The Gospel Coalition – I Cant Breathe: A Sermon by Charlie Dates

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Charlie Dates: “I can’t breathe.” What a striking sound to come from a human being. “I can’t breathe.” God stepped out onto space and he looked around and he said, “I’ll make me a world.” And as far as the eye of God could see, darkness covered everything, blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp. Then God smiled and the light broke, and the darkness rolled up on one side and the light stood shining on the other.

And God said, “That’s good.” Then God sat down on the side of a hill where his eternal purposes went into play. By a deep and wide river, he sat down. With his head in his hands, and he pondered and he pondered until he thought, “I’ll make a man.” And up from the bed of the river, God scooped the clay. And by the bank of the river, he kneeled him down.

There the great God, the great God almighty, who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand. This great God, like a mother bending over her baby, kneeled down into the dust, toiling over a lump of clay until he shaped it, until he molded it, until he formed it, until he bent it into his own image.

Then he got close, as close as only God can get to a human being and he blew the breath of life and man became a living soul. A man, a man, and a man. These are the words of James Weldon Johnson, a 19th century poet laureate, who in rhythmic caricature and hopeful tones told the creation story and the epic play God’s trombones. In it, Johnson illustrates through poetry the dramatic iambic and imaginative reality of our existence. We who are of the human race are breathing the breath of God’s life.

“I can’t breathe.” What a striking thought, given the unique, intimate relationships that human beings carry with the one true God. The concept of breath and breathing throughout the scripture is strikingly theological. As we come to Genesis 2:7, “God breathes the breath of life to make of a lump of clay a living soul.”

Genesis 2:7 is a clue for every searching heart, for every wandering spirit who hears the words of Eric Garner, who sees George Floyd trapped under the knee of state-sanctioned violence, who watches and reads the pitiful sentiments of a sympathetic president with oppression. Genesis 2:7 is a clue as to why the words “I can’t breathe” are strikingly important and why human life is so sacred, because we human beings do not have a borrowed dignity. We do not have a conjured or manufactured significance. No, we are not the inferior work of creation or the subjects of human power.

We are not a creation of our own imagination, nor are we the constructs of depraved imagination. We human beings are something else. Something more wonderful, something more striking, something more glorious. We are the works of God’s own hands. Think about that. Like a sculptor, God kneeled down and he shaped us, and he bent our curves and he shaked our nostrils and he framed our throats and he built our chests.

He formed us like an engineer. He designed us and then refined us. And then he breathed into us so that we bear the fingerprint and the imprimatur and the signature of God himself. And if that wasn’t enough, the clue to our significance and the importance is seen in the contradistinction of the content of our physical composition. Yes, we are made of dust. Yes, we are made of clay. Yes, one day these bodies will lay back down in the ground, but we are not just dust.

And we are not just clay formed in complex and majestic patterns. We closely aligned about how we came to life. As Adam’s body lay there lifeless in all of its glory and intricacy, it still was lifeless until it was directly animated by its creator. Can you see Adam laying there perfect in composition? Can you see Adam laying there wonderful in his own glory? And yet lifeless, but there he goes! Here it comes. The wind of God is about to be blown into the nostrils of Adam.

Can you see? Adam, a lifeless malodor corpse, as the wind of God comes inside of him and he sits up. He turns his head. His eyes begin to blink. No birth canal, no incubation, no gestation. He rises to a living perpendicular. That’s why breath is a powerful thing. Now he starts breathing. His very existence, his every movement is tied to the life that was put in him. And Moses put it this way, he became a living soul.

A house of clay, but came an independent breathing creature. Maybe that’s why when under the oppressive knee of another human being, the thought or the declaration, “I can’t breathe” is such an emotionally and psychologically violent crime. Who are we to stamp out that breath that only God can put in the body?

This is why when I heard George Floyd eke out the words of his 46 year old body in a forced whisper, “I can’t breathe,” my mind went traveling beyond Eric Garner. It kept moving through the 1960s. It went past 1619. It skipped over the Protestant reformation. It danced past the African church fathers. It went beyond the apostle Paul and the Ephesians church. It leaped over hundreds of years of prophets and judges, until it landed in Genesis 2.

When I watched another video of another unarmed black man put to death by the sanctioned violence of officer Derek Chauvin, I considered the fact that such a cry as “I can’t breathe” is not merely anthropological, but it is theological. The problem with white supremacy, killing black women and black men in America is an error of theology. It is a failure of the white mind and the white power structure to remember from where breath really comes. What is American history if not the thievery of breath from black and white anatomy?

