When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, 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 Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
In place of our Footnotes today I offer you a disclaimer: If you are following along with the sermon that I sent out in the weekly update or with one that was sent in the mail, then you should stop now. For the second time in my stay here as pastor I found myself compelled by the Spirit to give a message other than the one that I wrote for today. While this time the Spirit allowed me time to write out the message rather than preach it extemporaneously, the fact remains. What you are about to hear did not exist until this morning as I struggled with the call of the Spirit to do something other than what I had planned. The original sermon’s text is available online and a video of it will be posted here sometime this afternoon, but for now we have another lesson to learn from our Scripture and our remembrance of the Pentecost.
I would also like to say out front that we will be discussing race, police accountability, and what we in the 21st century can learn from the church of Acts in its response to issues of race. Our sermon today, in exploring it, is far from the ideal medium to talk about this in. The conversation is necessarily one way, I only have so much time to speak to the issue, and at the end of the day no one message can really tackle all that is involved in these discussions. I offer up a sermon, a meditation on the word which is the beginning of a conversation we all must have with ourselves and with one another as the community of Christ.
What the Spirit gives to the edification of the community I offer up freely. We go into our time today, I pray, with an understanding that what is lifted up is not meant to divide or to condemn, but to give us time and place to question what comes next. I invite us to be convicted by our Father where we can be, empowered by the example of Christ to overcome our failings, and in all things to live in a Spirit of Love that allows us to come to different conclusions on many things, yes, but that nonetheless sees the essential unity of the Church win out.
The Pentecost tells us a story that is hard to imagine. A group of illiterate ministers gather together in the upper room of a house. They have been waiting a long fifty days since their Master had left them and ascended into Heaven. This group of people feel the rush of wind, they suddenly find themselves speaking languages they never knew, and they pour into the streets to share the message and the salvation of their Master. They preach to thousands of people, all hearing in their same language, all suddenly entering together into a community that was barred to them before.
The Pentecost is amazing because it shows God’s willingness to reach out to us, and not only to overcome differences between individuals but to utilize and embrace them. When God spoke to each person in their own language at Pentecost, the convert did not have to learn Aramaic or Greek to join the community, but the Spirit of God allowed for the difference between the two communities to live alongside one another. The Persian convert, different in dress and speech than the Greek convert, both were able to sit at a table and break bread together.
The work of the Pentecost saw people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds brought together into Christian community. There was no erasure of differences but the celebration of them. In the Chapters that follow this one, we see again and again that God lifts the restrictions that would keep people who lived differently from the Jews from communing with the Jewish Christians that made up the bulk of the Church at this time. Dietary laws are lifted, examples are given of people from across the world being allowed into the Kingdom, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Church is given a glimpse into how to settle differences between the disparate members within their numbers.
Immediately following the Pentecost event, trouble started among the church. First Peter and John were taken on trial and paddled for their preaching of the Gospel. Secondly, two members of the Church who wished to look rather than act Holy pretended to have given all they had to the Church when they really had a large portion of it tucked away in case this whole, “Christianity” thing did not work. Finally, and relevant to our discussion today, Greek widows cried out to the disciples because they were being neglected in the distribution of food.
The Pentecost event was the moment that reconciled Gentile and Jew together eternally in the economy of the Church. There could be no separation where even language was erased in the work of the Spirit. The community was growing in large part because it allowed for anyone and everyone to join its community. The first few days of the Church were full of energy straight from God, the divine pulse the thrummed through the community-made sure they did exactly as they ought to. They shared all things in common, they called all people their siblings, and they were in love with God and Neighbor such that they were always out in public and always had the good-will of the community around them.
How quickly that energy faded! The reality that they were a community of flawed individuals saved and slowly sanctified by Grace became real among them as friction started to emerge between the members of the Church. The rich hid away money from the poor, the Christian membership of the Jewish High Council stayed silent in their trial, the distribution of food was prioritized by the language one spoke and the region they came from. The fervor of the Spirit in Acts 2, the impassioned preaching of Peter in Acts 3, it already seems to be fading as we move forward just a few chapters in the book.
The Greek Widows raise up their cry to the apostles and they are given a choice – they can either listen to their concerns, or they can ignore them. The apostles remembered the day that the Spirit came, they were sitting with the Church when Greeks and Persians and Romans and all manner of people broke bread together. They had before them the image of the perfect church, and when these women raised their cry it would have been very easy for them to say, “What are you talking about!? Our workers would never do that! Stop complaining!”
Yet, they did not. The apostles heard the women and appointed a task force to deal with the problem. While we cannot be sure exactly, it is of note that they not only entrusted this work to members of their community in good standing, but that each of those appointed to tackle this problem had names with no Hebrew source. In other words, the sons, relatives, and neighbors of the Greek widows were appointed to make sure that the Greek widows were given their fair share. The Apostles not only heard the complaints of the Greeks in the community, but responded by empowering and supporting them to work to fix the problem. To chastise those who were withholding food, to bring the riches of God’s love to those who previously were denied it.
