This morning we are going to hear two separate passages of Scripture, because I want you to hear how they tie together. The first is the Pentecost story, which many of you have probably heard before. And the second is the same text that we heard last week, selections from Romans 5. Pentecost is the birthday of the church. It's the moment when the followers of Jesus were filled with the same boldness and inclusiveness that Jesus embodied during his life on earth. Now this morning I'm not going to preach about speaking in tongues although I think that is central to the Pentecost experience. If you're curious about that, you can look up the podcast from last year
Scripture: selections from Acts 2 and Romans 5 (NIV)
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? ... we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation….
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
The Pentecost experience results in two things: boldness and inclusion. Throughout the book of Acts, the people who experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues receive a new sense of boldness for speaking and living the reality that Jesus is Lord. And then when they witness someone else speaking in tongues, they realize that those people are also included in God's plan. Boldness to speak your truth, and the evidence that all our self-imposed boundaries are crap because God includes everyone. Pentecost still matters because God's church, the body of Christ, us—we still desperately need God's boldness and inclusivity. At Zion, we are called to bold in our inclusion—in our commitment to being Open and Affirming—and in our commitment to doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.
In the book of Acts, receiving the Spirit is the same thing as what we would now call "salvation." To receive the Spirit is to be delivered and healed. And in Romans, even though Paul doesn't talk about speaking in tongues, he is still very clear that the Holy Spirit is the instigator of our revitalizing, transformative experience with God. Romans 5 verse 5 says God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to us.
God's free gift of grace brings us face-to-face with God. We live into the reality of that gift by faith, which means trust. This grace justifies us, or makes us righteous, with the same kind of righteousness that God has, the righteousness that Jesus exhibited, and it is through the Spirit that we are empowered to embody that righteousness as well. Nothing happens in us without the Spirit, whether you speak in tongues or not.
What is so great about Romans 5 is that it finally talks about what happens after we are justified. What is the result of being made righteous? That's the main thing I want us to unpack this morning. Like I said in the introduction there's a lot of theological language here and I'm afraid that when we read it, we either just hear static, or we hear judgmental voices from our past. So let's go.
Verse 1 says that since we have been justified, or have been made righteous, we have peace with God. Verse 6 says that while we were still weak and powerless, Christ died for the "ungodly." And verse 10 says that while we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of the Son. Christ died for the ungodly in order to justify us, or make us righteous; through that death we were reconciled to God and we have peace with God. What does all that mean?
Well apparently it means that before the justifying death of Christ we did not have peace with God, that we were ungodly. Now before we all start getting uncomfortable with this language or feeling shamed, let's talk about what this means. To be "ungodly" means to be irreverent, to not acknowledge God as God, basically to be idolatrous, which, throughout the Old Testament and for a Jew like Paul, idolatry is the root of all sin. It's what he was railing about in Romans chapter 1. To be ungodly means to be giving our allegiance and placing our hope in something other than God.
That would definitely result in our being unreconciled, or out of sync, or not at peace, in our relationship with God. BUT that does not mean that God was ever unreconciled to us. The New Testament always says that repair needs to happen on our side, not on God's side. How many of you parents can attest that it is totally possible for your toddler or your teenager to be furious at you or dismissive of you, but for you to be completely at peace with them (in your best parenting moments)? That's how it is with God. Even in the Old Testament, all the negative experiences that God's people have are things they bring on themselves. These experiences are not designed simply to punish them, but to wake them up, to make them recognize God as God and to restore them. Romans 3 says that God passed over sins committed in the past!
And so while we are weak, while we are sinners (people who miss the target), while, despite our best intentions, we are unable to acknowledge God, Christ died for us, on our behalf. Not punished in our place, but somehow, in ways no New Testament author ever bothers to fully explain, the death of Christ accomplishes something FOR US that we could not accomplish on our own.
One of the most ancient affirmations of how Jesus saves us is that the death and the resurrection of Christ breaks the power of sin and death in the world. Ancient people had a worldview that made it possible for them to think in terms of cosmic forces. Some of us share that and some of us have to translate those ideas, and that's fine. In Romans, the death and resurrection of Jesus breaks the power of idolatry (our fundamental sin), and makes it possible for us to be free from it.
And now it gets really good: when we put all of this together, here's what I think we get. The ultimate act of idolatry, of not acknowledging God as God, the main way we miss the mark, is by trusting in something other than God to justify us.
We all want to be OK. Part of being human is needing affirmation, needing to feel connected and accepted. We want the deep "yes" from the world around us that says our existence matters and all is well. And at a deep level, we are all afraid that somehow we are not good enough, that we do not measure up, that we are not justified. And so we go looking for it. Some of us try to prove it, by aggressively striving for accomplishment, or maybe by living outside of the traditional rules of society. Some of rely on other people to give it to us, constantly trying to please people and obsessed with what they think of us.
We are not at peace with God because we are trusting in other things to justify us. We think we will feel justified by our job, by how much money we make, by what we can produce. We think we will feel justified by the size of our house or the make of our car or our boat or our country club membership. We think we will feel justified by the happiness and success of our children. We think we will feel justified by the attractiveness and ability of our bodies. And what we all eventually realize is that none of those things justify us. We chase them and we chase them and we chase them and all we get is exhaustion. The gospel sets us free from all of that when we finally trust that we are justified by grace. That's it. Romans 3:26 says that God is truly righteous and is the only one who justifies or makes righteous, those who trust in Christ. The love of God, the only truly unconditional love, is lavishly poured into the deepest parts of us by the Holy Spirit, and we are free.
This is good news for us. For us in this room, for moderately successful, educated, self-sufficient middle-class privileged folks. Christ has freed us from the rat race, from the need to prove ourselves, from the seductive temptation in trusting anything else to justify us. We are not justified by what we have. We are not justified by what we do. We are not justified by what other people think of us. We are justified by God's grace. Period. Romans 4:5 says "For the one who does not work for their salvation but trusts the God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness." Alan Richardson says, "God counts faith as righteousness because that is what it is. The person who rests all their confidence in God through Christ is right and God declares it. Justification liberates us from the anxious struggle for salvation, and so liberates us to attend to the needs of others."
When we trust that God alone justifies us by grace, we finally find the peace we so desperately seek. Peace with God, the Source of all goodness, the ground of being, the divine, the Trinity—however you experience and describe it—peace with God is the foundation for peace with ourselves and peace with others. And once we have that peace, we are primed to be filled with the Spirit that will make us bold and inclusive so that we can light this world up with justice and mercy and humility. Amen.