Dear Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of New Jersey,
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?
The late, great Catholic pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Without Pentecost the Christ-event – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – remains imprisoned in history as something to remember, think about and reflect on. The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so that we can become living Christs here and now.”1 What a powerful insight for us to consider as we approach the Feast of Pentecost which we will celebrate this coming Sunday, May 23.
It has sometimes been suggested that the story of Pentecost represents a reversal of the confusion of languages that occurred at the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9).2 But at Babel, the people originally all spoke one language. A reversal of the confusion would be to restore them to one language. That’s not what happens. At Pentecost, there are many languages.
In his commentary on the Book of Acts, William Willimon observes, “The miracle here is one of proclamation. Those who had no ‘tongue’ to speak of the ‘mighty works of God’ now preach.”3
In a different commentary on the Pentecost account in Acts, Gilberto Ruiz, writing for the Working Preacher website, offers a profound insight. According to Ruiz, “What we witness … is the Holy Spirit validating difference and working through it, not erasing difference and working despite it. The oracle from Joel cited by Peter affirms this vision through its vivid language of ‘all flesh’ to describe the Spirit’s permeation of persons of all genders, ages, and social status.”4
Ruiz observes, “Calls for unity have been strong in the US context as of late.”5 He then asks a couple of provocative questions, writing:
“[P]erhaps we can ask what unity means for the church. Does Acts’ famous Pentecost scene call us to imagine a unity that is monolingual and univocal, a church with only one language and one voice? Or … can we strive for unity without erasing difference, but rather affirming it? Is the Spirit found in a church where all members look, think, and act alike, or in a church that works together and takes difference as a starting point for manifesting the Spirit?”6
The Diocese of New Jersey is among the most diverse of The Episcopal Church. With people from “every nation under heaven,” we are a microcosm not only of the United States, but of the world. A significant blessing of this is that we have “gifts that differ,” to quote St. Paul (see Romans 12:6). This should be a source of joy and celebration for us. Too often in our world, differences divide. This is not God’s will. Pentecost is evidence of this. And yet …
I was recently asked by a young African-American child, “why do White people hate Black people?” He had seen television images of police in Louisiana abusing and killing Ronald Greene during the course of an arrest two years ago – brutal video that was only released this past week. The child’s question was understandable. It wasn’t the first time he had seen video like this. There have been multiple times. His question broke my heart. It broke my heart because it is evidence of a sad reality: young Black children growing up in this country must endure and survive a very different world than White children.
In New Jersey, Black kids are 21 times more likely to be locked up than White kids. It was recently reported by the state that there are 9 White kids locked up by the New Jersey prison system as opposed to 50 Black kids, even though research indicates white and black children commit most crimes at about the same rate. These inequities cut across a huge swath of social experiences from education, to medical care, to food and housing insecurity. Why? Because of difference of skin color and embedded White Supremacy that continues to haunt and harm our common life. Pentecost offers us a way out of this.
As Henri Nouwen observed, with Pentecost “The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so that we can become living Christs here and now.” To be “living Christs” is to be “living love.” Oh that that Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh! Can you imagine such a thing? Can you dream such a dream? Have faith, it can happen.
May you and yours have a blessed Pentecost filled with the love and power of the Holy Spirit.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, D.D.
12th Bishop of New Jersey