There has been no national recognition of the real crimes and the sustained injustices that snuff the breath out of black bodies. No one has taught us in our elementary schools. No one has forced upon our college curriculums, and none of America’s bastions of higher predominantly white institutions of education. Nobody has forced the human mind to reckon with where breath comes from!

We just snuff it out. We steal it. Without this reckoning of the real crimes, there will be a sustained injustice that continues to eke out of our black bodies, the breath that God put in to them. But are we shocked? Are we really surprised? I don’t know, because American history is a symphony of carnage, an orchestra of murder.

And what’s worse than this symphony of carnage and the orchestra of murder in American history? What’s worse is the era of white Christian theology that has failed to append the actions of its slave masters, its slave patrols, its cowardly presidents, and its complicit preachers and its failing police systems. We do not make a hasty generalization the same of all white men and women who are Christians. There are lovely white women and men who serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of whom are watching today, whose books we have read, who stand in solidarity with the oppressed, who believe God to be the one true God.

But then there is the ugly, more sinister, narcissistic end of American Christianity that sanctioned the kidnapping of African people, that stuffed them into slave ships, that beat them into submission, that sold them at auction blocks, that raped them in shanties and in shacks.

That tore them apart from their family and their friends, that worked them from sun up to sun down, that took the profits to rule the world as the most wealthiest industrialized nation in human history, and then justified it with the dehumanization of what it now calls human stocks under carefully integrated meticulously crafted theology, and then expects us to sing kumbaya. This theology, the problem with this theology that I diagnosed today is that it embraces only one beam of the cross, the vertical beam. It fails miserably.

It fails miserably to embrace the horizontal beam. This theology thinks that it can love God and Robert’s neighbor of the very breath that God put in his body. It has not been the theology that sees God as sovereign and Supreme, but it has been its failure to apply that theology. This theology that we have sold people in America, that tells them only how to get to heaven, but does not show them how to live with their brother and their sister on earth is inadequate and thoroughly unbiblical. And what’s worse is that even as we have a president who is threatening the sick the dogs, again, cold language, we have many Christians who are unashamedly standing up for this president, because they have sold the soul of their theology for political advantage. This is what Jemar Tisby calls The Color of Compromise.

This I suggest to you on this Pentecost Sunday, is a theological problem. It’s a theological problem because George Floyd’s statement, “I can’t breathe,” begs the question of origin, morality and destiny. The cry of George Floyd is a theological problem, because it cannot reconcile errant police authority with the governance of God upon humanity. The cry of George Floyd is a theological problem, because of the suffocation of that black man in Minnesota is a repeated attempt to undo the animation of God within black people around the world. The cry of George Floyd is a theological problem, because it reminds us that the laws of men still fail to honor the laws of God. It’s theological. When Billy Graham held racially segregated revivals across the nation, it was still theological. When the slave bells were the church bells in Charleston, South Carolina, it was theological. When one human being preached, “Slaves, obey your masters,” but failed to preach the entire redemptive historical narrative so that they could dehumanize people who were made in the image and likeness of God, it was theological.

When the presidents of the leading Bible seminaries, Bible organizations, and those running for president of the largest Protestant denominations, still urge their followers to vote the same old conservative, racist Republican candidate platforms, it is theological. But it’s not only that. When scared Negro preachers hoodwinked by a lifeless and docile would be Christian theology, will stand up this Sunday and say nothing of Christian outrage, because they are sympathetic to and have been trained by and benefit from the same system that disenfranchised they’re all great grandparents, it’s theological. Not only George Floyd. But can’t you tell that we as a people have been sighing for 401 years, that we can’t breathe. We can’t breathe, because this American system is set up to suppress and suffocate. We can’t breathe, because we’ve been declared less than human. You can hear our ancestors almost thankly from the shores of the Atlantic, crying out again, “We can’t breathe.”

We were released from slavery under a halfhearted emancipation, free to the winds of starvation without an economic floor upon which to stand, you can hear our people saying, “We can’t breathe.” We were told to sit at the back of the bus, forced to eat from the back of the restaurant kitchen, made to learn and inferior schools, redlined into inferior neighborhoods, confined to live in food deserts and robbed of our fair share of healthcare. You can hear our communities crying, “We can’t breathe.” And in a pandemic where we are not catching COVID-19 more than any other ethnicity, but we are dying from it more than any other ethnicity, we are shouting, “We can’t breathe.” And you wonder why we are still alive. You wonder why there still is a black family. You wonder how we can still get up on Sunday morning, come to church, honor the Lord and face the nation that has tried to suffocate our breath. It’s because we have another wind.

