in fact was among those people. You can imagine the internalized oppression was real. I got anxious anytime I ran across a Bible passage that challenged me to think differently. I remember reading Matthew 25, trying to over-spiritualize what Jesus was saying about caring for the least of these so that I could feel good about my indifference. You see, a theology of justice and compassion just didn’t fit with the quaint Assembles of God box that I was sitting in – a box that prioritized baptism in the Spirit above all else. To be a good Christian, this baptism with the evidence of speaking in tongues mattered the most. Everything else, with the exception of personal evangelism and the rapture, was nice but not necessary and maybe even a distraction.
Fortunately for me, something shifted in 2007 – 15 years after I first committed my life to Christ. This was the year that I started to wake up to the injustices around me. It started with a missions trip that I took to Central Africa’s Rwanda. Leading up to the trip, I studied the nation’s history and was broken by the genocide that took place between two ethnic groups who were so remarkably similar and Christian at that. In my spirit, something just didn’t feel right. As if on cue, I started to pay attention to not only what was going on in Rwanda but around the world pertaining to issues of injustice. And I started to pay attention to what was going on in the United States as well, looking more critically at one of our biggest injustices – slavery and the perpetual dehumanization of black children, women and men.
I knew about slavery. I knew that my ancestors were stolen from their home in Africa and put in forced labor in America. Milwaukee public schools, for all of its limitations, did teach me that. And I also knew about the Civil Rights Movement and the sacrifices that people like Martin Luther King made to ensure that blacks like myself would enjoy freedom, justice, and equality in the country that had denied it of us for so long. What I lacked was race consciousness, or the understanding that racism is the ordinary way that this country does its business. I lacked the critical analysis that would afford me the opportunity to understand that our nation is fundamentally, essentially, at its core racist because of the way that it built its wealth and prominence in the world by exploiting natives, blacks and other people of color.
But then I woke up. I woke up from my slumber. I woke up from the optimistic but naive line of thinking that we were living in a post racial America. I became much more critical, and subsequently, more alive to our present struggle to be recognized as wholly and completely human.
For those of you who are also awake or are waking up to our country’s reality, you will understand that the last several years have been especially trying for black folk. It seems like the moment that Obama got into office, an all out attack against black people ensued. One month into his presidency, the Tea Party Movement was formed, uniting under the adage of taking their country back from black and brown people who were getting too big for their britches, I suppose. In 2010, they did just that! Republicans took over the house at the federal level and also dominated the House of representatives and the Senate at the local level in many states across the country, including Minnesota.
That year alone saw some of the most regressive social policies proposed. In Minnesota, the Human Rights Department budget was almost obliterated, a voter ID amendment which would have drastically compromised black folk’s ability to vote was brought forth, and a version of the Stand Your Ground gun law was also put on the table – none of which passed here in Minnesota but that is not the same story nationwide. Many states have adopted their own version of the Voter ID amendment, and we also know that at least 23 states have adopted some version of the Stand Your Ground laws. In addition to the policies and practices that were already devastating our community, these suggested that Tea Partiers and other sympathetic whites were serious about limiting the progress of black people as well as others of color in this country.
As destructive as these are, I still refer to this as racism lite compared to what is going on right now. In February 2012, the black community was rocked when news broke that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth carrying skittles and an iced tea was killed. Several months later, Jordan Davis, another unarmed black youth accused of blasting his rap music too loud was also killed – both by white men who felt threatened by the presence of black life. The trend of profiling and killing black people has continued – statistics suggesting that every 28 hours a child, woman or man is killed by either a self-appointed vigilante or a police officer.
The later part of 2014 has definitely given witness to this. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Darrien Hunt, Rumain Brisbon, and Tamir Rice – just to name those at the top of my head. All black men and children, all unarmed. All of which tells me that the struggles of my parents, grandparents, and relatives before them are not in some distant past but are overwhelmingly present today.
It is open season on the black community in America. This idea may make some feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but lets call a spade a spade and tell it like it is. When white men and police officers can kill black people at will and not be held accountable for their actions, we should know that something insidious is going on. To not understand the signs of the time that are upon our nation, is to be sleep, to be blind, to be dead to our present reality. It is to fail in connecting these recent tragedies to the larger tread of injustice and exploitation that is woven into the very fabric of our nation.
In response to these killings, people across America are speaking. In cities across our country, multicultural, multiethnic, and even multireligious coalitions are forming full of people demanding human rights and police accountability by marching, blocking highway traffic, and staging die ins. Just last month, lead organizers in the #BlackLivesMpls movement organized a peaceful protest at perhaps one of capitalism’s biggest establishments in Minnesota, the Mall of America, understanding that capitalism itself is the force that drives many of these injustices in communities of color across our nation. Behind the scenes, others are working on policy changes, so that police are held accountable when they abuse their authority. In addition, many people are having the awkward conversation that they maybe never wanted to have about race in America.
