Monday, 5 May 2014

What does it mean to repent?

When we meet up with Peter this week he has preached the last line of his sermon- “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” This sermon was Peter’s Pentecost sermon. The crowd in Jerusalem was from all over the known world. They were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost which is a Jewish harvest festival, and it also became the time they celebrated receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sainai. Suddenly this group of disciples started miraculously speaking in languages known to the crowd. The crowd starts asking questions, curious about what’s going on. Peter explains to them that they are witnessing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel.  God’s Spirit is empowering His people. This is happening because Jesus walked among them. He was killed, resurrected, and ascended to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to his disciples.     
They saw this amazing miracle that confirmed Peter’s words. They saw that what he was saying was true. Jesus is Lord and Messiah. This is something their people have been longing for for generations. Suddenly they are witnesses to it.
When we are confronted with the beauty and power of God one of the things that often happens is that we are suddenly hit with the need to change. Peter once saw Jesus miraculously fill his nets with fish. The nets were so full they couldn’t pull them in and their boats were about to sink. We read in Luke 5:8 “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” Peter suddenly saw himself in light of Jesus’ goodness. …  When Saul is travelling to Damascus and he is confronted by the resurrected Jesus and he sees a clearer image of God. He is called to transformation. We know him as Paul.  When we are confronted with the beauty and power of God we suddenly see ourselves in God’s light. We thought we were okay… in the candlelight, but in the daylight we see the dirt more clearly.
It was the same for the crowd Peter was talking to. They saw the power of God and they suddenly realized Jesus really was who Peter was saying he was, and they realized that the Holy Spirit was in their midst as their ancestors longed of.  Peter finishes his sermon and the crowd responds. We read that “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’” They felt the need to respond. They were cut to the heart. It is the pain that calls for change.  

Peter responds to their question, “Brothers, what should we do?” by saying, “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.”
We tend to think of repentance in a very negative way. When we hear the word “repentance” our modern minds think of bad self-esteem or medieval monks whipping themselves, but that wasn’t what was in the minds of the crowd who heard Peter. They saw a vision of what God was doing in the world and they wanted to be a part of it, but they had to make a change to be a part of it. Their motivation to change wasn’t because they were that bad, it was because God is that good. They saw what God was up to and they were willing to pay the price to be a part of it. Repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The more clearly we see God for who God actually is, the more we will feel the desire to adjust our lives accordingly. Once in a while I meet people who are looking for a god who matches them. It is like they are shopping for a pair of pants. They keep looking for a god that fits them. But, that is a consumerist fantasy. If the God we are seeking is the true God we will always be called to transformation because we will always be adjusting our lives to His tremendous truth.
The philosopher and Christian Spirituality teacher Dallas Willard teaches that transformation follows a particular pattern. He uses the acronym V.I.M., which stands for Vision, Intention, Means. What is first needed is a vision that shows why the change is desirable. If we want to learn French maybe we have a vision of visiting Paris and being able to speak to the locals and understand French films. We have a vision of what speaking French would be like. Then we have to intent to actually become that kind of person. We have to make the decision. Then we need the means, which might be French class and attention to books and CDs on how to speak French. Vision, Intention, Means. It works the same way with learning a musical instrument. We have a vision of what it would be like to play guitar. We imagine playing beside the fire, or in a band. And then we have to intend to become that person, then we adopt the means, which are buying a guitar and taking lessons.
I have owned a guitar since I was 21. I am now almost 35. I have owned a guitar for almost 14 years. I have on occasion plucked away at it. At one point I decided the problem was that it was in its case all the time, so I bought a guitar stand and stood the guitar in the corner of the room thinking it would be easier to pick it up and learn if I didn’t have to take it out of its bag all the time. It was a ridiculous theory, I know. I bought how to play guitar for dummies- the book and the DVD. I have a DVD teaching series on how to play that I have yet to watch. My guitar has gathered dust for nearly 14 years. I still want to learn to play it, so I don’t want to give it up. My problem is that I lack Vision. I don’t have a strong enough vision for learning to play guitar. Without that vision my intention cannot be strong enough for me to use the means I have at my disposal.
The people who stood listening to Peter did not have a lack of Vision they saw God more clearly, and they also saw God miraculously filling his people with his Holy Spirit. They had the vision to be a part of what God was doing in their time. Their question was about Intention and means. “Brothers, what should we do?” The Intention is marked by being willing to be baptized. The Means is the actual baptism, the receiving the Holy Spirit, and being a part of the life and practices of the new Christian community.
Repentance is about turning to something good. We too often think about repentance as turning away from something bad. “I’m a bad person so I need to repent”.  The people listening to Peter weren’t all about feeling bad about themselves. They had a vision for something better and they turned towards it. Repentance is about turning. Yes, away from the direction you are facing, but primarily it is about turning towards something better. It is like gardening. You can’t just be pulling weeds all the time. You have to tend to the flowers, otherwise your goal is just a pile of dirt. Our vision is insufficient if we just want to not be “bad”. We need a vision of the beauty of God and the goodness and Joy he is calling us into.
So one way we often go wrong about repentance is that we think of it in such a negative way. Another way we go wrong is that we tend to think that it is a one-time thing. For the Christian we live a life of repentance. Which is really just another way of saying we live a life of learning. We are continuously seeking to know more of God and to have our lives adjusted according to his beauty and holiness.  … But, it is also true that God is continuously on the move. God is on the move in our lives calling us to work on certain friendships, to reach out to those in need in particular ways, and to deal with issues and hurt in our past, among other things. Our God is on a mission and that means He is on the move, and that means we will have to continuously have to adjust our course, which means we are going to be living a life of continuous turning, or repentance if we are going to try to be a part of what he is doing in the world and in our lives.   

May we live lives of repentance. Not self-pity, but of continuous openness to God, hearing his voice calling to us, leading us into greater and greater joy as we come to know him more and more.            

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