44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”50 And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. 51 While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple praising God.
How do I know what part of a Bible passage to preach on? To which words should a preacher narrow them down to focus on a message? The answer: whichever words God lays on your heart, which are often the words I need personally to hear most, in the hope that what I need to hear most connects with what you might need most to hear as a fellow struggling pilgrim. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. Often, those are the words that baffle me the most, or which even scare me the most. Like the words in verse 47: “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations.” Especially the word, “repentance.” That can be a scary word.
To many, and too often, the very word, “repentance,” sounds like it comes down upon us from on high, from someone who presumes to be in a position of moral and spiritual superiority, looking down his nose at us, evaluating us, personally, and finding us wanting. In the past, it was often about things whose necessities we would later come to wonder about, like, “Did you women cut your hair? Or cover it sufficiently? Does your cape dress pass inspection? Do you guys have neckties on the sly in your closets? Did you buy insurance?” Things that we suspect had as much to do with submission to clergy, conformity, community and custom, as with submission to God.
Many of us, I know, were deeply hurt by such stuff. It still sits as a kind of historic trauma on us Mennonites so that we hardly know how to differentiate basic, bedrock, biblical truths and values from changing customs and “disputable things.” That has often left us afraid to take any moral or spiritual positions, or to make any call to commitment, for fear that we’re bringing back the bad old days of control and conformity for control and conformity’s sake. The very word, “repentance” can bring back the trauma of those bad old days.
That’s why I speak from down here this morning, seated among us to underscore how the words of today’s gospel passage put all of us on the exact same level, especially the word, “repentance.” I speak as one who is judged equally with everyone else here by the gospel’s call to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” as well as one whom that call to repentance liberates, relieves and releases. Because, at its best, repentance for forgiveness of sins to all nations in Christ’s name, is more good news than bad news. It’s more invitation than condemnation.
But let’s consider the bad news first, so we can better appreciate the good news. There are three scary items of bad news in the call to repentance: 1) it challenges our self-image and our reputations; 2) it is inescapable and unavoidable; and 3) it’s never a “one-and-done.” We never get past the need for repentance.
As for the first item of bad news, that the call to repentance is scary, because it can’t help but challenge all the wonderful things that I want you to think about me, and that I want to think about myself. And that might lead to change. You know that feeling you get in your gut whenever someone you know, and love and care about comes to you to say, “I need to talk with you about something.” Right away, my condemnation detector goes on high alert. “Oh no. Am I in trouble? Does this mean that you think less of me? Should I think less of me? Will I, by the time we work this through? Can’t we both just keep pretending that we’re all super saints with halos around our heads, on whom birds and bunnies come to sit to smile, and sing, and snuggle?”
It’s easier said than done, but it’s still true: Don’t treat this call to clean up our acts as condemnation, but as invitation. Invitation to a better relationship. Invitation to a better you and me. Don’t receive the call to repent of something as condemnation but as a confirmation of how important we are to each other, and how important our relationships are. Otherwise, no one would risk such honest self-disclosure; we’d just shrug our shoulders and walk away. I wish I could tell us that such fear goes away, but the call to repentance will remain, and remain scary, until we no longer need to repent. That’s not in this life, by the way.
Which brings us to the second item of bad news: we can’t ever escape the need nor the call for repentance. Even if we reject any evaluation, correction or improvement of our own actions and attitudes, even should we think, Isn’t calling for a change judgmental, exclusionary, or intolerant? We may still be looking down at others and finding them wanting. Even if “repentance” is a dirty word to us that we avoid at all costs, we may still have very vivid ideas about those other people who need to repent, and why. Like those liberals and progressives, or those conservatives and traditionalists, or those Republicans or those Democrats, so on and so forth. In fact, I often find that when we are most resistant and reactive against any evaluation or transformation of our own lives may be when we are also the most critical and the least tolerant in evaluating other people and their need for transformation.
I think that those kinds of people really, really need to repent!
So, there’s no escaping the call to “repentance for forgiveness of sins.” Even if we don’t accept it for ourselves, we may dish it out to others.
The third reason this invitation to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” comes across as bad news is that it’s never a one-and-done event that we get through and then behind ourselves for the rest of our lives. That’s often how we present it, I know: “Repent of your sins and accept Jesus,” is often how we hear the Gospel. Yes, that’s how eternal life begins. And Jesus started his ministry by preaching, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the good news.”
