This weekend we celebrated Pentecost as well Confirmation across 4 services. Over the last 12 years, Aldersgate has confirmed 500 into the faith. My texts were all of chapter 2 of Acts as well as Paul’s big “But now” passage in Romans 3.21-26.
After a recent cataclysmic national event that I won’t specify, I was speaking on the phone with my mother who, like many of you, had fallen into a despondent, black malaise.
“Maybe I will move to Canada” she said and sighed.
“Canada! They eat ketchup flavored Doritos in Canada- how is that a thing?! And Canada is responsible for Celine Dion and Nickelback. Think about that, Mom: Justin Bieber and Tom Ford don’t even crack the Top Ten of Canadiens for whom Canada should have to issue a global apology.
Though, Canada did give the world that babe who played Kim in 24.”
“Yes, she is…” I said and immediately my mind wandered to the film in which Kim costarred with Raylan Givens, The Girl Next Door.
“Jason? Jason, are you still there?”
“Huh? Yeah, I’m still here. I was just…thinking. Look, forget this Canada nonsense. Mom, you hate the snow and no matter how much I begged you as a kid you never let me grow a mullet.”
“I hate mullets.”
“See, forget Canada. I’ll tell you, though, if I just had a Jew in my family tree I’d move to Israel, at their least president is actually a conservative.”
“But my grandparents were Jewish.”
“My grandparents…they were both Jewish. “
“But…but…but…that means my great-grandparents were Jewish.”
“Uh, huh” my mother said blankly, clearly not registering that this was a seismic revelation for someone like me who, let’s just say, is salaried and pensioned NOT to be Jewish.
“But…but…but…that means I’m Jewish” I whispered while turning down the volume on my iPhone.
“Yeah, I guess it does.”
No joke, my next thoughts, in rapid-fire succession:
1. Holy bleep, how have I not heard about this before?!
2. No wonder I’m so funny.
3. Thank God I’m already circumcised.
4. I could spin this into a book! Christian clergyman discovers his previously unknown Jewish identity. It practically writes itself.
As for the screen, it’d be the perfect follow up to LaLa Land for Ryan Gosling.
As soon as I got off the phone with my mom I pitched the book idea to my editor. I’d even come up with some snappy titles such as: Riddler on the Roots, Goy Meets God, and, my personal favorite, Trans-Gentile.
Nevertheless, my editor replied that until I actually convert and move myself and my family to the Promised Land, what I had was a good idea for a sermon.
Not a book.
Of course, that same editor came up with a terrible book title like Cancer is Funny so I figured what the hell does he know. Besides, I’ve always acted as though I’m God’s gift to the world and now, as it turns out, I really am- I’m chosen!
I’ve got to find out more about what that means! I thought.
In the weeks and months that followed, I studied up.
I researched the State of Israel’s Right of Return rules. I qualify.
I tested my DNA through ancestry.com, the results of which bore out what my mother had told me, that I am of Jewish lineage by way of Austria.
And thanks to Ghengis Khan raping and pillaging his way across Europe I also have some Mongolian in me too, and, according to the customer service person at ancestry.com, chances are, you have some Mongolian in you too.
Let that sink in for a moment.
DNA in hand, I consulted with Rabbi Hayim Herring about what books he recommends to potential converts. At his advice I read the Tanakh, Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas by Arthur Green, and To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner.
And, because Rabbi Herring explained to me that Judaism is a religion that developed out of its celebrations, I read The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg, a book about the Jewish holy days.
Including the holy day of Pentecost.
Or, as my people say, Shavu’ot.
Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, five weeks, Penta-cost, after Passover.
Shavu’ot- the Jewish holiday that brings Peter and the disciples and a crowd of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate.
They’re not there waiting for the Holy Spirit. They’re gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the holy day when they remember God giving to them on Mt. Sinai the Torah, the Law.
If Shavu’ot is the day when the Spirit descends upon the disciples, then Shavu’ot is the day by which we should interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.
As a Gentile, I’ve always preached Pentecost straight up and simply as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or, to be more exact, as the arrival of a previously not present Holy Spirit- as though, ascending in to heaven, the Risen Christ, like Jon Cena, tags in and the Holy Spirit takes over.
But with my new Jew eyes, I see that that can’t be because the Spirit is everywhere all over the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, doing and moving.
Not to mention, Luke- the author of Acts- has already told us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, compelled Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and baptized Jesus into his baptism of vicarious repentance.
