Change is a holy word (A sermon from Acts 5:27-32)
We should never assume that other Christians or even non-Christians familiar with Christianity have the same ideas or mean the same thing when we talk about salvation. I think most Christians, regardless of their background, tend to think of salvation as being delivered or rescued from some great peril. Now granted, Christians may have very different ideas about what that peril is we need to be rescued from, but most conceive of salvation in terms of rescue or deliverance. I think of the old hymn, “Rescue the perishing” as capturing for many the main stay of God’s salvation. Rescue from peril is certainly one image of salvation in our sacred scriptures, but only one. There are many images of salvation in our Bible. Other images include return from exile, making whole that which is broken, reconciling the alienated and estranged, being enlightened out of spiritual and moral blindness, experiencing spiritual life in place of death, experiencing liberation from oppression and bondage, moving from hostility and enmity to a state of peace, turning from the little self to the Christ self, moving from a realm of injustice to participation in God’s just world, and many other less used images. All of these images are images of God’s salvation. The image that Luke is fond of is the one that involves turning around and changing directions in life. Luke calls this repentance. Others call it conversion.
It’s interesting how Luke makes use of this image in the context of the early preaching of the apostles to their fellow Jews. We have a fairly full summary of that message in Acts 2. On the Jewish holy day of Pentecost Peter speaks to many of his fellow Jews who had come to Jerusalem to observe that holy festival. Peter says, (I am just going to hit the main points here): You that are Israelites, listen . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to by God by deeds of power . . . that God did through him (At this stage Jesus was understood to be God’s mediator to the Jewish people for revealing God’s will) this man . . . you crucified and killed. According to the first preaching as understood by Luke, God didn’t send Jesus to be killed. God sent Jesus to show us how to live in God’s kingdom and to bring God’s kingdom to earth. But the powers that be took offense at Jesus and killed him. However, when speaking to his fellow Jews on the Day of Pentecost Peter doesn’t say the powers that be killed Jesus. He says, “you killed him” even though many who heard Peter speak were not even in Jerusalem when Jesus was killed. As my granddaughters would say, “What’s up with that?” The apostles, according to Luke, were saying, “You may have known nothing about the execution of Jesus, but you were in on it.” So, how were they in on it? The same way we were.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, recited an early expression adopted by the church, when he wrote, “Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures.” The best way to translate that is not, “Jesus died for our sins,” which gives the impression that Jesus had to die to take away our sins. The English preposition “for” is not the best way to translate the Greek preposition. The best way to translate it is either “on account of” or “because of.” Jesus died on account of our sins. In other words, our sins killed Jesus. When you consider how we use the English preposition “for,” we can say Jesus died for us, but not Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died for us, because he died revealing God’s will to us. He died serving as God’s mediator of God’s redemptive power. But he didn’t die for our sins. He died on account of our sins. God didn’t kill Jesus or send Jesus to die. We killed Jesus, that is, our sins killed Jesus. The old spiritual asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified our Lord?” The early followers of Jesus would say, “Yes. Spiritually we were all there.” We commit the same sins the powers that be committed in killing Jesus, so symbolically and spiritually we were participants in the rejection, suffering, and execution of Jesus.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know this is true. In many ways we are just as blind as they were. We sell out to greed and love of power the way many of the religious leaders did in Jesus’ day. We get jealous when someone else becomes more well-liked than we are. We become envious of others. We get angry when someone challenges our beliefs or our religious practices. We react when someone shakes things up and disturbs the status quo. And we really hate it when someone exposes all that. We commit the same sins as the ones who had Jesus killed, and in that way, sisters and brothers, representatively and spiritually we participated in the crucifixion of Jesus. So Peter says, and we can now include ourselves in Peter’s audience, “this Jesus you crucified and killed.” You could say that by continuing to commit the same sins, we continue to crucify Jesus.
But the story goes on, thank God. “You killed him, but God raised him up, having freed him from death.” God vindicated what Jesus lived for, what Jesus stood for, and what he died for, by raising him up. Then Peter says that “God made him (or appointed him) both Lord and Messiah.” Then Peter calls for repentance. Repentance is both an act and a process of life change. There are at least two important parts to both the act of repentance and the process of repentance.
First, it is important that we admit and own our participation in the sins that crucified Jesus. We need to personally acknowledge are own misguided and misdirected ways of thinking and acting that have been hurtful and offensive to other persons. We need to own up to our failures at loving our neighbor as ourselves and the many times we failed to do for them as we would have them do for us. We need to realize that whenever we mistreat or hurt another person, we are mistreating and hurting God, because God lives in that person, whether the person knows that or not. And then, too, we need to acknowledge not only our personal offenses, but our participation in the injustices of our society. Even those of us who speak out against injustice and work for social justice in our society, need to realize that we, too, are entangled and complicit in unjust systems. We need to look at ourselves truthfully and honestly, and own our personal sins, as well as our collective participation in the injustices of society.
Now, the second part of this takes us takes us in a more positive direction: We must be serious about and faithful to walking in the way of Jesus. The Hebrew and Greek words that speak about repentance have to do with change. Repentance involves a change in how we think and how we live. This may or may not involve a change in belief. Usually, this does involve some change in what we believe, at least, I have certainly experienced it that way. But the primary change is in our attitudes and priorities, as well as our values and practices. This is reflected in the confession that the early followers of Jesus made at their baptism.
