Receive Holy - thrive UMC Official Blog

Receive Holy

Brothers and sisters!  Today we’re celebrating Pentecost; and let me tell you, I think we have a wild ride in store for us.  Because here’s what’s going to happen: over the next 28-ish minutes, we’re going tell a story about the most powerful gift we could receive, where we’ll leave all future repenting behind; we’ll touch on timeless fashion and my favorite jeans that I no longer wear; we’ll learn two new words most of you have never even heard before; and all of that will (hopefully) culminate in the beautiful mystery of the ephod and .  Are we ready?

Let’s start off by taking a quick deep breath, because today might just feel a little bit like drinking out of a firehose; but I hope you’re ready to open because this past week, I had my mind blown like four times, and I couldn’t not share it all with you.  So: deep breath!

[Deep breath]

Are we ready?

First off: today is Pentecost, the day 50 days after Easter, which Christians kind-of-celebrate/ kind-of-ignore every year.  And the fact that this holy-day isn’t a bigger deal is totally bonkers because Pentecost celebrates a gift that is explicitly given to us.  It’s the day where we remember, and where we are invited again, to receive the power of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, here’s an event where all of us –you and I and millions around the world- are asked: ‘would you like to accept some awesome power?’  And we collectively want to know: ‘will there be presents or chocolate?’


And we all kind of do this: “Eh [shrug shoulders; shake head], nah.”

And Tim Taylor weeps.

One quick detail about Pentecost that will help us recognize what’s going on today: it happened during the Jewish celebration of the Festival of Weeks.  The Festival of Weeks was an annual celebration where all the Jewish people from around the known world who could travel to Jerusalem would gather at the temple to give thanks for two things: 1.) the annual harvest and 2.) God giving Moses the Torah.  In short, this is a festival all about receiving the things we need: material sustenance and divine teachings on how to live together.  These two things were deeply interrelated in the Jewish mind. There could be no communal life together without food for both our bodies and our spirits.

For those of you who were here last week, this stuff about receiving should ring a bell, right?  Last week we spent all of our time exploring the urgent necessity of receiving well.  So now today we’re looking at the ineffable nature of the gifts we need to receive, so that we might come together as one united people.  And the gift that will allow that to happen is the Holy Spirit – God’s unique and extraordinary power at work in people.

Now, there’s a larger narrative to this original story than we’re going to cover today.  But it involves the disciples being spontaneously inspired to speak new languages so that all the people gathered in Jerusalem from around the world for the festival could understand a single and central message: that Jesus of Nazareth was the one God sent to fulfill the scriptures –their messiah and rightful Lord.

And Peter –the leading apostle after Jesus’s death and resurrection- he explains how cheering for Jesus’s crucifixion was a betrayal of God; and that the resurrection –which the city itself had witnessed- was proof that God was establishing a new kind of kingdom in their midst.  And here, briefly, we’ll read from the story.  This comes from Acts chapter 2, starting in verse 37.  It says this:

37 When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” 40 With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” 41 Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.

Here Peter gives two sets of instructions for receiving the Holy Spirit.  First, he says, “Metanoesate!” In the original Greek, it’s one word; but in the translation I read from, it says “change your hearts and lives.”  Many of your bibles probably use a different word: ‘repent!’

But I believe we need to take just a little time with this strange Greek word, because it will change how we prepare ourselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  You see, ‘metanoesate’ is the aorist, second person tense of the Greek verb ‘metanoio.’  It’s a compound word, composed of the preposition ‘meta,’ which refers to an after-effect or a result –as in the word Metamorphosis, which depicts a radical change that follows as a result of something; and the verb ‘noeo’ –to apprehend or understand. So the Greek word more accurately and literally means something like ‘to know again afterward’ or ‘to gain a radical new perspective.’   So the invitation here that Peter is offering, was originally just a powerful invitation to reconsider!  ‘Crowd of Jerusalem,’ he’s telling them, ‘after you’ve played a part in Jesus’s death and witnessed the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, and now that I’ve told you what it means –re-evaluate how you’re feeling and acting.  Revisit the way you’re viewing and approaching power!’

That’s what Peter is really saying!  Have a new understanding and approach now that you’ve seen and know –in light of what you’ve received!’  But for almost the last thousand years, the Christian word that’s been put in place of this radical invitation to a new way of seeing and knowing is the word repent. And ‘repent’ literally means to experience your guilt, in order to try again.  Feel bad about what you’ve done and who you are; be sorry! It’s comes out of old Latin form of the word for penance, which is where we’ve also gained our approach to the penal system of justice. So the call to repent is a call to experience sorrow and woe, so that, basically, you can pay your way out of the wrong you’ve done with your own suffering.

