Christian leaders link the fires of protest and Pentecost in weekend messages

Many Christians pointed out a resonance with Pentecost in the protests that unfolded across the United States this weekend, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside down, a sign of distress, next to a burning building May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody on Memorial Day, broke out across the country. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

(RNS) — On Sunday (May 31), many Christians marked the Day of Pentecost, when they believe the Holy Spirit descended on followers of Jesus after his death, resurrection and ascension.

In the biblical account of Pentecost, there was a “blowing of a violent wind” and “tongues of fire that separated and came to rest” on Jesus’ followers. When they spoke, others who had gathered from around the world were able to understand them in their own languages.

Some Christians pointed out a resonance with Pentecost in the protests that unfolded across the United States this weekend, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Clergy around the country drew connections between the flames of Pentecost and the flames present at many of the protests. 

Here are excerpts from several sermons given and online posts made this weekend by Christian leaders, linking the protests to Pentecost.

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The Rev. Wil Gafney, professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School

Gafney wrote on her website:

Today’s fire is not metaphorical. Neither is the presence of the spirit. She is there, in those flames, in those crowds, with the insurrectionists and the revolutionaries, with the dead and the dying, with the grieving and the mourning.

Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church

In a sermon about “Pentecost in a pandemic” given at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Curry declared, “There’s another pandemic — not of the viral kind, but of the spiritual kind.”

He continued:

This past week, we have not only had to endure a pandemic occasioned by a virus, a viral pandemic, but we’ve had to endure and face a spiritual pandemic: the roots of self-centeredness, where one person can look upon another person and despise and reject them and not even behold them as a fellow child of God. We have seen once again the unthinkable become thinkable. It has caused great pain — or, better yet, unearthed the great pain that was already there. … We must dare to follow Jesus in the way of love that can save us all.

Valerie Bridgeman, associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible and dean and vice president for academic affairs at Methodist Theological School in Ohio

Bridgeman wrote for Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church near Minneapolis:

The Day of Pentecost in Acts is a hopeful scene. Today, I hope beyond the raging fires of frustration, the Spirit will blow on our embers and remind us what power we have to change the world for good.

Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park University

Rah tweeted:

Pentecost Sunday. Is it time for a new iteration of the American church? One that is not captive to white supremacy. One not formed by a dominant culture that devalues black bodies. Make this Pentecost Sunday meaningful.

The Rev. Angela Denker, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church of Brownton, Minnesota

Denker, who leads a church outside Minneapolis, wrote for Church Anew:

This weekend is Pentecost: the day the church celebrates holy fire, flames that brought understanding and unification and new hope. The flames of Minneapolis these past few days signify death and destruction. No neighborhood deserves to be destroyed. George Floyd did not deserve to die. Only God can take flames of death and transform fire into new life and hope for the future.

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Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College

McCaulley shared a sermon for Pentecost on his website:

If the first Pentecost is the miracle that follows the miracle that occurs in the aftermath of the wonder, this Pentecost finds the American church in a much different place. It feels like this Pentecost occurs in the aftermath of a woe, following a trauma, in the context of a tragedy. We gather virtually to talk about the flames of Pentecost while Minneapolis and so many other cities burn. The protests and riots of Minneapolis follow the death of George Floyd who was choked to death while handcuffed and pleading for his life. For nine minutes a police officer kept his knee on a man’s neck while he called for his mother. … Some might wonder what riots and a black man dying at the hand of the police have to do with Pentecost and the actual passage in Acts 2:1–21. Don’t we understand, brothers and sisters, this is the question! … Cities are burning and a country is divided, what do the words of the gospel mean in this context. There is no other world to talk about Jesus than a world in which black men have their necks step(ped) on for nine minutes.

Diana Butler Bass, speaker and author

Bass shared a sermon for Pentecost on Church Anew:

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 are 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.

Eric Barreto, associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary

Barreto wrote for Church Anew:

On a Pentecost Sunday far too reminiscent of far too many Sundays for African American communities, I would start preaching this weekend by first going back to Jesus’ commission of his disciples in Acts 1:8. There, Jesus calls his followers to be witnesses, to bear witness to what Jesus has done until our feet reach the farthest extent of our imaginations. Before the gifts of Pentecost, a crucified victim and resurrected conqueror of imperial violence teaches us to witness, to see, to speak, to move, to be.

Fr. James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America Magazine

In a series of tweets, Martin wrote:

Today we celebrate #Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in many languages. Jesus’s disciples were able to speak, hear and understand. But how can you understand the Spirit if you don’t speak justice, or don’t hear these words: “I can’t breathe.” If you weep over the death of Jesus, who had a cross pressed down upon him and cried out “I thirst,” but don’t weep over the death of #GeorgeFloyd, who had a knee pressed down upon him and cried out, “Water,” how will you be able to hear the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit asks you to listen to this voice today.

Bishop Ken Carter, resident bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church

Carter, the immediate past president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, suggested this spiritual exercise in a tweet, drawing on a verse from Joel referenced at Pentecost:

Sit for a few minutes.
Let this be your breath prayer,
Alternating phrases as you breathe in and out.

I Can’t Breathe.
Come Holy Spirit.

This is grounded in two truths:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.

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