What Does This Mean?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
23 May 2021
One Sunday in 1819 in the city of Philadelphia, at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, guest preacher Reverend Richard Williams was struggling to preach the sermon he had prepared and found himself unable to go on. In the silence that followed, suddenly a woman in the congregation stood up and began to preach. Her name was Jarena Lee, and what she was doing was not allowed.
Jarena Lee was born to a free black family in Cape May, New Jersey in 1783. In 1807 she had a series of religious experiences in which she heard the voice of God calling her preach. As she recorded it in her autobiography:
But to my utter surprise, there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say—“Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends.”
When she received this call, Jarena Lee approached the AME bishop and founder of the denomination Richard Allen. Allen dissuaded her, because women weren’t allowed to preach.
And so Jarena Lee went about her life, getting married and working. Until that Sunday when the guest preacher couldn’t continue, and she decided to stand up and preach the sermon herself.
What happened next?
Well, Bishop Allen was in the congregation that day. And to his great enduring credit, Bishop Allen realized in that moment that Jarena Lee was called of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach. Following that service, he authorized her to preach, making her the first black woman to receive such authorization. Lee then became a popular preacher of the Second Great Awakening, traveling thousands of miles each year to preach hundreds of sermons in churches and revivals and camp meetings. Then, in the 1830’s, she published two editions of her autobiography, leaving a written record of her spiritual experience and her ministry.
In her autobiography we find these words from the Bible:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
On the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Jarena Lee underlined that important word “all.”
Anglican priest Caitlin Carmichael-Davis imagines how those words resonated with Jarena Lee. Carmichael-Davis writes, “As she reads these words, Lee is transformed, and the world around her suddenly looks different. No longer defined by hierarchies and division, each person has the dignity as a child of God, and the responsibility to embody Christ in the world.”
The contemporary theologian J. Kameron Carter, reflecting on the meaning of Jarena Lee, writes that “To enter Christ’s flesh through the Holy Spirit’s pentecostal overshadowing is to exit the gendered economy and protocols of modern racial reasoning.”
Jarena Lee was a poor black woman living in a time and place when poor black women had almost no social standing and were the victims of many intersecting oppressions and injustices. Yet, Jarena Lee had a spiritual experience from which she did not allow those oppressions to define her. She would not be confined to her society’s expectations for women or for people of color. She knew herself to be a beloved child of God, called of God, and filled with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit. Her bold speaking was itself an act of breaking the demonic powers of patriarchy and white supremacy.
Carter writes that “the Spirit of Christ is the architect of a new mode of life together” in the church. And that new mode, “transfigures social reality” by inviting all people to join in fellowship in the body of Christ. Thus, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost breaks down the barriers that divide and separate us, creating the opportunity for something new to be fashioned.
Kameron Carter writes of Jarena Lee that what she “has literally done . . . is broaden the reach of Christ’s historical, bodily existence so as to understand her own existential and historical moment as an articulation of Christ’s own life and way of being in the world. It is her understanding of Pentecost as part and parcel of the economy of Christ’s bodily existence that allows her to accomplish this.”
She is a Holy Spirit-gifted minister, a part of the Body of Christ, and, thus, she is joined in fellowship with all other people. And she too becomes a physical embodiment of the Spirit of Christ, meaning that her experience as a poor black woman in antebellum America is a part of the experience of Christ’s incarnation in the world. Her bold act of preaching is itself one more moment in the history of the world where the Holy Spirit breaks forth, much like it did that day in Jerusalem when Peter and the disciples experienced wind and flame and speaking in strange languages. The Holy Spirit continues to break down barriers and pour herself out onto all flesh, so that God’s dream of a new world, united in peace and love might come to fruition.
That’s part of what this ancient story means. The Pentecost story is about God’s invasion of our social world and our history in order to create something new. The wind that blew that day is like the wind that blew at the Creation of the earth from the story in Genesis. That wind is still blowing, that original Spirit is still hovering, God is still speaking new things into being.
And the Pentecost movement of the Spirit didn’t end that day in Jerusalem when Peter preached, it continues to move through human history, breaking forth in new and surprising ways as the Spirit gives voice to all flesh. And so we humans keep playing catch up to realize that God is speaking from black voices and indigenous voices and female voices and disabled voices and gay and lesbian voices and transgender and genderqueer and non-binary voices and none of us know what voices God will start speaking in next that the church might spend time arguing over rather than absorbing fully the lesson of this ancient story that God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.
Willie James Jennings writes:
The same Spirit that was there from the beginning, hovering, brooding in the joy of creation of the universe and of each one of us, who knows us together and separately in our most intimate places, has announced the divine intention through the Son, to reach into our lives, and make each life a site of speaking glory.
Imagine that! Our lives a “site of speaking glory!” Hallelujah!
But how does that happen? Jennings explains, “But this will require bodies that reach across massive and real boundaries, cultural, religious, and ethnic. It will require a . . . devotion to peoples unknown and undesired.” To love oor neighbor, as Jesus taught us. Yet now we realize that the love of neighbor isn’t just about kindness and hospitality, but about the Holy Spirit empowered formation of a new humanity.
Jennings explains that the Holy Spirit is living inside of us, sharing with us God’s own desire. And, he writes, “that desire has the power to press through centuries of animosity and hatred and beckon people to want one another and envision lives woven together.” What the church needs, he writes, is “people of faith who will yield to the Spirit in this present moment.” People who will allow God’s desire for union and peace to fill us with love and hope so that we enter into each other’s lives and break down the barriers that segregate us from one another.
Let’s be those Pentecostal people. Filled with God’s desire for a new humanity and empowered by the Spirit to create a new world of peace and love.
And, so, what does this Pentecost story mean? I’ll let Willie James Jennings answer for us:
The Holy Spirit has come. Joining has begun. This is the real meaning.