Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
I’m sure many of you have seen images of the Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd this past week. Perhaps you’ve even watched the video and heard George cry out for air and beg release from the officer’s knee pinning his neck to the ground. You might’ve even noticed how the officer shows no mercy, but rather remains upon George as he gasped his final breath.
The image is seared upon my mind. While I want to say I feel disgust and horror, I find those words inadequate; they just don’t express the rage and anger I feel. Have we not witnessed enough brutality, violence, and hate against persons of colour? When will this evil end?
The images of George’s death remain imprinted upon my memory. I can’t help but think of him as I reflect upon our feast today, the feast of Pentecost. Today is a day when we should be celebrating the wondrous outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the disciples’ subsequent witness to the new life proclaimed and embodied in Jesus Christ. Yet, I can’t quite get myself to celebrate. Instead, I’m challenged by both the images of George’s death and Jesus’ words in our gospel lesson today.
Before I say more, I’d like to say a few words about the Church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit as articulated in the scriptures and in our creedal tradition.
First and foremost, the Spirit of God has always been associated with breath. The Hebrew word for Spirit, רוּחַ or ruach, means breath. It was the Spirit of God who hovered over the waters of creation. (Genesis 1:2) It was the breath of God that breathed into the nostrils of humanity and gave them life. (Genesis 2:7) And it was Job who knew, even in the depths of his anguish, that it was the breath of God who gave him life. (Job 33:4)
Deeply attuned to the Spirit’s life-giving ways, the early Church acclaimed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life.” Countless generations of Christians have affirmed this belief week after week in the Sunday Eucharist. Persons baptised in the waters of new life profess this belief well before they enter into waters of life. And they remain the words we speak even today when we recite the Creed.
And yet a man’s breath was taken away and his life extinguished on the streets of South Minneapolis.
While I don’t know if the officer is Christian or not, I can’t help but think that the hatred that empowered him to kneel on George’s neck is systemic. For centuries, persons of colour have been assaulted, tormented, and killed at the hands of those empowered by systems and structures that affirmed and glorified their oppression. Incredibly, the Christian Church perpetuated well into the 19th century racist beliefs, and in some churches, even well into the 20th century and today.
How can that be? How is it that the same people who proclaim the Holy Spirit to be the Lord and giver of life can turn around and take the breath and life of a man away in a few short minutes? Such violence is an outrage against God, a blasphemous act beyond our conception.
It is also an act that stands in direct opposition to the vocation entrusted to us by Jesus as we hear him say in our gospel lesson today: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21) Our vocation, our purpose in life is to work with Jesus in bringing life to the world, and not death. Recall the words of John earlier in his gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Or hear the words from the First Epistle of John: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16). Our vocation is not to bring death, but life. If anything, our vocation demands we sacrifice our wants and desires so as to ensure the life of all!
As Christians, we cannot stand by and watch people’s lives taken and destroyed by the selfish hate of another. We cannot claim to be Christian if we tolerate and accept the death of innocent lives because of the colour of their skin!
My friends, let this Pentecost be a time for us to pray for the Holy Spirit to once again come upon us and enflame our hearts with the fire of God’s love. Let this be a time for us to renew our commitment to life, life for all God’s people, of every race, nationality, culture, language, gender, orientation, and socio-economic status. The world needs us to do so now more than ever, as all of creation groans under the weight of oppression and violence.
Let this be the day when we renew our commitment to proclaiming the gospel of life to all people through our words and deeds. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and enliven our hearts with the love of God and empower us to be God’s instruments of grace and peace in a world wounded by sin and injustice.
Let our hearts no longer burn with hate, but with love. As people filled with the Spirit, we can no longer tolerate the death of marginalised and oppressed persons. We can no longer standby as persons suffer brutal beatings and vicious words of hate. Instead, we must unite and witness, through words of grace and peace, to the overwhelming love of God for his beloved wounded and broken people. Amen.