There is one segment of our population, however, that has been largely quiet – the Church. And when I say the Church, I mean the American White Church. Black Churches have always been speaking up, organizing, protesting, and agonizing about this – our prophetic, audacious faith is what has led us through some of this country’s darkest hours. But the white Church has largely been silent. For many, I am sure it is as a result of not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do, fearing that the wrong course of action could brand one offensive, at best, if not a racist. This type of behavior is called stereotype threat, where white people fear their actions will live out the stereotype of them often being classified as racially biased. But for others, the silence has more to do with not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to get involved in political fodder, not wanting to sulley one’s hands by siding with black folks.
But the silence on part of the white Church really means complicity, doesn’t it? Those who refuse to speak up and out against evil, whether they like it or not, are actually purveyors themselves in that evil. Silence gives permission for those who assault life, justice, and freedom, ironically core American values, to continue assaulting life, justice, and freedom. Understanding this, silence is not a viable option? So what then will the American Church’s response be?
When I ask myself this question, I look back over my Christian heritage. I think about the baptism in the Spirit that I experienced and reflect on how this gift, so to speak, has been primarily used to build myself up over the years. I have used it to encourage myself, enhance my prayer life – in my closest, in my room, where no one can hear me speak. And then I look at the early Church in Acts and understand that this is not what the baptism that Paul speaks of in Acts 19 is about:
It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether [a]there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized [b]in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men (Acts 19.1 – 7, NASB)
If we were to sit down and comb through Acts this morning, we would see that this baptism is about more than personal edification and enrichment. It is about the ability to speak truth to power in a deeply, oppressive context. In Acts 1, Jesus told the disciples that when the Holy Spirit arrived, they would be able to effectively testify on behalf of the Gospel. Prior to this announcement, the disciples couldn’t testify to anything – remember they ran out on Jesus when he was arrested because they feared going down with him.
But now, now that the Spirit was coming, they would be able to stand against the religious leaders, against the Roman Empire and tell the truth about Jesus, and what his inaugurated kingdom meant in light of how Rome was currently running things. Jesus’ reign meant that the reign of Herod Agrripa was coming to an end. The wealth that he enjoyed as a result of oppressing the poor would not only come to an end but be used as evidence to indict him in the kingdom of our Lord. The power of the High Priest, and other religious leaders whose policies led to the death of Jesus, was also coming to an end, meaning that they too would be judged for disowning and killing the Son of God. But how do you tell the truth about that in a context that is ready and willing to crucify anyone over the slightest appearance of wrong? Or let me reword that – what the empire defines as wrong. You see when you are under the rule of a regime like the Roman Empire, or the United States, more and more of the ordinary, not so spectacular activities of people who pose a threat to the empire become criminal.
Such is the reason why Paul questions the disciples of John in Acts 19 about whether or not they had received the Spirit when they came to faith. Paul knows that the stakes are high. In and of themselves, they won’t be able to speak against the corruption that they witnessed in Ephesus. Ephesus, once a hub of commercial activity, is on the decline in the time of Paul. Though on the decline, religious influence continued to draw worshippers to the Temple of Artemis, also known as Diana. Through Artemis they were able to continue to profit and grow their economy.
She was Ephesus’ only economic hope. And this was what believers were supposed to speak against and challenge? Not without the Holy Spirit. But John’s disciples have not even heard about the Holy Spirit. In fact, they have not heard about Jesus. They received John’s baptism of repentance and were probably living a righteous, moral life that modeled the very things that John taught. But John was not the Christ. Jesus was. In fact, John himself told those he baptized that he was only preparing them for the one who was coming after him, Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus, the lamb of God who critiques, opposes, and completely reforms the systems of this world that force people to choose between God and empire.
Understanding where John’s disciples are in their faith journey, Paul takes the time to explain the way to them and then baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus. As the text tells us, as Paul lays his hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in tongues and prophesy. From there, Paul ends up confronting some of the very challenges that they were up against, going head to head with those who are making profit off of Artemis and is accused of jeopardizing Ephesus’ prosperous trade. The city, enraged and in confusion, drags off Paul and his traveling companions with the aim of trying them and most likely killing them.
It takes people with a whole lot of audacity to speak to injustice like that, especially when any type of economics are involved because empires hate losing money. Audacity, or the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can speak what we would otherwise not say. On our own, we are often weak, frail and timid, but with the Spirit working through us, we can prophetically testify against the powers and structures of injustice in our day.
One of the greatest missed opportunities in the Pentecostal Movement, and believe me there are many, is this right here. Almost instantly, we became attracted to the display of the Spirit’s power and missed just why He was giving us this power. In 1906, in the throes of Jim Crow and segregation, the Holy Spirit visited an obscure street in Los Angeles, California pouring out His Spirit in what can only be likened to Acts 2. There is speaking in tongues. There is prophesy. There is healing. People are being raised from the dead. And it is all being led by a black man. Can you imagine? And get this, whites are sitting under his leadership. For the first time ever in this nation’s history, black, white, Latino, and other people of color are doing worship, compelled to fellowship with each other in perhaps one of our country’s darkest hours.
