After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observance of the liturgical year. Since it brings people from different places, languages, and cultures together, Pentecost has traditionally been viewed as the Holy Spirit’s undoing the confounding of languages and the resultant separation of peoples at Babel. If you remember, this was the result of their attempt to build a tower reaching to heaven.1
As with the Incarnation, at Pentecost God comes down. In the end, we will not “go up” to some imaginary heaven. Rather, as the Book of Revelation dramatically shows, the City of God will come down from heaven and the reign of God will be established on the earth forever.2
Because Pentecost marks bringing people together in the Church, the Body of Christ, made up of people of different languages, races, genders, and cultures, it seems fitting to bring up the subject of race and racism, which seems to plague our nation these days. Racism manifests in a multitude of ways. Among these ways are Antisemitism, White Supremacy, the animus shown toward Hispanic people that very often isn’t too far below the surface of most anti-immigrant rhetoric. Institutional racism is a reality but one that is invisible to most of us not directly affected by it.
Cutting to the chase, we watched in horror as a policeman, employing unapproved methods, killed yet another black man before our eyes. The name of the man who was killed is George Floyd. Because we are Christians, George Floyd is our brother by virtue of our common Baptism. George Floyd was affectionately known by many as “Big Floyd.”3
Before moving to Minneapolis for a job through a Christian work program, Floyd labored to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of peace, to the hard-pressed third ward of Houston, his hometown. He heeded Jesus’s Great Commission, which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, by seeking to make disciples. He worked to bring the Gospel to young men in the Cuney Homes housing project, known popularly as “the Bricks.” A focus of Floyd’s ministry, in his own words, was “breaking the cycle of violence.”4
Now, I am not seeking to automatically canonize George Floyd. He certainly had his troubles. What I am saying is that he was a Christian. By the witness of his life, we know he was not Christian in some nominal sense. He was a disciple of Jesus. Discipleship can never be incidental or accidental. Christian discipleship is always intentional.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis and several other cities, including Salt Lake City, which is currently under curfew, erupted into protests that turned into riots. As Christians, we know that violence only breeds violence. As Bishop Shelton Fabre, one of the few black Catholic bishops in the United States insisted in the wake of George Floyd’s death: racism is a life issue because people are losing their lives because of it.5 In another statement, seven U.S. bishops insisted: “We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life.”6 While, as Christians, we are committed to non-violence, we can’t be passive in the face of injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. and others showed us, non-violence is not pacifism.
But what to make of all this? I suppose each one of us has our own opinion. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we should all have in common the desire to break the world’s cycle of violence. We do that by committing ourselves to work for justice. One way to work for justice is seeking racial reconciliation. This begins with doing the hard work of confronting ourselves, becoming aware of certain attitudes, oftentimes deeply ingrained. It also involves listening to people different from ourselves, whose experiences in our culture and society differ from our own. As Pope Saint Paul VI insisted: “If you want Peace, work for justice.”7
Pope Francis calls on Catholics to create a “culture of encounter” in the societies in which we live.8 It was just such an encounter that is at the heart of Pentecost. Jews traveled from nations all over the known world to observe Shavuot. Shavuot in Greek is “Pentecost.” It is called Pentecost because this festival occurs fifty days after Passover, just as Christian Pentecost falls fifty days after Easter. On Shavuot to this day Jews celebrate God giving the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The people say in response to hearing the Gospel in their own languages:
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs…9More than a digression, reflecting on the sin of racism and how the Gospel helps us overcome it is most fitting for this celebration. What we need to realize today as we celebrate Pentecost is founding the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost is reckoned to be the Church’s “birthday”), the risen Christ seeks to unite all peoples in and through the Church, making her “the universal sacrament of salvation.”10 In the Book of Revelation, John sees
a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation comes from* our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb”11It is this new reality that Saint Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Christians in ancient Corinth: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”12
It is faith in Christ, which prompts Baptism. Baptism and Eucharist constitute our Christian DNA. Faith gives birth to hope. What is it we hope for? We hope for the reign of God to be fully established. When our hope turns into love, then God’s reign breaks through into the here and now, the future appears in the present. This is precisely why God gives us the great gift of faith, not for some individualized, singular salvation. Following Christ requires you to love your neighbor, to forgive those who trespass against you, to pray for and do good to your enemies, and work for justice. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.13 You cannot be a racist and a Christian.
Because of Jesus Christ, membership in God’s people is not a matter of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or location. Membership, which is the work of the Spirit, is determined by faith in Christ alone. Inherent to this faith is a commitment to follow Jesus. This means not merely “preaching” the Good News but being good news by the way you live your life. And so, with great hope let us pray: “Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth!”
1 Genesis 11:1-9.↩
2 Revelation 21:1-2.↩
3 Christianity Today, “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston.” ↩
5 Catholic News Service, “Louisiana bishop: ‘People are losing their lives because of racism.’”↩
6 America, “Bishops call racism a ‘real and present danger’ in aftermath of death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.”↩
7 Pope Paul VI, Message for V World Day of Peace, 1 January 1972.↩
8 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 220.↩
9 Acts 2:9-11.↩
10 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], sec. 48.↩
11 Revelation 7:9-10.↩
12 1 Corinthians 12:13.↩
13 1 John 4:20.↩