by | Apr 23, 2023

Acts 2;14, 36-41

PRAYER: Expand our hearts and minds O God, that we may see the world as you do – with a heart for all whom you love. Enable us to see our lives not through a lens of individuality, but with a heart for the community which you envision.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

We pick up our reading today where we left off last week. This is the end of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He’s been telling the people gathered about Jesus, and he concludes by saying, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

There’s a danger in this last statement when it’s read without context. It could be interpreted in such a way that would lead to antisemitic attitudes and violence. But we must remember that Peter himself – at the time of this sermon – was a Jew; he would have considered himself part of Israel. You may remember last week that we talked briefly about the fact that all of the disciples in the first chapter of Acts, asked Jesus about what’s next in the overtaking of Israel. Peter was Jewish; his audience was a Jewish audience. In fact, Luke, the writer of Acts was also a Jew. Both Peter and Luke would know that not all of Israel should be held responsible for Jesus’ death. But they were both keenly aware of the cultural context in which Jesus’ crucifixion was normalized. So, in other words, it is absolutely wrong to read Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 as a justification for antisemitism.

Peter is making two points here. First: The people crucified him. It wasn’t just Herod or Pilate; it wasn’t just the leaders of the temple who conspired. There were all of the people who listened to him teach, but turned their backs on him when he was arrested. And the second point that Peter is making: God made him Lord and Messiah. And so, it’s important for us to recognize that Peter’s not accusing anyone in particular about anything. He’s saying that now we have a chance to right the wrong.

This is Peter’s response to the question, “What should we do”, and it is one that sets the table for the rest of Acts and for the early church. What should we do?

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Last week in our book discussion, we talked briefly about repentance. Well, here is Peter telling the people gathered – and by extension, us – to repent and be baptized. For many of us, the word repent has become synonymous with being sorry for our sins. Repentance is something we typically view as personal, individual. I have sins in my life that I need to repent from, and they are absolutely not something that I’m ever going to share with you. It’s between me and God.

Maybe you remember seeing some televangelist about 30 years ago getting down on his knees and crying that he sinned and begging God for forgiveness, while at the same time, asking his viewers to send money for his special evangelist forgiveness initiative… also known as his Mercedes fund. If that’s your idea of repentance, I’m sorry to say you’re not alone. But that’s not what Peter was talking about.

Let me be very clear: each of us sins and each of us needs to acknowledge that and turn away from whatever those sins may be. Growing up, my family belonged to a faith that practiced confession as a sacrament. As a regular practice, we had to go into a tiny little room called a confessional and tell the priest what sins we committed in order to receive forgiveness. (Aren’t you glad we don’t have that practice in the United Methodist Church?) That practice – and whatever theological understanding that justifies it – is always about one individual at a time. It is purely an individual practice.

But Peter was speaking more of a collective repentance rather than an individual one. He was telling the people gathered about Jesus and the fact that they need to repent – reorient their lives together in Jesus, who is Lord and Messiah. It is more than recognizing the inherent goodness of Jesus; it is about reorienting their lives by focusing on Jesus and allowing the Spirit to make things new. Today, we are called to do the same.

It is not a coincidence then, that the word repent is followed by the command to be baptized. In our United Methodist tradition, we recognize baptism as a reorientation of our lives, and a welcoming of people into the Kingdom of God. With very few exceptions, when we have a baptism, it is done so in the presence of the entire church community because it is not seen as an individual act; it is a communal one. Baptism is an outward sign that indicates our decision to follow Jesus as Lord and Christ, to be a part of God’s community. Even our baptismal liturgy has communal response through which the church commits to walking alongside people in their Christian journey. Our Christian faith is not, nor was it ever intended to be, an individual journey.

So, what does repentance mean when we look at it in a communal sense? What does it mean to reorient our lives as a community as opposed to viewing our faith strictly as an individual endeavor?

A little more than a week ago, I started seeing posts on the Riegelsville Facebook page about a homeless gentleman who was pushing a shopping cart down Route 611. Most – if not all of the posts – were kind and concerned about the overall well-being of this man. Social media can be quite toxic, and it is not generally a place where kinder heads prevail, but I am pleased to say that I did not see anything negative about the fact that there was this homeless man pushing a shopping cart down 611, because it could’ve gotten ugly fast.

This man was headed south and continued pushing his cart down 611, towards route 32. On Friday the 14th, I got a call from someone who saw this man in Upper Black Eddy across from Milford. The person who called me knew about our pantry and wanted to see if I could get some food delivered to the man. He gave the pantry $100 in the hope that we would help feed this homeless man.