So if the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not the point of this Pentecost passage in Acts 2, then what is?
When the Holy Spirit descends upon the Pentecost pilgrims, the crowd becomes bewildered.
But Peter, Luke says, stands up and proclaims the Gospel to them. And that phrasing, that odd way of beginning a sentence “But Peter…” is Luke’s clue for you that Peter is not deciding on his own to stand up and preach, that an unseen agency is working upon him, that he is being compelled by God, by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ.
And at the end of his preaching, Luke tells us, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart- note the passive. They’re acted upon.
An unseen agency is working upon them too, compelling them to believe.
Then Luke concludes by telling us that on that Pentecost 3,000 were added to the People of God.
Maybe you Gentiles don’t know this- in the Bible numbers are always important. Numbers are always the clue to unlocking the story’s meaning.
It’s not incidental that Luke ends his story of this Shavu’ot with the number 3,000 being added to God’s People because on the first Shavu’ot 3,000 were subtracted from God’s People.
On the first Shavu’ot, while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Israelites were busy down below making God into an idol- which is but a form of making God into our own image.
When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he sees them worshipping a golden calf, and Moses responds by ordering the Levites to draw their swords and kill 3,000 of the idolators.
So when Luke tells you that 3,000 were added to God’s People on that Pentecost day he wants you to remember the 3,000 subtracted from God’s People that Pentecost day.
Where 3,000 committed idolatry, 3,000 now believe.
Those in the crowd, listening to Peter, they’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
They’re every bit as susceptible to worship any god but God, every bit as prone to unbelief and unfaithfulness. They crucified God just over a month ago.
They’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Sinai that first Shavu’ot.
What Luke wants you to see in this Pentecost story is the undoing of that Pentecost story, and he wants you to see that it’s God’s doing not our own- God’s faithfulness to us despite our unfaithfulness, God graciously overcoming our unbelief, our proclivity to idolatry and sin.
Luke wants you to see that this new 3,000- it’s the Living God’s doing. The Holy Spirit’s doing. The Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ’s doing, compelling Peter- who before could never get his foot out of his mouth- to proclaim.
It’s God’s doing, calling out of, creating in, Peter’s hearers, out of nothing, faith.
Luke shows us in the beginning of Acts what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans.
After announcing his thesis- the good news- at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul braces us with the bad news.
For the rest of chapter 1, all of chapter 2, and the beginning of chapter 3 Paul bears down with white-knuckles and surveys the extent of our captivity, our bondage to Sin.
He says our every sin starts with the same sin as at Sinai on that first Shavu’ot: our failure to worship God, giving up God for other gods.
Our first sin also begets our wickedness and our malice. It gives rise to our greed and our lust and our violence. It spawns our slander and our deceit, our hypocrisy and our infidelity, even our gossip and our haughtiness and our hardness of heart.
Over almost 3 chapters, Paul unrolls the rap sheet of our sin until not one of us left un-indicted.
All have sinned, Paul says, religious and unreligious alike.
No one is righteous, Paul laments, not a single one of us.
No one seeks God. No one desires peace.
Our mouths are quick to curse, our hands are quick to stuff our own pockets, our feet are to quick to shed blood, Paul says.
None of us is any different than those 3,000 at the foot of Mt Sinai on the first Shavu’ot worshipping anything other than God.
There is no distinction between any of us- we’re all ungodly.
Paul’s relentless litany of our sinfulness goes on and on for almost three chapters, an overwhelming avalanche of awful truth-telling and indictments.
For almost 3 chapters, Paul keeps raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our crimes, implicating each and every one of us.
Until, what you expect next from Paul is the word “if.”
If you turn away from sin…
If you turn towards God…
If you repent…
If you…plead for God’s mercy…
If you seek God’s forgiveness…
If you believe…
If you put your faith in him…
God will justify you.
Paul relentlessly unrolls the rap sheet until every last one of our names is indicted. Not one of us is righteous and every one of us is deserving of God’s wrath, Paul says.
This sounds like an altar call coming, right? And the word you expect Paul to use next is “if.”
If you repent and believe.
Instead of if but:
“But now” Paul says.
“But now, apart from the Law (apart from Religion) the rectifying power of God has been revealed…the rectification by God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ..”
There couldn’t be a bigger but.
Martin Luther says that “but now” is a fish-hook shaped word that catches us all.
There couldn’t be a bigger but.
It’s the hinge on which the Gospel turns:
We’re all unrighteous.
We’re all entangled in Sin.
