In a nation collectively reeling from and protesting yet another set of recent tragedies involving the continuing unjust murders of black men and women, most recently George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the church has yet another unique opportunity and responsibility to be prophetic beacons of truth, lament, and repentance.
Montague Williams, associate professor of church, culture, and society at Point Loma Nazarene University preached the sermon below on the text of John 20:19-23 for Wyandanch Church of the Nazarene (New York City) and Peace River Christian Fellowship (San Diego, CA).
It is Pentecost Sunday, which means that churches all over the globe are reflecting on what it means for the Holy Spirit to be active and present in the world. This is often a Sunday full of celebration with a focus on good things. But, of course, today feels a bit different. It’s not easy to get up, dance, talk about tongues of fire when all you have to do is click the next tab to see that one of our cities in America is on fire.
With all of the people showing up with different motives, we can’t be sure who exactly is starting the fires. But we do know the city has been on fire long before the riots and looting. Like many cities in the United States, South Minneapolis has been burning with the searing flames of racial injustice for years. A slow painful burning that is easy for many to pass by and either deny, not notice, or not know how to name what’s going on. The difference is now, the whole nation, and perhaps the whole world, can’t help but notice that something is broken. We know this story well, don’t we? It feels like someone just hits the replay button. The summer of 2020 is looking like it is going to be similar to the summer and fall of 2014, which looked like the spring of 1992, which resembles images of summer of 1964. So to just get up and celebrate this morning seems to be missing something. Folks are exhausted. We’re exhausted of the word “exhausted.”
The questions about where God is in this world are simply too deep and too complex to accept anything that feels like a temporary fix. We find ourselves looking for something deeper. We join all of creation in a deep longing and crying out for change. We long for Good News this Pentecost Sunday.
Folks are exhausted. We’re exhausted of the word “exhausted.”
I find it so interesting to see how important this Gospel passage is for us this morning. Notice that verse 19 begins with, “It was still the first day of the week.” If you look at the previous passages, you know this means the first day week after the weekend crucifixion. The disciples are in hiding and afraid because they just saw their mutual friend lynched in front of the watching world. Killed by the system that supposedly exists to protect. The passage says they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. But it’s important to recognize that they were not afraid of Jewish people in general. Don’t get the wrong idea here. They are Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. They are part of the Jewish community. What they’re afraid of are the people within their community who are willing to put the demands of the oppressive Roman government above the people. They are afraid of those who think it’s best to maintain the status quo.
It makes sense that they are afraid and hiding behind locked doors. That is what public crucifixion—lynching—is all about. It is meant to put everyone watching in their place. “Don’t talk back.” “Don’t sound upset.” “Don’t argue.” “Always say ‘officer’.” Lynching is meant to make everyone else longing for change accept mere survival as something to celebrate. The crucifixion of Jesus was not simply meant to mock Jesus, it was meant to make his disciples afraid. It was meant to stop a justice movement. They were in fear of people who had the ability and willingness to take out their cell phones in Central Park and make up a story with a trembly voice to have them all arrested and crucified too.
They watched Jesus get arrested, and they watched as police crucified him. They watched him hanging and straining until he was in search of oxygen and crying out, “I am thirsty!” Jesus knows what it means to feel what George Floyd felt when he cried out, “I can’t breathe” and when Eric Garner cried out, “I can’t breathe.” Jesus knows what it is like to plea for help while police look on waiting for him to die and while family, friends, or any passersby feel helpless but committed to making the story known. The disciples know what it is like to watch this and to have it play over and over again in their minds.
Jesus knows what it is like to plea for help while police look on waiting for him to die and while family, friends, or any passersby feel helpless but committed to making the story known.
This is what makes the scene in our passage so significant. Jesus shows up in this locked room and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them the wounds from the knee on his neck or from the nails and spear in his hands and side. And his friends celebrate. They rejoice at the fact that it is really him and at the fact that the system that took his life did not have the last word. So he tells them again, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus, who they just saw suffocating three days earlier breathes on them and tells them to receive the Spirit. There are many insights to gain from this scene, and I would like to highlight three.
1. God is For the Exhausted
The first is this: God is for the exhausted. If you find yourself exhausted or exhausted from the word “exhausted.” God, made known in Jesus, is right there with you. God understands. And God is for you. In fact, the nature of our God as three-in-one suggests God not only understands the exhaustion of being continually harassed by soldiers and even killed by them, God also understands the exhaustion of the parent who sends her child out for an errand knowing that today might be that day she gets that phone call. God also knows the pain of being a present observer that wants to change the situation but has to resort to being committed to getting the story out. You know, in the world of theological studies, there has often been a question about whether God can suffer or feel pain. But we all know that to love is to open oneself to the possibility of feeling loss. And as God is the Parent, Child, and most committed Storyteller in the world’s most well-known and world-rocking story of police brutality and wrongful death, we know God felt suffering. God is for the exhausted.
