Race, the Holy Spirit and the Great Commission

I don't like the way we talk about race as the Church these days. I also don't like the way we don't talk about race as the Church these days.

Here's an example of the disconnect: Let's start with White Christians and race. Barna Group last week reported that in the summer of 2020, 33% of White adult Christians said our country "definitely" has a race problem, 4 points less than White adults overall. And lower than 2019 levels.

Now, Black Christians: 81% of Black adult Christians said our country "definitely" has a race problem, 5 points higher than Black adults overall. And higher than 2019 levels.

That's two parts of the same body, starkly divided and getting further apart.

A Biblical Frame for Addressing Racial Divides

With that being said, my goal here is not to make an argument either way about whether the country has a race problem, or whether the Church should talk about race less, or more. What I want to do is offer you a different frame for how we as Christians can think about these issues of race and culture and understanding. Rather than adopt secular ideas of intersectionality, diversity and inclusion, I'm going to argue that we can go directly to scripture to find guidance for the type of impact we should seek to have.

I want to begin the way my father would begin many of his sermons when I was growing up, with this prayer from the Book of Psalms:

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

Here's the frame: Within the Great Commission, Jesus gave us an assignment that demands we rise to the challenge of this divided culture. And it's so important, God equipped us to do it.

Let's look at four passages of scripture today. All of them will be familiar, but taken together they might hit a bit differently than they have in the past. I hope so. They are Matthew 28: 19-20, Acts 1: 4-5, Acts 2: 1-12 and 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23. The first is words of Jesus. The next two are defining moments for the early Church. The last is from Paul.

I've been walking with Christ for 20 years now. During that time I've embraced the Bible as my life guide and not just an intellectual, religious or philosophical resource. Because I view the Bible that way, one of the most important passages to me is Matthew 28: 19-20. We refer to it as the Great Commission. These are my marching orders:

The Great Commission

Matthew 28: 19-20

"… Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.”

Wow. Jesus is finishing his earthly ministry, and in one sentence sums up the mission of the Church writ large and every individual member. (There are two sentences there, but the second is a confidence booster.)

It's a big commission. How are we supposed to do it? Thankfully God gives us reinforcements:

Wait for the Holy Spirit

Acts 1: 4-5

Being assembled together with them, he commanded them, “Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me. For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

God, as always, makes good on His promise, as we see in Acts 2:

The Holy Spirit at Pentecost

Acts 2: 1-12

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all with one accord in one place. Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them, and one sat on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under the sky. When this sound was heard, the multitude came together and were bewildered, because everyone heard them speaking in his own language. They were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Behold, aren’t all these who speak Galileans? How do we hear, everyone in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the parts of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians: we hear them speaking in our languages the mighty works of God!” They were all amazed, and were perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Entering the Cultural Experience of Others

What does this mean?

In the Great Commission, Jesus told us to "go" to "all nations" and make disciples. But then in Acts 1 he said not so fast. Before you go, "wait for the gift" of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, how does it make itself known? There's a sound. There's a sight. But when the Holy Spirit goes to work, there's a change.

What does this mean?

The Holy Spirit could have caused this group of people to do all sorts of things if the goal were simply to amaze and perplex. It could have had them fly around the house where they had been sitting. It could have had them go around the city and heal people. Turn water into wine. It did not do any of those things. Of all the miracles the Holy Spirit could have done to amaze and perplex, it turned them into cross-cultural communicators. It gave them the gift of speaking the language of others.

What does this mean?

The uncomfortable possibility: This means that if we are going to answer the call of Jesus and fulfill the Great Commission, if we are going to steward our resources not just for secular efficiency and economic impact but for the Kingdom of God, a fundamental requirement of us is that we enter into the cultural experience of other people.

Not simply allow others into our space. That's inclusion. Not just teach them our language and assimilate them into our culture and organizations. That's secular diversity. But to "go" into their space. And to go with a level of communication and cultural connection that is so profound that it is perplexing. Amazing. And impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit.

So what does this mean for us as Christians today, particularly in this atmosphere of racial division?

Helper, Advocate, Translator

I offer this: In the Gospel of John, in Romans and 1 Corinthians, scripture describes some of the Holy Spirit's functions as a helper, an advocate and a translator. That's the spirit's role both in our engagement with God, and in our engagement with the world.

In this time of division, the impulse, the political call, is the opposite. It's to be an observer, not a helper; a judge, not an advocate; a gatekeeper, not a translator.

The observer says: I observe that you're making claims about disparities and discrimination, but I have some philosophical problems with the way you're expressing that. I'm not going to help you.

The judge says: You're making this noise about race and pain, but in my judgment you haven't done all the work you could to better your own situation -- or to understand mine. I'm not going to advocate for you.

And the gatekeeper says: Before I engage with you deeply, here are the terms to get through the gate: the language you need to speak, the tone you need to adopt, the flag you need to salute or the fragility you need to admit. I'm not going to translate your experience.

I suggest to you that there's a better way, a Biblical way, the Holy Spirit's way, outlined in scripture and described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 9: 19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Helper, advocate, translator. Specifically in the realm of cultural division, those are powerful roles of the Holy Spirit. And if we're going to be who Jesus called us to be, fulfill the Great Commission our savior gave us, we must heed the spirit's call to spend our time, talent and treasure entering into the cultural experience of other people.