There’s another wind at work within us. We were strong enough to survive the Middle Passage. Strong enough to correct their false preaching of the gospel. Strong enough to keep on building families. Strong enough to bale cotton. Strong enough to endure without equal protection under the law. Strong enough to sustain their institutions of higher learning. Strong enough to withstand their corporate plantations. Strong enough to outlast on the football field, basketball court and baseball diamond. Strong enough to face the dogs and the threat of dogs outside of the White House, because we have another wind. God knew that he would give us the grace to breathe again. This is why I come to you now on this Pentecost Sunday. Jesus is raised from the dead. He leaps victoriously from the grave. He steps out back into time and he goes to see his disciples.

When he gets with his disciples in John chapter 20, the doors are closed and the disciples, for fear of the Jews, are hiding. But in his resurrected body, he doesn’t need to open a door. He is the door. He steps in to that room and he speaks, “Peace.” And just by the tone of his voice, just by the rhythm of his words, just by the cadence of his speech, they recognize him. He says to them, “Peace be with you, as the father has sent me now, now I’m about to send you.” You see the ministry of Jesus Christ is continued by a people who are already hiding because of oppression. They are already trumped down because of fear. And he says to them, “I’m about to send you as the father has sent me.” And when he said this, John says he breathed on them. And he said to them, “Receive the Holy spirit.”

Friends, this isn’t just the wind of Genesis chapter two. No, the wind of Genesis chapter two was for animation, it was to bring alive the lifeless. But the wind of John 20 and the wind of Acts chapter two, is the wind of empowerment. It is to make of a powerless people an enabled, effective witness of what God really can do. Maybe what Jesus is saying to us on this Pentecost Sunday, is that we need a second wind. God knew that he would have to grant us supernatural empowerment. And if you have the first wind without receiving the second wind, then the air of oppression will be too thin for you to survive. This is what I need to say to all of my young brothers and all of my young sisters who are filled with righteous indignation. They are correctly angry with the state sanctioned violence against black women and black men. And they are protesting and we need to protest.

This would be terrible, if we watch George Floyd die and [Iman Allberry 00:09:13] put to shame in Central Park, Karen, use her privilege and weaponize her whiteness to be able to get another black man in trouble. If we saw all of that and we did not protest something would be wrong. Friends. If we protest with only the first wind, if we protest without the second wind, then if we gain the freedom we seek, we will oppress our oppressors. It’s only the second wind that can keep the oppressed from oppressing their oppressors once they get into power. The only way to overcome is that you got to have a second wind. And here’s what John says. John says that he knew that Jesus knew his disciples would need power. Because as Jesus returned to the father, he had promised them in John 14, that another comforter would come and that they would receive this Holy Spirit. And here Jesus breathes on them.

Can you see them in that room? There they are sitting around with one accord, one expectation, one hope, and then it happens. Can you hear? Quiet, quiet. Can you hear the wind of a violent rushing wind, the wind of God moving through that house? Can you see what God has done? He gave them a second wind. Scholars are divided over whether or not John 20 is Acts two, or whether this is a continuation. I don’t want to get into that, I just want to take the text for what it says. Jesus breathe. He was waiting to exhale. He was waiting to be in their company, to give them a special enablement. And here’s what we know. Here’s what we can sense, that 50 days after his resurrection power was going to come. But much like God does, God gave them an opportunity to lick the spoon of the cake. He gave his disciples a preview of a coming attraction. When we-.

Preview of a coming attraction. When we make cookies at home, or cake, the kids, especially Claire likes to take the little spindles of the mixer and to weave their tongues inside and out. They can’t eat the batter, but they can taste the batter. But they need to taste the batter because they can’t wait for the cake to bake. And sometimes what their mother and I will do is we’ll let them taste the batter, even though the cake ain’t ready yet. Because what’s in the cake, is in the batter. The actual substance of the cake is there on the spindle of the mixer.

And I don’t know how to explain this, but I think 50 days was a long time to be without their Savior. Fifty Days was a long time. It was going to take 50 days from the resurrection until the Holy Spirit came. And maybe what Jesus did was he gave them a taste of the second wind. And then they go to Acts chapter 2, sitting in that room, watching and waiting, waiting and praying, knowing that they could not make it on their own. They needed a power from God and what God promised he supplied. He came in Spirit, breathed upon them. And Pentecost gives us breath again.

Anybody struggling today day saying, “I can’t breathe.” God knows it. The systems of this world are too much. And so he sent his Spirit to breathe on us and to give us breath again. Pentecost keeps us from an old future. Can’t you tell, can’t you feel in the air that we in America are headed for an old future. We’ve seen this video before. We’ve heard these laments and these cries before. Except this time it’s a high definition on an iPhone.