Even as he offers living water, Jesus really was thirsty on that cross. It wasn’t a façade. When he shows up in the disciples’ hiding place, he doesn’t say, “Oh, what I experienced was no big deal; it didn’t really happen.” Quite the opposite, he shows them his wounds. He shows the marks of his exhaustion and pain. He acknowledges that, yes, it’s all real. God is for the exhausted.
Ever since God heard the cries of oppressed Hebrew people, to when God spoke through the prophets, all the way to Jesus’ announcement that he has come to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and release of the prisoners. In Jesus’ very experience with incarceration and the death penalty to Jesus showing up in that room breathing the Holy Spirit, we know that God has always been for the exhausted.
2. We Don’t Need to Be Afraid
The second insight is that we do not need to be afraid to stand up for justice. Jesus acknowledges that it makes sense for the disciples to feel the need to hide. But his point in entering that room is to give them the confidence to come out from behind closed doors. He shows them that the lynching must not and will not be the end of the story. Depending on where you are, “being afraid” can look like a lot of things. Coming out from behind closed doors can look different depending on your context. Some Christians may be afraid to even talk about George Floyd and the realities of police brutality. They might think it is too political or partisan. I saw a public social media post from a retired General Superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene. He wrote the following words:
“Black lives matter because, black lives matter. When will we get this through our thick heads and calloused hearts. Black lives do matter.”
Within minutes, fellow Nazarenes began with rebuttal statements. But the reality is that Nazarenes should be some of the first to join in and say that “Black lives matter.”
In 1895 when the founders named the “Church of the Nazarene,” they intentionally wanted a name that would highlight the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth, a town associated with oppressed and marginalized communities. In fact, it was a biblical story toward the beginning of the Gospel of John that motivated them. In John 1:46, we find a conversation between Phillip and Nathanael, in which Nathanael is surprised to hear that the Messiah they have been waiting for is Jesus of Nazareth. His reaction was, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
Nazarenes should be some of the first to join in and say that “Black lives matter.”
The reason people in Jesus’ day had issues with Nazareth is tied to its ethnic makeup and economic disparity. This is no different than someone today saying, “South Minneapolis! Can anything good come from there?” Or “Southeast San Diego! Can anything good come from there?” I recently read that of the 291 communities in Long Island, most of the black residents live in just 11. There are stories in there involving isolation and avoidance. We know there are residents in the other 280 avoiding those 11 neighborhoods. “Can anything good come from there?”
The answer is Yes! God offers us “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” through Nazareth. We are the church of the Messiah from the neighborhood that most are taught to avoid, scorn, and consider the “wrong side of the tracks.” Jesus’ very life and our denomination’s name is a declaration that Nazarene lives matter. And in that vein, we should be some of the first to join and say Black lives matter.
A few years ago, my wife Jennie and I led a group of amazing college students on a pilgrimage to the site on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was killed. During the pilgrimage, we met with residents, pastors, activists, and civic leaders to hear their stories and develop a call and response liturgy to practice communion there on Canfield Drive. One of the lines in the liturgy has a leader say: “It is only when we can unapologetically declare, ‘Black lives matter’ that we can sincerely affirm that all lives matter.” Then everyone responds emphatically, “Black lives matter!!!” For some, being able to say this was stepping out from behind closed doors and rejecting the fear of being ostracized by their home churches and families. They were rejecting the fear of association and choosing to stand up for justice.
I don’t know if or how recent situations have sent you into hiding or what exactly closed doors mean in your life right now. But Jesus is telling us we don’t need to be afraid. Jesus is saying, “Peace be with you.” And Jesus sends us out.
3. The Church Can and Must Join the Exhausted
The third insight is that the church has the ability and responsibility to present with and for the exhausted. Once the disciples know who Jesus is, the passage says:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
In the story of Pentecost found in Acts, we focus on how the Holy Spirit descends upon God’s people and forms them into the church. We often highlight the way people of different backgrounds and different languages come together, share their resources, and bear witness to the way of Jesus. It is a public setting of great celebration. Here, in the Gospel of John, the offering of the Holy Spirit is certainly about the formation of the church, but the context is so different. The once breathless Jesus breathes on the disciples who are anxiously on the run and trying to catch their own breath. In some ways, John as a writer is having some poetic fun with language, because in the Greek, the words for spirit and breath are the same. But through that poetic scene, we find Jesus empowering the disciples to make a difference in the world. In a situation where we are feeling the weight of “I can’t breathe,” Jesus is giving us his breath and asking us to go into the world and use it.
