by Ellen Sims
text: Acts 3: 12-18
I have never pointed my finger and shouted “Repent!” but preachers who do call their people to repentance are standing firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, who preached “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4: 17). And Peter, according to today’s passage from Acts, is proclaiming that same prophetic message: Repent.
The call to repentance is at the heart of the Gospel. And rightly delivered and understood it is GOOD NEWS. “Repent” (metanoia in the Greek) means to have a change of mind and heart—but it has been associated with a mean-spirited Christianity. Repent has been aimed at us like a gun and has constrained us like a rope.
I’m wary of using this biblically authentic word for three reasons: 1) it scapegoats people on the margins. Queer people, for instance, are told to repent—while the preacher shouting repentance is hiding his affair.
2) Repentance today emphasizes individual sin while ignoring systemic sin, which is the kind of sin the Hebrew prophets and Jesus called out. The prophets told kings and nations to repent: to see the world in different terms, to notice the plight of the poor, for instance. Repent is a call for society to change in ways that align with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where the poor are blessed and the meek inherit the earth. So the second reason I dodge the word “repent” is because it is used differently today than in biblical times.
3) Repent, as used commonly today, also misunderstands the means of repenting. To repent is not to grovel before God as you call on the blood of Christ to cover your sins so you won’t remain separated from a holy God. To repent is to recognize you are on the wrong path and to turn around and reverse course. It is a serious matter to see you are heading in the wrong direction and then to reroute. To repent is to recognize that in order to follow Jesus you must make a course correction because what the world admires and aspires to—is not going to usher in God’s merciful kin*dom.
We ALL have sinned, as Paul said in Romans (3:23). We ALL are complicit in the sins of a society that teaches us to value might over humility, wealth over compassion, patience over immediate gratification, cleverness over wisdom, power over others versus control over self. We all need to recognize when we are helping create a kingdom that God does not intend and where Christ doesn’t reign. So we need to be shaken from our distorted mindset, reset our values, and repent, which means to turn around and go in the opposite direction. Jesus showed us the way. Of course, his way led him to a literal cross and all of us to a crossroad.
But our reading in Acts names Jesus the crucified as “The Author of Life.” We see in the first verses of today’s pericope that Peter healed a lame man. Healing and caring for the poor and marginalized were the hallmarks of the early church and are the signs of a repentant and life-affirming community. Jesus saves because Jesus points us to LIFE. He who was killed continues to live on through those who love others in his name. Some detect substitutionary atonement theology in this scripture, but others believe that the saving work of Jesus results from a God who loves and a savior who healed others and died under false accusations by a malignant system but who refused to use violence to escape the system. In fact, his death exposed the rotten system.
And after his death, people saw Jesus’s saving ways at work in the life of Peter. Note Peter’s compassion for those who were complicit with Jesus’s death! Listen as Peter, who drew his sword at Jesus’s arrest, extend forgiveness to the people who killed his Lord. Peter, extends mercy to the Israelites he was addressing: “I know you killed an innocent man . . . because you were ignorant. . . .” Peter, who denied that he knew Jesus, was able to extend mercy to others who erred. He was compassionate—even as he preached “repent so your sins may be wiped out.”
Peter in this context has a very specific meaning for repent—and it has nothing to do with escaping hell fire. Repent, so your sins may be wiped out. Repent—which means go in another direction, do a 180 so you won’t continue this harmful way of life. Follow the AUTHOR OF LIFE! And if you continue on the way of death . . . the way that led you to scapegoat an innocent man and contribute to his death, you are following the author of death. Repent—so that your life right NOW can be lifegiving. Repent—change your ways—so that you can offer healing to this world, not death. You have sinned, you have had deathly dealings, you have listened to cruel voices that have diminished others and have made you think terrible things about yourself. Don’t listen to the author of death. Be healed from that allegiance. Repent. And experience salvation in THIS life and in the life to come through a faithful followship of Jesus.