The horrific death of George Floyd on May 25 preceded one of the most important events in the Christian liturgical calendar.
Pentecost commemorates the beginning of God’s dealings with the church through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on 120 individuals commissioned to wait in Jerusalem (see Acts 1:4-5, 2:1-2).
The indwelling of the Spirit upon human flesh also established new communal practices among the members of the Ekklesia: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, in fellowship with one another, in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
And they lived happily ever after?
Pausing the account at this point would lead many to believe the outpouring of the Spirit on his people created a utopian community exempt from the problems that afflicted the Greco-Roman society.
However, we quickly learn that although the primitive church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in fellowship with one another,” they still confronted ethnic tensions within the newly formed community.
“In those days, as the number of the disciples grew, there was murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, that their widows were neglected in the daily distribution,” Acts 6:1 says.
The reported issue seems to be twofold. On one hand, the rapid growth of this community most likely led to gaps in services offered to vulnerable individuals.
On the other hand, however, we get a glimpse of animosity along ethnic lines within the “Spirit-filled community of believers.”
As Luke reports it, the issue is not just that “widows” are being neglected, but that the ones neglected happened to be “Greek.”
Some might argue perhaps this ethnic complaint is merely a single episode. However, the New Testament reveals ethnic tension was a persistent issue even for the church’s leadership.
For instance, Paul wrote to the Galatians about how he had to confront Peter – arguably the central figure at Pentecost – for his ambivalent treatment of Greek believers concerning circumcision (see Galatians 2:11-13).
Moreover, Paul’s repeated allusions in Romans 3:22, Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 to “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” occurred amid doctrinal discrepancies that were intertwined with existing ethnic tensions after Pentecost.
The current social unrest in our nation cannot be equated with the ethnic tensions experienced by individuals in the Greco-Roman world.
However, just as the spirit-filled community in Acts was not immune to ethnic tensions in the first century, today’s church is not immune to racial injustices permeating our society.
I am afraid a superficial reading of Pentecost might lead some faith communities to conclude that racism is something that happens “out there” – outside the confines of our congregations or denominational structures.
After all, the church is the intended recipient of the Holy Spirit. We have been called to be a “holy nation,” “a light to this world.”
A careful chronological reading of the biblical narrative shows even the Apostle Peter – after being indwelled by the Spirit at Pentecost – still had to undergo a series of interventions to address ethnocentric attitudes lingering in his life (see both Galatians 2 and Acts 10:13-15).
Likewise, addressing the prevalent nature of racism in America will require us to recognize its pervasiveness in our congregations, and thus, our consequent need for continuous interventions to address it.
We cannot address that which is not acknowledged.
In the wake of the national uproar caused by the death of George Floyd, some well-intentioned faith communities have been quick to denounce systemic racism in our society.
Other faith communities have gone as far as organizing public events to ask Black Christians for forgiveness.
These are, undeniably, important steps toward reconciliation.
However, addressing the more than two centuries of racial aggressions perpetrated against many communities of color, most notably, Black communities in this nation, is going to take far more than our denominational statements and our public apologies.
True reconciliation begins by acknowledging and realizing when it comes to racism “repentance is not enough” because racism in America has involved a prolonged debasement of people made in the image of God.
Restituting this kind of damage will take more than an “I am sorry.”
We will need to repair the broken gates alienating the body of Christ along racial lines and to uphold the dignity of people of color by confronting the institutions that dehumanize these individuals.
This chapter of American history presents us with the opportunity to change the course of Christian history.
The chaos and pain inflicted through racial injuries are opportunities to envision the church of Jesus Christ in a new light.
The “ekklesia” formed at Pentecost was and still is a community of imperfect people in need of continuous divine interventions.
Reenacting God’s kingdom on this earth means that Pentecost is not a one-and-done deal. As Jose Comblin put it, “There was one Easter; there are millions of Pentecosts.”
Addressing our internal and external predispositions to racism will take continuous indwellings of the Spirit in our individual and collective identity. The road to reconciliation will be painful, confusing and, at times, discouraging.
Would you come, Holy Spirit, one more time, and again and again and again? Restore us, oh Lord!