Today, we the Church celebrate the Pentecost, but we do so in the United States not as though we are in Acts 2 but as though we are in Acts 6. Around this country, there is a great deal of civil unrest because, once again, a man has been unjustly killed by an officer who took an oath to protect and serve, and once again it seemed like the killer in question would not be held accountable. This tragedy, unlike so many before it, saw many people in agreement that the officer was out of line in the methods that he took, at least as far as I have seen. There was not the ambiguity that often haunts these cases, but a clear sense of something horribly wrong having happened. What comes next, is where things get difficult.
We are not new to the discussion of police brutality in the United States. As long as there has been a police force there have been those willing to abuse that position for personal reasons. This is true of any position of leadership, take it from a minister if you give people control of a situation and they have their priorities in the wrong place they will cause incalculable harm. The existence of cruel and frankly wicked police officers does not negate the work of those that dutifully serve their communities, and I in no way wish to project that message, however, we in the 21st century as both citizens and law enforcement have a lot to learn from the first-century church.
The first case of a person of color being killed and of the world lifting their voice in protest was Treyvon Martin way back in 2012. He was the same age as me, he was killed walking from one place to another, and the exact happenings of the event were not recorded in an easily understood way. He was killed by a citizen, not an officer, and I remember at the time, I decided that it was unreasonable to put blame on the killer, because how and why would someone kill someone, a child like me, without good reason. Eight years later, I do not have the same optimism that I once did. Eight years later, I wish I could go back and give myself a stern talking to.
Since 2012, consumer grade cameras improved and many were placed in our pockets as cell phones became more plentiful. Because of this, we have seen time and time again videos released of the final moments of people of color. Scared, in pain, crying out for help, killed in unnecessary shows of force by people who should know better. It is bad enough that, ten months after I preach about racism and how it led to the El Paso shooting, we find ourselves once more discussing matters of race, but there is a darker reality even than this. If we took a moment to examine ourselves and our response to these killings every time they happened, we would hardly be able to worship normally. We are, at this point, familiar with these incidents to the point they are mundane.
Oftentimes the language used to discuss these tragedies puts us in a place of absolutism in regard to law enforcement. The choice is posed as support entirely of law enforcement, even if it means a few bad officers slip through the cracks, or else of rejecting law enforcement entirely. Both of these seem extreme, but I think the first even more so. It is harder to blame someone who, after going unheard for years and years, leaves a discussion. The cries of the unheard, falling on deaf ears, will breed a well-earned resentment.
If we return to Acts 6 though, we may find a way forward. Here, the apostles are told of an abuse – for them the overlooking of Greek widows in the distribution of food by official representatives of the Church, for us the wrongful deaths of people of color by representatives of the state. They deliberate on what to do and have a choice – they can assume the best of those they have appointed and deny the cries of those in need, or they can work to be better. The decision is made to put people in place, Greeks at that, to oversee what happens in the distribution of food.
For us today, we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face when it comes to racial injustice. We cannot defend the cruelty of the wicked who find their ways into the halls of power, to protect those who do good works. We as people should hold those in power accountable, and that means officers as well. Likewise, officers should police themselves. The only way a bad cop can continue to be bad is if the good cops who see them working let them. We often describe unfit officers as, “bad apples,” but we forget that the rest of that adage is, “One bad apple spoils the bunch.”
We also, like the Church in Acts, need to listen when people cry out to us. The Widows likely would have left the Church if they kept being ignored. If the problem persisted to the point they were starving, they may still push further and disrupt the church directly. They, following the example of Christ, may have run in and overturned the tables the apostles sat at, making their displeasure clear through destruction. However, because the widows were heard and something was done immediately to seek out a solution, then no one was pushed to the point of desperation required to make such a display.
Finally, we do well as the Church today to remember that more often than not these incidents involve our fellow Christians. George Floyd, the name that has sparked all this recent discussion, was a bible believing man. He was a member of a church and was heavily involved in its ministries. We must hear the cries of our siblings in Christ when they call out to us, and believe me, like Abel a great deal of blood cries out to us from the ground today. However, as George’s minister was quoted as saying in an article in Christianity Today, “I have hope because just like Abel is a Christ figure, I see my brother [Floyd] as a Christ figure as well, pointing us to a greater reality. God does hear us. He hears his cry even from the ground now. Vengeance will either happen on the cross or will happen on Judgment Day.” Let us purify ourselves now, at the foot of the cross, so that when Judgment comes we may stand blameless before Christ. – Amen.