But here is what you need, my young sister. Here is what you need my young brother, as you take to the streets, and as you tweet, and as you profile others on Instagram, you need the power of the Holy Ghost. Because when the power comes in Acts chapter 2, it’s a power to be an effective witness of the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s a power to say that what human systems fail to do God in his infinite power and wisdom can do. It’s a power that says Jesus put a Caesar to flight. He scared the Roman Empire, he shook the Jerusalem religious system, and they laid him down to death. But he rose early on the Sunday morning. It’s a new power.

But it takes power to be able to proclaim that message. And you can’t do this power with your intellectual strength. You cannot have this power with mere anger and emotion. You need Holy Ghost power. You need the power of God to be a witness in the world. And we’ve got witnesses that prove that when you got the power of God, you can stand up and be a witness for my Lord. I wonder, is there anybody listening to me today who wants to be a witness for my Lord?

Harriet Tubman was a witness for my Lord. She had that Holy Ghost power. Enough power to look her slave masters in the face and run to be free. And to sing before I be a slave, I’ll be dead in my grave and go home to see my Lord and be free. She had enough power to run back to the plantations, to make 13 additional trips with a sawed off shotgun, and to free others. And she said, “I could have freed more if they had only known they were slaves.” That’s the power of the Holy Ghost to be a witness in the world.

Mary McLeod Bethune was a witness. When Moody Bible Institute told her that she could not be released to the mission field, she trusted God and became one of the most effective witnesses of the then known world. And started a school for chocolate girls and boys to be able to go through. Fannie Lou Hamer was a witness of the Holy Spirit. She told the Democrats y’all just can’t have the platform. But she stood up believing that she was called by God to help bring about the right to vote.

Fred Shuttlesworth was a witness of the power of the Holy Spirit. When he looked Bull Connor in the face and told him, “You got a strangely theological name. Theopholus means God lover, but Bull Connor, you don’t love God because you hate his people.” And he stood up to the injustices in Birmingham, and his home got bombed. But he kept on marching and he kept on singing until we got a Civil Rights Act that now gives us the right to vote.

Friends, that was not done in human power and human strength. That required the power of the Holy Ghost. Martin Luther King Jr. was a witness. When he said at the pulpit of Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in 1968, “I’m happy to be here tonight. That’s a strange statement for me to make because the world is all messed up now. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know somehow God is working in this period of the 20th century. He’s working in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up, and wherever they are assembled today, wherever they are in Johannesburg, or Nairobi, or [inaudible 00:30:21], or Atlanta, or Jackson, or Memphis, the cry is still the same, ‘We want to be free.’” He said, “I’m happy to be here tonight because we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history.”

“But the demands did not force them to do it. Survival demands that we grappled with them. Men for years now have talked about war and peace, but no longer can we just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world. It’s a choice between nonviolence and non-existence.” And then he went on to say, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind, like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

Friends, all I got to tell you is that Dr. King had the Holy Ghost, Fred Shuttlesworth had the Holy Spirit, Fannie Lou Hamer had the Holy Spirit. Mary McLeod Bethune had the Holy Spirit, Harriet Tubman had the Holy Spirit. And the only way we’ll be able to breathe again is that we have got to have the Holy Spirit. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Our Father and our God, our souls are crying out to you. We’re broken by the tragedies we witness. We cannot make it. We have no hope unless you are our very present help in the time of trouble. We repent of our sin, we confess our brokenness, and we pray Lord, please have mercy.

I pray that if there’s someone that day watching me that if they don’t know you in the pardon of their sin, that they will come to know you and love you before it’s too late. With every head bowed, every eye closed, if you’re at home, you’re watching, you got your phone on in your car you’re driving. Let me tell you there’s only one way to make it in the world today. You need the Holy Spirit of God. And the only way to get God’s Holy Spirit is to place your faith in Jesus the Christ. And the only way to place your faith in Jesus the Christ is to believe that God sent him from heaven to Earth, that he lived a sinless life, and he died a death that you should die. That God raised him from the dead. The Bible says, “Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord, whoever confesses with their mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised him from the dead, they will be saved.”

Would you pray that prayer, my sister, my brother? Right where you are trust God today. Pray, dear God, I believe that Jesus Christ is your son that he died on the cross for my sin, that you raised him from the dead. I need your breath in my spirit. Save me. If you prayed that prayer and you meant it, and you trust Christ in this moment, you can be sure that when you close your eyes, you’ll see God in heaven. But more than that, you can be sure that right here on Earth, God will give you abundant joy, peace, and hope.

We want to know if you made that decision. Click the link shows up on our YouTube chat feed at Facebook at Progressive Chicago, and let us know. Let me pray for you. Father, I pray now that for those who prayed to place their confident hope in you, that you received them gladly. We know you will. We know you’re able. I ask you now to do this for your glory and our good. Amen.

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