Very quickly, on to the second part of Peter’s invitation, before we jump back to the bit about repentance.  The second invitation Peter offered is this: “Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Most of us probably imagine that we already know what it means to have our sins forgiven, right?  Most of us imagine that it means we don’t have to pay for the bad stuff we’ve done.  But here the word that gets translated as ‘sin,’ amartion, just means “missing your share;” and the Greek word translated as ‘forgiveness’ –aphesin, means, in its most basic form, that you’re sent away or released.  So, if we’re to translate what Peter says here, without using any theological Christianese, it would sound like this: ‘be immersed –in the name of Jesus the anointed, so that you can be sent away from missing your share.  Then you will receive a totally different kind of life-breath.’  From all of my research, that’s closer to what the original story says, and where it takes us: to be released from missing out!

And how many of us spend most of our whole lives feeling like we’re missing out on something?  Who doesn’t get out of bed with this vague inkling that life has something great and powerful in store for us –except somehow we’re not t taking full advantage of it? How many of us don’t have, at least, these fleeting moments where it feels like what we’re missing out on is the hidden heart of life itself?

Well then go feel bad about it, you scumbag!  You waste of human breath! How dare you miss out on the best and most holy gifts!  Go spend 5 years in a shed, tearing yourself a new one, replaying over and over again every humiliation and mistake you’ve ever made –that’ll teach you, you sinner!  Don’t you dare forget about the time you had diarrhea in second grade, where you were so ashamed of your lack of bowel-control that you just sat in your own filth for the last hour and half of your day and missed recess –in the same way sit in your vile, disgusting moral failures!  The only things you’ll ever deserve are a blue-ribbon for guilt and the eternal fires of heeellllll!

It sounds crazy, but that guilt and retribution stuff is deeply imbedded in so many our versions of God’s good news, isn’t it?

But look at this story!  Peter doesn’t call everyone to have a penance party before receiving the Holy Spirit –even for participating in the murder of Jesus!  And don’t forget, Jesus himself on the cross says: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  ‘Well, now you know!’ concludes Peter, “and knowing is half the battle!” The other half is immersion, cleansing, purifying.  So let’s go get some water!  After our post-revelation knowledge and after baptism in Jesus’ name, receiving the great and unique gift will be as easy as breathing!  Therefore, forget repentance and the demands of guilt!  Strike it from your church vocabulary –it’s got the wrong tone and the wrong call to action. It’s not a word indigenous to the scriptures! Instead it’s a Latin word –and who interjected Latin words into our vocabulary? [The Romans! The ones who used crosses to make people suffer for their guilt and unfaithfulness! That’s not God!] That word is itself an unholy remnant from the Roman authoritarian structure, aimed at controlling people, inserted right into the most basic call to live in God’s grace!  But Jesus wasn’t about controlling people –Jesus was about forgiveness –about release; about setting people free and sending them away from guilt!  Therefore, we don’t need to pick up more guilt and shame; what we need is to be more open, more receptive.

This is the story and the invitation that runs all the way through the entire narrative of the Bible.

We can look back even at the text we read last week and see the same thing.  Jump back with me, if you will, to Leviticus chapter 19, verse 19.  This is the verse immediately following the ‘mitzvot’ (which means ‘good work’ –where we say ‘command’) You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  It says this:

19 You must keep my rules. Do not crossbreed your livestock, do not plant your field with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothes made from two kinds of material.

At first it sounds a little controlling, and also silly, because crossbreeding crops and livestock can lead to heartier produce, with more desirable characteristics –plus who doesn’t love a good cotton/polyester blend in their t-shirts?  But remember this whole chapter is about relationships.   So think about the clothing bit for a moment.

A few weeks ago I found myself on a Saturday morning where I was behind on laundry and we had no big plans to see anyone that day, so I put on these old jeans I had from the mid-2000s.  These were jeans from the days when ‘loose-fit’ and baggy jeans were still kind of okay, fashion-wise.  As soon as I slipped them on, it was like rediscovering ice cream after a decade-long dairy hiatus.  Those jeans were felt glorious!  The skin of my legs could breathe, without fabric clinging to every square inch! I didn’t have to worry about anything getting painfully pinched if I sat down too fast. Oh, and the pockets!  The pockets were so big and luxurious! There was a way to store my keys in them where I wouldn’t be stabbed in the leg, still with plenty of room for my cell phone!  They were immediately my favorite jeans again.  And I would be wearing them today if it weren’t for the haunting of a single, cringing phrase: ‘dad jeans.’  By today’s standards, these were definitely dad jeans, and I’m just not there yet.

Ah!  If only fashion could have stopped in that most perfect of all denim incarnations!  The world would be spared from the constriction of skinny jeans, with all of their myriad, subtle horrors!  And we would never again need to buy new pants! Just imagine: jeans that are eternally good enough!

But no: the world has to find a million ways to convince us our blissful pants are no longer worthy of literally covering our behinds; and instead we must stuff ourselves into stick-people slacks, like so many sweating sausages!  You young people don’t even know what you’ve missed –the very pinnacle of panthood!