For the early followers of Jesus baptism was an important part of their initial act of repentance. At their baptism they confessed Jesus as their Lord. Now, this confession was much more than a confession of belief. Obviously, they did indeed believe that God had vindicated Jesus by raising him up, but when they confessed Jesus as Lord, they were primarily making a life commitment to follow Jesus. That’s why this confession was made at the time of their baptism. They were pledging their trust in and faithfulness to the way of Jesus. They were consciously entering into a new covenant based on love and forgiveness, and committing/entrusting themselves to a new way of life based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Clearly, they had to believe in what Jesus stood for and died for to make that kind of commitment. They believed that Jesus embodied the love and compassion and justice of God. So when these first disciples confessed Jesus as Lord at their baptism they were committing their lives to the things Jesus had committed his life to. They were not making a doctrinal confession. They were making a life commitment. They were committing themselves to a way of life pervaded by divine love, and their model for such a life was Jesus. This is why Christians before they were ever known as Christians, were known as followers of “the way” or people “who belonged to the way.”
When I believed that only Christians could know God, I thought one had to verbally confess and believe that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and what I didn’t know is that it’s the way of Jesus that saves. It’s far more important to walk in the way of Jesus – the way of love, the way of grace and truth, the way of compassion and righteousness/justice (doing what is right) than believing stuff about Jesus.
Common sense should tell us this. Common sense should tell us what God cares most about. Think about it. Do you think God cares most about our believing stuff about Jesus, or our loving others the way Jesus loved – showing compassion, meeting needs, and working for a just world? Common sense should make the answer obvious? But you know, sisters and brothers, when we are blind common sense doesn’t make any sense. I speak from experience.
A number of more contemporary spiritual writers have described our personal conversion (or we could say the process of repentance) as a movement out of our “false self” into our “true self.” The true self is the Christ self. It’s both who we really are and who we are meant to be. That is paradoxical, and yet true. This is rooted in the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Jesus talked paradoxically about the need to lose our life in order to find our life in the context of telling us to deny our self (our ego dominated self, our little self, our false self), take up our cross, and follow him. Paul talked about this symbolically in terms of being “in Adam” and being “in Christ,” and in the contrast he drew between “flesh” and “Spirit.” Repentance or conversion (or we could just say growth in the life of God or the spiritual life) is a journey out of the little self that is ego-centered, defensive, and self-occupied into the larger Christ self that is self-giving, compassionate, gracious and generous. That’s the personal conversion we all need to engage in – a conversion from the little self to the Christ self. My sense of things today is that the most dynamic witness one can be for Christ in our cultural context is to live out this journey/this transformational process in a way that others can see, and in a way that invites others to participate. I don’t think there is a more impactful way in our context to be a witness to the healing and redemptive power of Christ/Love than living out this transformational journey out of the false self into the true self in a way that welcomes others to participate in it with us.
A country gentleman was known for his talent of carving beautiful images of dogs out of wood. When he was asked about the secret of his art, he explained, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.” Repentance is about whittling away at the parts of us – attitudes, values, habits, responses, reactions, ways of relating, and so forth – that don’t look like Christ. The parts of us that don’t look like Christ we need to let fall away like shavings of wood, so that the Christ self can emerge. Authentic conversion/ repentance draws us into the art of soul-making. What Luke means by repentance is nothing less than the process that brings about the transformation of our souls.
And not just the transformation of our individual soul, but also the soul of our communities and societies that we are part of. Luke seems to be alluding to this when he mentions in our text “the repentance of Israel.” God is not only interested in our personal transformation into the Christ self, God wants to see whole communities and societies engaged in this process. It’s never just about me. It’s about us. And not just our little group of us. All of us. It’s about a world put right, which at first may feel like a world turned upside down. This is why we are taught to pray, “Our Father,” not “My father.” We pray “give us, forgive us, lead us” – not just “me.” God wants to redeem the world, and all the systems, institutions, and structures of the world. This is why it is important, I believe, to be part of a healthy faith community, because it’s never just about me, it’s about us. Unfortunately, too many faith communities are turned in on themselves. But a healthy faith community will emphasize that we all belong. And we have to learn to get along. And that’s why forgiveness is important. I haven’t said much about forgiveness today, but Luke mentions forgiveness alongside repentance.
One thing I do need to say about forgiveness that is very important but often lost today is that forgiveness of sins is not just about receiving forgiveness from God. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness in the Gospels is very clear on this point. Our experience of forgiveness from God is inseparably connected to our giving forgiveness to others and receiving forgiveness from others. If we can’t forgive others and accept forgiveness from others, then we cannot experience forgiveness from God. That’s not because God withholds God’s forgiveness. Rather, we are simply incapable of receiving it, if we cannot forgive others or receive forgiveness from others. This is why we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” If we can’t forgive, we can’t receive forgiveness, because our heart is not right. Forgiveness is a vital part of putting things right with others and putting our own heart right with God. It’s all about right relationships. When we make forgiveness something else, when we make it juridical, rather than relational, when we confine it to God’s forgiveness, so we can feel like we are forgiven while we go hating others and being mean to others, then we have become legalistic and self-righteous, and our religion actually does us more harm than good.
So here’s the two critical questions I need to consider, and hopefully you will consider too: One, Can I honestly see where I need to change to be more compassionate toward others and passionate about what is right and good for all people? And two, Am I willing to live into this change, to do what is necessary to make this change – this change from the ego self to the Christ self, from focus on self to a focus on what is good for all?
Our good God, help us to look honestly at our lives – our attitudes, our values, our priorities, our common reactions to people, how we treat others – and see where we need to change. Help us know what we need to let fall away, what we need to lose and die to, so that the love of Christ can fill us and flow through us. Help us to see too, that it is never just about me or my group, it’s about justice for all your children. Give us a larger vision and a deeper compassion that extends beyond me and mine. And may we all realize that authentic change, real conversion is a cooperative venture that requires our time and commitment.