Decades removed from this movement, I ask myself what the Holy Spirit was doing back then? What was He trying to bring about? How was He empowering believers to speak against racism, Jim Crow, and segregation prophetically, by first bringing them together in one accord and in one place? But white people didn’t get it. They were so consumed by racism that they separated out from this powerful movement to create their own assembly, led by their own leadership. Quenching the move of the Spirit, the only thing that remained was speaking in tongues. Only form and no power.
Brothers and sisters, as we find ourselves in the midst of the ongoing struggle to dismantle racism in this country, demanding an end to police brutality and every other vice that dehumanizes and devalues black life, I find myself looking, expectant for a move of the Holy Spirit. We missed what the Spirit was doing in our nation 100 years ago through this multicultural coalition of believers led by a black man; we are in desperate need of His outpouring again so that we can do it right this time.
The Pentacostal in me calls out for a fresh visitation of the Spirit because I honestly don’t think the white Church as an institution, not necessarily individuals within, will be what it needs to be in this moment without His prodding.
This is why I call out for a renewed indwelling of the Spirit, not so that the Church can hide behind Him, but so that the Church can rise up and be the prophetic witness it needs to be in this generation. This generation needs the presence and the voice of the Church, not to lead or dominate the movement for racial justice, but to do what unbelievers cannot do in calling out the powers of darkness, commanding them to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Only the Church can recognize, through the spirit, the demonic spirit that racism is, a spirit that is so divisive, and so potent that it has kept people of color and whites alike, divided and captive to its force for over 400 years. A spirit not only bent on destroying black lives but every life. Only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can come together, and tell this deadly spirit that it is time to go. Racism, you must leave! We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. You will no longer reign and wreck havoc in our nation. You must flee!
I have alluded many times throughout our time today to my theological background which prioritized speaking in tongues above all else, including using this as the sole physical evidence to indicate whether or not someone was baptized in the Holy Spirit. As I look at the biblical text with these lenses removed and witness the evidence of the Spirit in the lives of brothers and sisters around me, who may not speak in tongues, but are full of love, compassion, and a prophetic witness which I have never seen in believers who were supposedly full of the Spirit, I am beginning to expand my definition of what it means to be baptized and full of the Holy Spirit.
Quite honestly, I ardently believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in the life of every believer. The question that Paul posed to John’s disciples as to whether or not they received the Spirit was relevant then because they did not yet know the Lord, and it showed! This is not the case for many of us in here, as perhaps most of us have committed our lives to the Lord. As believers, his Spirit is a gift to us, given not merely for our own benefit but for the benefit of the world around us. Imagine us as a people of God collectively lifting our prophetic voices to call out white supremacy, to challenge institutional and structural racism, to call foul on our capitalistic democracy, to pronounce God’s judgment upon a nation that has built its empire by going throughout the world exploiting others, to bear witness to the kingdom of God among us as well as the fulfillment of God’s kingdom where He at last redeems this world.
But just maybe, maybe it is the case. I personally hate to judge people’s relationship and authenticity with God. I would rather not spend my time trying to figure out who is in and who is out. First of all it is a waste of time, and kind of weird. But most importantly, God is the judge, I am not. Only He can see the contents of the heart. But perhaps it is appropriate to look very critically at our situation and context here. We have all, whites and people of color a like, been fed the adage that this is a Christian nation. Many of us have grown up in Christian homes, have gone to Christian schools, have partaken in Christian rites such as baptism, confirmation, and communion, pray at dinner, go to church on Sunday, and at least pick up our Bible’s once a week to carry it to church on Sunday.
While all of these things are good, where is the evidence? Where is the prophetic witness? Where is the presence of hospitality, love, respect, respect for human life and heartfelt desire to love mercy, do justice and walk in humility with the Lord? Perhaps many of us really are more like John’s disciples than we realize. There is evidence of some sort of belief and morality. But our very behaviors don’t reflect that we are following Jesus. Our ungodly bent towards white people over people of color in this country, using capitalism, colonialism, and orientalism as a means to uplift and support white supremacy, branding everyone who is not white as the enemy to the extent that our government and others in power such as the police, are willing to literally silence, through imprisonment, public shame, and death, anything or anyone who poses a threat the structure of white supremacy suggests that many of us are not following Jesus. These things do not reflect who He was, what He said, or what He came to do, no matter what version of the Bible you use to paint a different picture. These attitudes, behaviors and structural, systemic oppression, in fact, suggests that many of us, like John’s disciples, first need Jesus before we can receive power to speak prophetically and authentically that #BlackLivesMatter!
Receive Jesus this morning! Receive His peace, receive His love, receive and embrace His Word for your life. Be born again, embrace new life in the same way that John’s disciples did. And in your renewed relationship with Him, submit to God through the Holy Spirit, and become still before Him to hear what He might be saying to you in this hour. Repent of your own complicity and hardness of heart toward blacks and others of color in this nation. Grieve our nation’s history, lament and wail over it in the same way that Jeremiah and the prophets of old wept over Israel. But then allow the Holy Spirit to fill your mouth with the words to say and your heart with the boldness to say it in this renewed movement for racial justice.
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