Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
May 16, 2021
Scripture: Acts 1:6–11
Over the last several years, our cultural, political, and economic system has been rocked by new iterations of the social phenomena we had assumed had been conquered or at least managed such that they did not threaten our union. I’m talking about segregation and nationalism, the separation of peoples by race, class, religion, ideology, or some other identity and the exaltation of our nation above all other nations. Even as we gather this morning in worship, the region that is the setting of our Scripture reading is presently roiled by the pernicious effects of segregation and nationalism: Israeli forces and Palestinian militants are engaged in destructive fighting and bombings, causing death and displacement of thousands of people caught in the maelstrom.
What has been more disheartening about the disturbing reemergence of toxic segregation and nationalism in our current context is that certain segments of the Christian tradition have been at the forefront in promoting segregation and nationalism as holy writ. We have seen a Christian triumphalism married to national pride sloganized with the moniker “God and country” and accompanied by a familiar visual montage of the cross and the stars and stripes of the American flag. The message is clear: Only our nation matters, and only certain people matter; and any notion of beloved community is rejected.
In their time, Jesus and his followers had to contend with an empire steeped in segregation and nationalism. They were a marginal people subject to oppression and domination, separated out as strangers without the benefits of citizenship. So, when Jesus readies to depart from them, they are prepared to assume control. They ask, “Lord (not a spiritual title, but a title for a political religious leader who is absolute owner of a domain and the people and things within), is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Lord, are you about to depose the present leaders and take charge of this place? Lord, when do we get to exercise power? When do we get the spoils of the victory we just secured? It’s not an unreasonable question. After all, Jesus has been preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. But these are risky questions because, if answered carelessly and incorrectly, the answers lead to segregation and nationalism.
For those who have secured a great victory against bondage and oppression, the temptation is ever before them to secure their gains, to fortify their defenses, to strengthen their borders, and to separate out those who do not share their ethnicity or their heritage. The followers of Jesus, who had witnessed his resurrection, God’s demonstration of ultimate power over empire and over death, hell, and the grave, were now ready to enjoy the spoils of victory. They remember the promise of God’s kingdom and make ready to take their place as the people in control now.
But their memory of God’s promises is conditioned by the terms and logic of empire. They were promised a kingdom, but they had political religious power in mind. So when they ask Jesus a “yes or no” question, Jesus responds with a discussion about power. It is not a question of when or how God will restore the kingdom; it is not a question of when they will get to run things for themselves, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” The source and nature of this power Jesus offers them will be unlike what they have come to know and expect. Power will not come to them because they control the borders of a nation. Power will not be used to subject weaker people or people they have designated as their enemies. Power will not be expressed in the language, wisdom, and arrangements that prevail for Rome. They will receive power to do what? The gift of the God’s Spirit will be conferred so that they will have the power to do what? They will have the power to do what Jesus did: the power to love.
If that description of what the gift of the Holy Spirit will empower them to do is unsatisfying to our modern ears, perhaps that indicates how we, too, have been conditioned by empire. Jesus answers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” This Holy Spirit is Jesus’ promise to be present with them wherever they go. Now, with Jesus’ loving, healing, and delivering presence within them, they can go beyond the borders and boundaries of their known world to be a loving, healing, and delivering presence to others. They can go share good news with strangers and enemies and those who hated them. They can go and be in communion with others unlike themselves. They will be filled with and animated by a love that makes them stewards of the reign of God and God’s beloved community. This is not about heaven nor about the territory they have gained by Jesus’ victory. This is a love that will not sanction segregation nor nationalism. This is love that creates community, the most powerful and effective antidote to segregation and nationalism.
Of course, when Jesus is lifted up and taken by a cloud out of their sight, they will be tempted to look for Jesus rather than bear witness to Jesus. They will be tempted to recreate the way it used to be. They will be at risk of losing their imagination about what it means to join their lives with others, to embody God’s reign as a present reality against the diabolical imagination of empire. They can’t waste time immobilized in awe gazing up at the sky because the reign of God needs witnesses: witnesses who will not narrow the borders of God’s reign by keeping the good news to themselves for their own sake, witnesses who will go to hostile territory, to the ends of the earth . . . to go within and among strangers, enemies, and competitors and bear witness to the work of the One who obliterates the categories that divide us, who overcame segregation and nationalism to offer a vision of a beloved community.
I can hear the wheels of our Enlightenment wisdom turning already. How does this power to love work? We’ve already seen it in our commitments to justice today. It is the prompting of the Holy Spirit that gives us the power to withstand the hate, retaliation, and persecution for daring to join with strangers and enemies, to commune with those who within the logic of empire and its economic arrangements we should conquer, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and exploited. It is a prompting that stops us from looking upward and compels us take a journey of love through the Holy Spirit so that we nurture not a desire for heaven nor to protect what we have secured but for communion and connection with those we’d rather not know or love. This is the stewardship of community to which the Holy Spirit invites us and makes possible.
That’s why the behavior of certain Christian collectivities today is so disheartening. At a time of deep polarization, when the forces of segregation and nationalism are finding new energy and new converts, when nations all over the world are grappling with the pressures of soulless capitalism and corporate exploitation, we need witnesses to spread the good news of God’s love to all people. We need witnesses to give in to the Holy Spirit’s call to communion and connection across categories and borders. We need witnesses to a resurrection that does not inspire nationalist or triumphalist victory for its own sake or for the sake of making new conquerors and new Caesars. We need witnesses to a resurrection that prompts us to receive and be transformed by the Holy Spirit’s gift of love: love not located above or housed within the borders and boundaries of our own space, but a love that seeks out others with whom we can be neighbors, with whom we can do justice, with whom we can be beloved community.
I’m not talking about doctrine or theories. I’m talking about appealing to a Spirit that prompts us to join our lives to others, to practice and embody community such that segregation and nationalism are smothered under the grace and beauty of love and justice.