So, you see, this prescription to wear pure and plain cloth is an invitation to relate to our clothes differently.  It’s a call to let simplicity and purity be the object of your aspiration.  If your needs are met, then what greater cause for celebration and thanksgiving could you possibly need? You are satisfied!  Be satisfied with satisfaction!  What God has made and delivered to us is good, because God is good –so that is absolutely enough!  The livestock and the crops we have are already good enough –no need to compare them with those of the Jones or the Jebusites.  Satisfaction with simple clothing sets us free from all of that non-sense about your style indicating where you belong and what you’re worth!

Don’t you see what a beautiful follow-up this is to the line about loving your neighbor as yourself?  If you could be happy with what you already wear, and already have, and already do, and already are –isn’t the next step of accepting somebody else on those same terms going to be that much easier for you?

I had mentioned before that I wanted to teach you all two new words; and those words are “Halacha” and “Aggada.”  These words come from the Jewish tradition, and they have a history that goes back to before the time of Jesus.  And the reason I want you to at least be aware of these terms is because, as a pair, they point to a very important dynamic and process that goes on as we encounter the scripture.  Very generally speaking, Halacha is a Hebrew term that refers to the laws and demands for specific ethical actions in the scripture.  Nearly the entire 19th chapter of Leviticus is an example of Halacha.  But the appropriate and wise response to our encounter with Halacha is not only one of obedient action, but at the same time, we are also encouraged to engage in the exploration of Aggada, which means to “draw out” and “expand upon” the truth and wisdom of law.

So, when we encounter the commandment “do not wear cloth made of two kinds of material,” the intention is not only that we wear 100% cotton Levis, but it also demands we ask: what good would come from such a practice?  What’s at stake in what we wear; and what might this statute have to say about the will and character of God?  Thus the process of ‘drawing out’ of Aggada is intended to show us how to discover wisdom which will help us live happier, holier lives.

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel has this to say about the dynamic between Halacha and Aggada; he says: “Halacha, by necessity, treats with the laws in the abstract, regardless of the totality of the person.  It is agada that keeps on reminding that the purpose of the performance is to transform the performer, that the purpose of observance is to train us in achieving spiritual ends.”

Now, in case you’d all forgotten, with all of the information and stuff about words I’ve thrown at you this morning, what I’m trying to show you is the process of receiving God’s best gifts to us.  It is a call to be open, both in terms of understanding and action.  Too many of us miss out on the depth and richness of life simply because it’s strange and foreign and scary to us as we’re caught in the moment. Because it doesn’t fit with where we already are.  For instance, most of us here today, including myself, have never actually considered trying to live for a day or a month wearing only clothes of simple fibers.  But I bet if you did –if you lived it out, actively and visibly, you’d come to see and know something new and profound about yourself and the society we share.  It’d make you wise in a way that just imagining it never could.  And if you never bothered to pay attention to that strange law in Leviticus 19:19, you’d never bat an eye at the ephod or the tzitzit.  I’d certainly never given it a thought until I noticed a footnote in my Jewish study bible that blew my mind in a way that’s taken me over a week now just to put words to.

You see, the Bible says not to wear clothing made of mixed material; but there’s this garment worn by the priests, called the ephod.  In Exodus, chapter 28 God tells Moses how to make the holy clothing for the priests.  In verse four it says this, and I quote: “When they make this holy clothing for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests, they should use gold, blue, purple, and deep red yarns and fine linen.”  Yarn, by the way, is spun wool.  Linen, in this context, is a fiber taken from a flax plant!  Two totally different materials, one garment –God said so!  Then, get this, in Numbers 15 (and also in Deuteronomy), God also tells Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: make fringes on the edges of your clothing for all time… You will see it and remember all the Lord’s commands and do them…Then you will be holy to your God.” (Num 15:38-40). These fringes are called Tzitzit; and it some Jewish traditions, these Tzitzit are customarily made out of wool and linen, to be like the Ephod of the priests –because the Israelites, as a people, have a priestly calling.

So which is it –how do we become holy- by wearing simple and pure clothes, or by putting on these ornate and ostentatious garments of different colors and fibers?  According to God in the Bible: ‘yes!’ Be holy by being you, as you were made, pure and simple. And also –perhaps afterward- be holy by stepping into your priestly calling: to mix with other people and stand out, because you have a great and glorious invitation: to be, and to receive and grow and participate and extend God’s overwhelming and immersive grace.

For you are a gift of God.  What you have is a gift.  What you know is a gift.  The power you have to act, is a gift. Not because you earned it, but because God is holy and generous.  Therefore, may we be open to receiving that grace more fully, so we’re saved from missing out on the best gifts.  May we look again and know more fully.  And may we be immersed in that which is the source and substance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that we might be free to not miss out.

Let’s pray.