Liberating repentance – Acts 10; 34-43

I’m going to draw out from Acts 10; 34-43 what makes the Gospel transformational, and suggest how we can engage it more fully.

The short speech by Peter was made after he’d been summoned to meet a Roman centurion.  Peter willingly went to meet him after having had a vision where Peter was being told to eat food that Jews considered unclean.  In the vision he was told “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter is describing what he learnt from the event, and it efficiently describes why  I am a Christian.

First of all Peter declares “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  In short, God loves you and me equally to the Jews.  We are ALL allowed to share in the life giving message of the good news of Christ.

Peter then describes that he personally was witness to the facts that:

  • John baptised Jesus, at which point God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit
  • Jesus went around doing good and healing people
  • Jesus was crucified
  • Jesus was raised to life on the third day, and appeared to those selected to be his witnesses
  • Jesus told them to preach that He is the one who will judge the living and the dead
  • And finally that everyone who believes in Jesus will have their sins forgiven

The first four points bear witness to who Jesus was.  But I want to focus on the last two points. That Jesus will judge the living and the dead, and that everyone who believes will have their sins forgiven.

If we are honest, we’d rather not be judged at all.  Perhaps we are living quiet lives, keeping our head below the parapet.  We come to church on Sunday and we just want to be left alone until we die when we hope to go to heaven.

If we are to be judged, we don’t want our neighbours or friends judging us.  And when we see what the Tabloids say about people, we certainly don’t want society to judge us.

We probably get angry at anyone who dares to criticise us – “who are they to judge?  They’re no better than me! Hypocrites!”

What about Jesus judging us?

Jesus – the human incarnation of infinite goodness.

The one who gave every moment of his life to heal, teach and serve.

The one who allowed himself to be sacrificed by crucifixion, and still forgave those who nailed him to the cross.

Jesus.  We can’t be angry with Him – he’s certainly no hypocrite.  We can probably accept that he has the right to judge us, but maybe we are still not happy with the idea.

Deep down we know that if Jesus were to judge us he would see SUCH shortcomings in our lives.

  • Our petty grievances with our neighbours, with our fellow Christians
  • Our contentment to live in comfort whilst we know that there are others who have nothing
  • Our consumerism, looking for the cheapest product that then keeps the poorest in poverty and makes those in work put in more hours at lower pay than they can manage
  • Our readiness to get in our car to go anywhere, to take cheap overseas holidays, to travel on a whim, leading to overheating of our planet and the mass extinction of so many species

And that’s before we get to more obvious ‘sins’…

And yet we probably don’t ‘feel’ like sinners.

When I was on the cusp of becoming a Christian I had been told that I needed to ‘pray the sinner’s prayer’.  This is what I wrote in my journal:

I sit down – I’m not ready for kneeling yet – and start to read the prayer…

 “Dear lord I have sinned…”

 The trouble is…I don’t feel like a sinner.  Yes, I know that I could be a lot better than I am, but I just don’t feel it at the moment.  So I start to pray that God will help me to make the step from logic to feeling.  At least I try to do what I think praying is ….  I wonder if I’m doing it right.

I didn’t ‘feel’ like a sinner – but I recognised that I needed to.

If we don’t ‘feel’ our sin, then we need help.  We can pray, like I did, for God to help us make the step from logic to feeling.

A little later in my journal I wrote:

My daughter had organised her own birthday party, with half a dozen friends coming round for a ‘scary party’.  It was impressive to see them all dressed up as witches and devils (and a cat!?).  However, for some reason I was rather grumpy.  I didn’t get into the party spirit and got rather short with all the mess, and split drinks and so on.  I wasn’t very sympathetic when my daughter got upset that no-one was listening to her, and tried to explain that they couldn’t help it if they got distracted.  At the end of it I felt that I had let her down.  I don’t know if she noticed particularly, since it was rather a busy affair, but that was how I felt.  I felt like a sinner.  Was someone trying to tell me something?

But if we can ‘feel’ our sin, if we can let the Holy Spirit show us our shortcomings then we will surely fear his judgement.  That is in part what it means to fear God.

And recognising our sin is the start of healing.  When recognise what we are, when we see through our masks of self-justification, and we don’t like what we see!  We want to be different, we want to change.  That is what repentance is – honest assessment followed by determination to change.

I recently watched a TED talk by Eve Ensler, and activist for women.  She was talking on the profound power of an authentic apology.  She describes how her father abused her, but that he’d never apologised – never repented.  She describes the process of repentance.  In her words:

Apology is a sacred commitment. It requires complete honesty. It demands deep self-interrogation and time. It cannot be rushed. I discovered an apology has four steps, and, if you would, I’d like to take you through them. 

 The first is you have to say what, in detail, you did. Your accounting cannot be vague. “I’m sorry if I hurt you” or “I’m sorry if I sexually abused you” doesn’t cut it. You have to say what actually happened. “I came into the room in the middle of the night, and I pulled your underpants down.” “I belittled you because I was jealous of you and I wanted you to feel less.” The liberation is in the details. An apology is a remembering. It connects the past with the present. It says that what occurred actually did occur. 

 The second step is you have to ask yourself why. Survivors are haunted by the why. Why? Why would my father want to sexually abuse his eldest daughter? Why would he take my head and smash it against a wall? …..  My father had to live up to this impossible ideal, and so he was never allowed to be himself. He was never allowed to express tenderness or vulnerability, curiosity, doubt. He was never allowed to cry. And so he was forced to push all those feelings underground…

 Those suppressed feelings later became Shadowman, and he was out of control, and he eventually unleashed his torrent on me. 

 The third step is you have to open your heart and feel what your victim felt …. You have to let your heart break. You have to feel the horror and betrayal and the long-term impacts of your action on your victim. You have to sit with the suffering you have caused. 

 And, of course, the fourth step is taking responsibility for what you have done and making amends. 

 So, why would anyone want to go through such a gruelling and humbling process? Why would you want to rip yourself open? Because it is the only thing that will set yourself free.”

This is SO important.  This is what Jesus is talking about when he says “Repent of your sins and turn to God”

When we repent we still feel the guilt of our past mistakes.  I still feel angst thinking about that party.  And this is where the final point is Paul’s speech brings such freedom:

“Anyone who believes in Jesus will have their sins forgiven.”

Perhaps this seems a little unfair – what about someone who doesn’t ‘believe in Jesus’.  Are they not forgiven?  Well clearly they will not be able to believe that they are forgiven.  We have to believe that Jesus has the authority to forgive our sins in order to accept that forgiveness.

Maybe it’s actually more serious if we claim to believe in Jesus. We know the theory, but have we really repented?  Do we really know that freedom that we are forgiven?  How can we tell?

I actually found the TED talk above when I was looking for a quote about activism:

“An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something.  That person is not usually motivated by the need for power, or money or fame.  But in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to make it better.”

So my question is, are we activists for Christ?  Have we repented and turned to God with such deep honesty that we “cannot help but fight for Him”, such that we are “compelled by some internal moral engine to make it better”

And if not, it’s time we did something about it.

Let’s pray that God shows us our sin, that we can understand why we do it, that we can feel what our ‘victims’ feel, that we take responsibility for it and that we commit to making amends.

That is the only thing that will set us free.

(Delivered as a sermon – January 2020)

About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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