He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” Isn’t that an interesting responsibility? There is a unique kind of empowerment in that responsibility. What does this say about the church? Jesus tells this marginalized and cast-off group that they have the power to discern the sins of others and discern who and when to forgive. Another way of putting is that Jesus gives them the power to highlight the problems that need to be highlighted and set the tone for what makes right relationships. Jesus could have given this responsibility to a privileged group that has no connection to the exhausted peoples of the world. But I think Jesus knew that the discernment and emphases would too easily end up being distorted.
We actually see this distorted discernment happening right now as some try to spin the story of George Floyd’s death into focal points that distract from the realities of systemic racism in policing. There are many police officers who seek to do good and protect the vulnerable, but we know that policing in America has a long history with inherent problems of anti-black racism. We know that because we have seen it up close time and time again. We know that the system needs to change. But right now there is a distorted discernment seeking to make the story about an isolated situation of a “bad apple.”
It is one thing to say there is a bad apple in the system. It is another to have four police officers slowly torture and suffocate a man in front of his community and in front of cameras and confidently assume they will get away with it. It is one thing to say there is a bad apple, it is another to have a police department willing to hide the realities of Ahmaud Arbery’s death and only make an arrest two months later after the video surfaced online and resulted in public outcry. It is one thing to say there is a bad apple, it is another for police officers to enter Breonna Taylor’s home in plain clothes in the middle of the night and recklessly spray bullets as they searched for someone already in police custody.
The distorted discernment continues as the cameras on George Floyd’s death are being replaced by other cameras that are trying to make this a story about rioting and property loss. Twenty-four-hour coverage of rioting sells well, but Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on this marginalized and exhausted group and gives them the power to name sin as sin from their lens. The Holy Spirit empowers us to hear and highlight the message at the core of the rage and anger we see expressed in the fires of South Minneapolis.
I think Dr. King has helpful insight here, as he explains the church’s unique responsibility to learn from protests that are committed to marginalized and forgotten. He says it this way (italics mine):
The Christian ought to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’ words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’
The same Holy Spirit that anointed Jesus empowers us to engage in the discerning work of highlighting the problems that need to be highlighted and set the tone for what makes right relationships. The Holy Spirit empowers us to reject the status quo. Church is not about hiding from injustice behind closed doors. The church exists beyond the walls. We have to ask, “If the church was already present and living out its responsibility to be a protest against injustice, would we be in the situation we’re in right now?”
We do not need to be afraid to stand up for justice. And the church has the ability and responsibility to be present with and for the exhausted.
The church needs to take moment and learn. I’m not promoting the idea of burning down buildings. Of course not. But there is a room within Christian spirituality for expressing anger at injustice. Jesus turned over tables. Perhaps what we see today is a result of the church spending years accepting the status quo and never learning how to turn over tables. We need to listen to what protesters are saying and repent for our complacency. We must see the what’s happening today with lens of the exhausted. And we must become a protest against injustice. The Holy Spirit is breathing on us and empowering us.
If you are feeling exhausted, Jesus invites you to receive the breath of God. God is for the exhausted. We do not need to be afraid to stand up for justice. If you are not feeling exhausted, Jesus invites you to receive the breath of God and join the exhausted in solidarity. God is for the exhausted. We do not need to be afraid to stand up for justice. And the church has the ability and responsibility to be present with and for the exhausted.
Grace and peace be with you.
Footnote: The call to move beyond the walls of the church is not a disregard for Covid-related shelter-in-place restrictions. In fact, the call the move “beyond the walls” of the church can be embraced in creative ways, such as writing letters of encouragement and advocacy, making calls, listening to stories, sharing stories, learning about public policies and potential changes, praying for people we know and read about in this struggle by name, and sending PPE to those on the front lines of both the viral and racial pandemics.
This story was originally published on Missio Alliance. It has been recreated for our platform with permission.
Dr. Montague Williams has been a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University since 2017. Prior to that, he served as the College Chaplain and Chair of the Division of Religion and Philosophy at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts (Boston area). He and his spouse, Jennie, live in San Diego with their children and enjoy exploring neighborhoods and local restaurants throughout Southern California. He is the author of Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. (Baylor University Press, September 2020).