Pentecost and the Walls We Build

[This post is part of an Easter series: President [fill in the blank] and King Jesus.]

The small town I group up in was idyllic. My grandparents had each moved there, met, and married in the 1920s, my granddaddy a businessman, my grandmother an English teacher. They raised their kids there through the 1940s and 50s. And it’s where I grew up in the 1970s and early 80s. It really was a near-perfect place to grow up, with red brick streets on which my friends and I rode our bikes all around the town. We made a raft and fished down at the creek. There were carnivals and town picnics and parades, and everybody looked out for everybody.

But my town had a secret—a secret lived right out in the open but never talked about. My idyllic small town was segregated, even in the 1980s. There was a section of town literally across the railroad tracks called Morningside. It was established in the 1920s as a place for black workers in the cotton fields to have homes and something of a community away from the white folks. Problem is, it never changed. No African-American really had the option of living in the town proper. They all still lived in Morningside. The powers that be liked things the way they were. So even through the civil rights victories in the 60s and 70s, and in the “morning in America” of the 80s, the institutional racism was still deeply entrenched in small towns and large cities throughout the country. It still is, of course. But all I knew was that I didn’t play with my black classmates after school, on weekends, or in the summer. They went to their side of the tracks and I stayed on mine. That’s just the way things were. And aren’t those the words that most often keep us—as individuals and as communities—from becoming all we might be: “That’s just the way things are.”

Jesus pushed against those words and it got him in all kinds of trouble. And it saved the world. The church from its beginning has been called to follow Jesus in pushing against those words. That’s just the way things are? Not when God gets hold of them. One of the most striking results of Pentecost is the tearing down of internal and societal walls and movement toward a new unity in the world, to be led by the church. The scattering and division of Babel are undone in the gift of tongues. Gender, age, and class divisions are undone in the fulfilling of Joel’s prophecy, as the Spirit fills men and women, young and old, masters and servants. National borders are blurred and redrawn around the wonders of God. 

If there’s one theme of Acts 2, the new creation, and the church age in which we presently live, it is the evidence of God’s presence in unity—all different kinds of people coming together. Yet our culture and society are plagued by many prejudices—personal and institutional—that keep us from recognizing the value of others that God sees in them. That’s a big problem for many of us who claim to be Christians. If I were to ask you how important it is for us to share our faith, most good church-going Christians would say “very.” But if I were to tell you one of the single most important ways you share your faith is by tearing down walls of prejudice and segregation and helping all people come together—in the church and in the world, bringing God’s kingdom on earth—many would become very uncomfortable and perhaps even angry.

But that is the case. We see in the ongoing ministry of Jesus through the church in the power of the Holy Spirit that there is absolutely no place for prejudice and segregation. Not only is there no place for it, it is sin. It is sinful to judge someone based on their color or gender or sexual orientation or ethnicity or nationality or any other classification we think sums up this whole person—typically negatively—so we can build a wall between us and them and having nothing further to do with them. It’s sinful because God is bringing people together…all people. When we are prejudiced we are working against God. If you and I are welcome, then everyone is welcome. We are no more entitled to be part of God’s kingdom than anyone else.

We too easily bring our segregated small towns into our faith. We want Christianity to mean everyone is like us and nothing ever changes and we don’t have to fear being around someone who is too different. But that’s not Jesus’ church or plan for the world. There’s no Holy Spirit in that way. That isn’t the Father’s family. A church and world that feel like a small town are great—generations growing together, a safe place for kids, everyone working and singing together, having parades and picnics…that’s all wonderful. But if it’s truly the church, if it’s truly God’s kingdom, then when we say everybody looks out for everybody, we mean everybody.

If you want to be part of what Jesus is doing, if you want to be part of God’s kingdom, if you want to be the church…heck, if you want to be a Christian, start tearing down a wall. God will give you the power. You can start in your own life, reaching out to someone who is different, maybe even someone who makes you a little uncomfortable. Pray for them. Say something kind. Do something kind. And when you’re tempted to dismiss them and walk the other way, stop. Remember that they are made in God’s image…just like you. Recognize that they are deeply loved by God…just like you. And treat them…just like you would like to be treated. And watch the walls start to crumble. And watch God’s kingdom come as people come together. This is both the foreign and domestic policy of King Jesus.