But repentance is also how eternal life continues. Five hundred years ago, the whole Protestant Reformation began with these words which Luther wrote in the first of his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
So, how can the call to repentance be both the beginning of eternal life, and a decision, as well as an ongoing direction and orientation in life? What the Christian psychologist, Gerald May, says about willingness and willfulness applies. Willfulness is the upraised, clenched fist approach to life that that communicates, “My way or the highway! And nothing, and no one, is ever going to change that.” Willingness is an open hand approach to life of humility, receptivity, and curiosity, the curiosity to ask, “What does God want to teach me today? How does God wish to work in me, to transform me more into the image of Jesus? If I am to receive what God wants to give me, then what does God want me to let go of? What help or guidance do I need? I’m willing to seek it and receive it.” Don’t expect to ever get beyond the point in life where we need to keep our hands open and our spirits willing to receive better things of God, and so let go of lesser things.
Which brings up a wonderful description of repentance by C. S. Lewis, in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory:” “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That, at heart, is what the newly Risen, Resurrected King offers the citizens of his kingdom upon his Ascension to his throne: “infinite joy.” The first thing we must ever repent of, and repent and repeat as needed, is a closed-fisted approach to God that says, in effect, “No thanks; No need for anything better than what occupies me now; no need for help; I’m doing fine making mud pies in this vacant lot in the slums. Yeah, it’s a squalid and dangerous place. But at least it’s familiar, it’s mine, and I can keep my illusion of power and control. I get to be king or queen of this vacant lot in the slums.” That’s like what Satan says in John Milton’s Poem, “Paradise Lost:” Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
And if that sounds crazy, well, that’s the first item of good news about Jesus’ call to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name:” Repentance is the only path to peace. Every option to repentance is crazy-making. Here’s an example: two Sundays ago, someone came into this church building during worship or Sunday School and stole two purses. That felt sadly familiar, from the years we lived in uptown, southside Minneapolis, There also, thefts happened sometimes during worship at the church I served, in that same neighborhood. Some people evidently were quite skilled at sneaking into places unseen, unheard, finding stuff to steal, and then getting away un-noticed. That tells me that the thieves had done it often enough to overcome any fear or guilt and get quite good at it.
Among those petty thieves who look for crimes of opportunity will be a few who go on to make their own opportunities. Like the thieves who broke into my church office twice, three times into my car, several times into cars of church members and attendees during worship. With each theft, such thieves were getting even more hardened and accustomed to theft and destruction.
Among those would be a few who would take it to the next level, skip messing with property and go after people. They’d engage in scamming, embezzlement, or worse, armed robbery, or hijacking cars at stoplights, or mugging pedestrians on the street. Oddly enough, though, they didn’t often get caught until they had shot at or assaulted or even killed another thief, or mugger, or a member of a rival gang. And when asked why they attacked someone without intent to steal anything, their answer often was, “Cuz he stole something from me!” Or, I heard from one hardened con artist that the easiest persons to bamboozle were other con artists. You’d think otherwise. But by handling so much magical, wishful something-for- nothing thinking people can become more vulnerable to it.
The more we justify injustice, and rationalize the unreasonable, the better we get at it, and the more we fall for it. And not just for theft. It’s how people can get caught into downward spirals of captivity and insensitivity to pornography, promiscuity, lying, abuse and more. But if, at some point in that downward, vicious cycle, and the descent from impenitence into incoherence, we stop and drop all that crazy-making and look to God for something better, that makes for true peace. That’s why I say that the only alternative to repentance is crazy.
The second reason why this call to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is good news, is because of who offers it. The passage we just heard is the inaugural address of a king ascending to his throne. That’s one thing we celebrate on Ascension Sunday: Christ’s enthronement to rulership over his rightful realm.
But wouldn’t we expect a new king who had to suffer and to fight so much for his throne, as did Jesus, to start his reign with threats to his enemies, and an intimidating show of force? The beginning of a new king’s reign is precisely when he has to assert and project overwhelming, shock-and-awe force to his enemies, who will sit it as a time of vulnerability.
But the Lord Jesus Christ begins his reign not with threats but with a message of mercy for all who want it. His inaugural address is not a condemnation of his enemies and opponents, but an invitation to newness of life, like that offer of a day at the beach to a child who has never seen anything better than a weedy, muddy junkyard in a slum.
This call to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is how the Risen, Resurrected Christ is powerfully, actively, extending his realm into our world and our lives: by his gracious, good news offer of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name, and a new life of better things. That’s where eternal life begins. It’s also how eternal life continues.