Of course, I got in my car and drove up 32 from Frenchtown and found this gentleman walking / pushing his cart south on 32 across the river from Milford. I gave him two bags of groceries that hopefully sustained him for a little while. All the groceries I gave were things that he could open and eat without needing a can opener or a heat source. Imagine giving someone who has no can opener a can of food that they cannot open. Imagine giving someone like that man food that needs to be cooked before it can be eaten safely.

Later that evening, Anna and I were enjoying dinner in the new restaurant that just opened on Bridge Street in Frenchtown and as I looked up from our table, there he was… that same man that I gave groceries to hours earlier was pushing his cart through Frenchtown. He crossed the Frenchtown – Uhlerstown Bridge and came through town, and then turned down Route 29 towards Stockton, Lambertville, and perhaps Trenton.

Less than an hour later, my phone rang. It was a friend who lives down Route 29. She was calling me because she saw this same man, pushing his shopping cart down past her house and she wanted to know how she could best help him. I told her what I knew about him, which admittedly was not much, but that he had been working his way south from at least the Easton area. All the while, I continued to see posts made on local Facebook pages about this man – just about every single one being sincerely concerned about his well-being.

I want to be very clear about something. I gave him a couple of bags of groceries. I know that other people up and down the river have given him food or – in some cases – some money. These are acts of kindness. These are acts of mercy. These are things that we should do.

In no way, shape, or form, did we resolve or even address the core reasons of why this man is pushing a shopping cart down along the Delaware River. Homelessness, poverty, hunger… these are systemic problems that exist. And while we don’t necessarily see a lot of it in Hunterdon County, New Jersey or Bucks County, Pennsylvania, make no mistake: these problems are rampant. We don’t repent from the sin of allowing homelessness by simply buying a few groceries. That is an action that may make US feel good, but it doesn’t turn us away from the fact that the man is homeless. There are larger societal issues that create and sustain poverty. Repentance involves eradicating poverty and homelessness.

This goes hand I hand with an understanding of spiritual growth. When we give our lives to Christ, and when the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts, we become new creations, but we mustn’t think that we become stagnant. There is an element of growth and becoming as we explore our spiritual lives. The deeper we pursue our faith, the more we come to understand the more communal and comprehensive matters of living as a faithful community.

I’ve recently picked up a book by Matthew Desmond about poverty in our country, and he writes, “Poverty is diminished life and personhood. It changes how you think and prevents you from realizing your full potential. It shrinks the mental energy you can dedicate to decisions, forcing you to focus on the latest stressor – an overdue gas bill, a lost job – at the expense of everything else.”

Peter’s call for repentance is a call for us to widen our vision and see the larger picture before us. Poverty is not about an individual who is spinning their wheels; it’s about a communal sin that prevents people from realizing their true humanity. Peter’s call for repentance is a call for us to turn away from that which denies people their true humanity. Whether we’re talking about poverty, drug addiction, the proliferation of gun violence, war, or climate change, our repentance as individuals is but a step in the journey of building and expanding God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

In the book we’re reading together, Matthew Skinner writes, “Acts urges us to see how the earliest believers took that core conviction, arising from their own experiences with Jesus, and trusted it. And they shared it. And they opened themselves up to discover more and more of its implications.

And that is the very essence of repentance: opening ourselves up to discover more and more of the implications of what it means to repent. When we open ourselves up to those implications, then the words of Jesus take on a deeper meaning. Jesus said that what we do to the poor, we do to him. To think of that in terms of our individual response is good and something that we should do. But when we think of that in terms of how our society treats the poor, our need for repentance becomes more clear.

Just because we have new life in Christ, that does not mean that we are, by default, leaning into more ethical and moral behavior. Joined to Christ’s body – the church – we need a transformed mind to begin to see through Christ’s eyes, and to guide our transformed lives participating in his mission of reconciliation and justice.

Let’s endeavor to strengthen our understanding of repentance as something that is much deeper and broader than our own individual piety. At the same time, let’s see how our own individual repentance can be a part of a repentance that will call the Holy Spirit into our hearts, that we may truly be the disciples of Jesus Christ that we are called to be.

Repentance takes time, and it takes some work. There is a commitment involved in not just turning our lives from sin, but understanding how that sin has deeper implications for the world around us, and how that sin can be eradicated through the Holy Spirit.

Peter tells us to Repent and be baptized. Be made to be new creations, called by God, Taught by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

To God be the glory.