But now- God.
The rectifying power of God has invaded our world without a single “if.”
The rectifying power of God- the power of God to make us right and to put our world to rights- has invaded in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ upon the Cross.
The grace of God has invaded unilaterally- without prior condition or presupposition.
Without a single “if.”
There is nothing you need to do for it to be true for you.
Our justification is not God’s response to us; it’s God’s gracious initiative for us.
As far as God is concerned, true love doesn’t wait.
If you repent, then I’ll…
If you seek forgiveness, then I’ll…
If you believe, then I’ll…
If you have faith in me, then I’ll…
No ifs. No conditions.
“But now…” Paul announces.
God’s love doesn’t wait for us. To rescue us.
All have sinned.
All fall short of God’s glory.
All are being rectified by the uncontingent grace of God in Jesus Christ.
There are no ‘ifs” just this big but: “But now…” God has done this. It’s gift. Sheer un-contingent, irrevocable gift.
It’s just like the song says.
You once were lost BUT NOW you’ve been found- note the passive again.
You didn’t find. You’ve been found not because you went searching for God, but because God in Jesus Christ has sought you out and bought you with his blood.
During Lent I gave up bacon.
(I know, you saw that transition coming a mile away.)
Just to see, you know, in case the UMC ever folds, if I could hack it as a Hebrew (I made it 3 days).
During Lent I also read the The Jewish Way where I learned that if I ever did convert to Judaism, then I’d need to choose a Hebrew name.
“What’s the name of that talking donkey in the Old Testament?” my wife asked pointedly.
The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg also reminded me what I’d forgotten since seminary: that the covenant (berit as my people say) God makes with Moses on Mt. Sinai on that first Pentecost, the promise God makes to Moses on Mt. Sinai, is conditional.
“You will be my treasured People” God promises “but you must keep all my commandments.”
“You will be my People, but you must be faithful to my commands.”
“I will be your God, but you must remain faithful and obey.”
“If you keep faith in me, then I will be your God and you will be my People.”
It’s not just on Sinai. So much of our lives and our relationships are littered with ifs.
If you make it up to me, then I’ll take you back.
If you promise not to spend it on drugs, then I’ll give you a handout.
If I’m just a better wife, then he’ll love me/then he’ll stop drinking/then he won’t abuse me anymore.
If I just get better grades, get into that college, get that job, then they’ll be proud of me/then maybe Dad will finally tell me that he loves me.
If/then conditionality is hard-wired into us.
I forgive you, but I won’t forget.
Paul would say that’s how captives speak.
We do it with God too.
We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences.
You are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, but first you must believe, we say.
We move Paul’s big but to the end of our sentences.
God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, crucified for you, but first you must repent.
The balance sheet of your life has been set right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace, but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.
We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences. We turn it around and make it conditional: If you have faith then you will be justified.
Not only is that conditionality not Paul’s Gospel, it contradicts what Luke shows us at Pentecost and what Paul tells us here in Romans.
The whole point of Paul’s big “But now” is that by yourself, on your own, by your own power, you don’t have the capacity to fulfill any of those conditions.
Your faith, your belief, your repentance, your service- none of it is a prerequisite for God’s grace because all of it is a product of God’s gracious doing.
“But now,” Paul says, God has acted for us “apart from the Law,” apart from any of our religious doing.
Just like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost undoing the unbelief of the first Pentecost, God acts for us in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and his faith, Paul says, has the power to elicit our faith.
Jesus’ faith isn’t just prior; it’s causative.
As Paul says in another letter, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by his Holy Spirit.
As Paul puts it in this letter, in the next chapter, God calls into existence the things that do not exist- meaning, our faith.
Luke says that nothing is impossible for God, but the whole point of Paul’s big “But” is that faith is impossible for us without God.
Your faith is not the exercise of your free will.
Your faith is a sign that God has freed your will from the Power of Sin.
Whatever measure of faith you have, whether your faith is as tiny as a mustard seed or as massive as a mountain, it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing not your own.
It makes you proof of the God who invades our world without a single “if.”
Such that now- now as a person of faith, as a person in whom the unconditional grace of God has created faith, there is nothing you must do.
You don’t have to do anything.
The balance sheet of your life has been set right not by anything you’ve done, by what God has done.
You have been justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
There’s not a but at the end of that sentence. There is nothing now you must do.
Rather, as a person in whom the unconditional love of God has created faith, there is now so much you are set free to do.