Howard Thurman used to read the Bible to his grandmother. She was particular about the texts—he’d read the Psalms, some of Isaiah, and the Gospels “again and again.” But never the Pauline epistles except occasionally “the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians.” As a young college student, Thurman asked her why she would not let him read the Pauline texts. She answered: “During the days of slavery, the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters…, as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.”
Like Thurman’s grandmother, I’m always hesitant to turn to the Pauline epistles. At the very least, Paul’s letters have been used to justify subjugation of people of color and women. Renita J. Weems says, “[T]he experience of oppression has forced the marginalized reader to retain the right, as much as possible, to resist those things within the culture and the Bible that one finds obnoxious or antagonistic to one’s innate sense of identity and to one’s basic instincts for survival.” (Weems, “Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible,” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 57–77.)
But then I read Romans 8. And in Romans 8, it feels like Paul gets it.
It seems like Paul is writing a different story. This time, instead of justifying subjugation, it looks like he’s changing things up—it seems like he is imagining a new world, one where liberation can happen, where acceptance is offered, and where hope is real. If you begin at the start of the chapter, you see that it’s all about the Holy Spirit. Verse 2 says “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free…” In fact, pneuma, Greek for Spirit, is repeated 34 times in this one chapter.
Paul is imagining a world where the Holy Spirit is the rule of the land.
- A world without fear (You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.)
- A world at one with nature (the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God)
- A world of hope (if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience)
- A world of power, the right kind (If God is for us, who is against us?)
- A world without condemnation (Who will separate us from the love of God?)
Don’t those things sound like liberation? Don’t they sound like freedom? Don’t they sound like hope for change?
Can you imagine a world like this? And isn’t it what the disciples were imagining on that Pentecost morning?
Paul closes with a doxology in verses 38 and 39 that fits his context. How would you rewrite the doxology found in verses 38-39? ”For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor patriarchy, nor sexism, nor transphobia, nor racism, nor immigration status, nor poverty, nor disability, nor healthcare, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Thanks to Emerson Powery for many of the thoughts in this post. Read more here.)
So how will you imagine liberation this Pentecost?
- I’m in the middle of a sermon series on forgiveness, so I’m imagining a world of forgiveness. And forgiveness is definitely a precursor to a liberated world. We cannot love what we do not forgive, and we cannot forgive without seeing our own faults.
- What if the liberation of Pentecost means that all the things that separate us, language, race, even preferences as silly as what color the carpet will be, will no longer separate us?
- What if, as Keri Day said in a speech recently, we gave up the paradigm of “convert or punish” that mars our religion, and see Pentecost as an invitation to enter into healing community, rather than a day that converts some and damns others?
Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers(Chalice Press, 2013).
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