I was raised in a shared Catholic and Presbyterian home, living in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, where many people were, and still are today, active Catholics. I’ve always been intrigued by the slight differences in our expressions of faith between the Catholic and Presbyterian churches.
Whether we look at today’s Christian Church, or go back to the Reformation, the two traditions tend to emphasize things a little differently when it comes teaching the faith. Sometimes we can look at a Presbyterian worship service, and then a Catholic mass, and wonder, ‘Just how much do we really have in common?’ I’ve also been a little surprised when meeting people of more fundamentalist backgrounds and I hear that some do not even consider Catholics part of the same Christian Church that you and I belong to. For some people the differences within these faith traditions are just too great.
As a possible heretic myself, being baptized and partially raised in the Catholic Church, and now as a Presbyterian pastor (you choose which is more heretical), I will admit that there are some things that both excite and inspire me about the Catholic Church, and at the same time cause me some stress and to have some reservations about the Catholic Church.
However, one thing that people these days seem to generally show interest in is the Pope. Now, for me, I’ve never been into celebrities, whether they are singers or movie stars, or even religious leaders. But for some reason, this guy, Pope Francis, has been causing a stir the past few years, and I was intrigued.
I recently starting reading one of his books called, ‘The Name of God is Mercy.’ I wanted to read a little bit more into the thoughts of this man whom the Catholic Church looks to for spiritual leadership. And within the first few pages of reading this book, I was once again inspired with some words, and incredibly challenged with others. One particular message kept on coming up, which I don’t usually read from many of our church leaders of the Protestant Tradition. Within the very first pages of this book, Pope Francis spoke openly about the need to recognize our own wretchedness and shame as human beings. Now, at first, the stereotypes of the shaming Catholic priest flowed through my head. I remember friends and family talking about the shameful act of having to go to Confession during their school days, or before mass. Here again I’m reading these words of shame and guilt. But the more I read the words of this simple man from Argentina, the more I realized the importance and power of admitting one’s wretchedness and shame within our spiritual lives. It’s by doing so that we open ourselves to the most amazing grace offered in the risen Christ. Pope Francis states,
‘The Church Fathers teach us that a shattered heart is the most pleasing gift to God. It is the sign that we are conscious of our sins, of the evil we have done, of our wretchedness, and of our need for forgiveness and mercy.’
This is what today’s scripture reading is about within the book of Acts and the Gospel of John; how God uses our earthly divisiveness, wretchedness, and shame, in order to open ourselves to God’s love in the world. We need to repent.
Our scripture text this morning that I would like for us to wrestle with comes from the book of Acts. I’m assuming some of us are not as familiar with this message in Acts, as we are talking about dreams, and hooves, and Gentiles, and repentance, so let’s get to know this text a bit.
While most people would agree that the book of Acts is actually authored primarily by the same author of the Gospel of Luke, we find this book of Acts directly following the Gospel story of John. If I could sum up the Book of Acts in a few words it would be this: Jesus is resurrected! Now what? Which is perfect, because isn’t this what we are all thinking at this moment following Easter?
The book of Acts is really a fascinating book! When I was growing up I was taught that Acts is primarily a history of the early church, and in some ways it is (but let’s be honest, that’s not the best way to get a child excited about reading a book of the Bible). We read stories of the disciples after Easter Sunday, and how Jesus returns, only to ultimately be raised back to heaven, and ultimately the beginning of the Christian Church. But Acts is not only a history book.
Some people call this book the Acts of the Apostles, the story of how the disciples of Jesus were sent out as apostles to share of the resurrected Christ—well this was making it a little more interesting. At least maybe there would be some adventures involved.
Then someone described this book in a different way: the Acts of the Holy Spirit. And when I started reading this book not as some piece of history, but as the workings of the third part of the Trinity, then the stories within this book started coming to life! We read stories of the wonders on the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, when the Spirit descends upon the apostles as divided tongues of fire. People started speaking in their own languages, yet were able to understand one another. We read stories of miraculous healings by the hands of the Apostles, now empowered by the Spirit to do the works of Jesus.
One thing we also read about is life after Easter for people like you and me. We read about a variety of ways that individuals were inspired and challenged to live in this world after the ascension of Christ. We read about people’s world views being changed; about new life. We read the story of Saul who was converted to Paul, as he was blinded by the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, and after three days he was able to see with new eyes as scales fell from his face. And we read about Peter, and how he receives new visions and messages on how to proclaim the message of the risen Christ, not just to Jews, but to all people. Yes, the Book of Acts is far more than history; far more than a simple story. Just like the experiences of Paul or Peter, the book of Acts challenges us in ways we may never expect. It calls us to follow the risen Christ in ways we may never have thought of, or considered religiously appropriate. It calls us to turn back to God, to align ourselves with the risen Christ, to be transformed by the movement of the Spirit within us. In short, we are called to repentance.
Now we pick up in chapter 11 with Peter following a vision he had concerning where and to whom God is calling him to share the Good News. Some of the circumcised, or Jewish, followers of Christ were challenging Peter as to why he would be sharing the message of the resurrected Christ with Gentiles, or the uncircumcised. He shares his vision to explain:
5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’
He will continue to explain the miracle of meeting strangers who all play a role in God’s plan as a household is converted by the Good News.
16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
Now this is where the story becomes something even more special; Peter is able to apply what happened with him now to the entirety of his calling in ministry.
17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Those Jewish followers who first challenged Peter were challenged themselves to think beyond their own notions of how God moves in this world.
18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I find this last sentence most challenging for us today. Of all the words that we can fill in with this last sentence concerning what God can give them, the author uses ‘repentance’…that leads to life. What are some other words that we as Presbyterians really enjoy as gifts from God? Grace? Love? Faith? Despite all of these words, the author uses the word ‘repentance.’
Now, we don’t often use the word ‘repentance’ within our Presbyterian vocabulary. For many of us, it may remind us of negative experiences with people holding signs on the street corner or at the park reading ‘repent! And return, ye, to God the father, or ye shall perish!’ But repentance, friends, is not a scary word; it is a response to an invitation.
Repentance is a turning back, a correction in our actions, a re-calculation in our lives’ GPS. God was never one to turn away from the broken and sinful people of the world, but God also was not one to condone the actions of sin in the world. Time after time God used the characters of the Bible to do most amazing things, but before they could be used they repented from their straying ways, and were able to once again align themselves with God’s Word. In fact, God has a history of using some of the most unassuming, broken people in history, and to this day, to do some of the most glorifying things (of course, some needed to repent more often than others)!
And this is where the word repentance comes into our lives here today. Just as the writers of the book of Acts understood the importance of ‘the repentance that leads to life’, so we are reminded of this invitation of repentance that leads to life. The acts of the Holy Spirit are not done! We are being called to be transformed by the life giving message of repentance in the world today. Just as Pope Francis highlights the wretchedness and shame in our lives, he also points to the importance of such realization as it serves as the invitation to repentance and new life in Christ.
Brothers and sisters, we are an Easter people; we are a people of the Spirit. As we celebrate new life in Christ, we are called to continually repent, to continually re-calculate, as we respond to God’s irresistible grace. We are called to move beyond those things that tend to separate us, whether we are Jews or Gentiles, or Catholics or Presbyterians. And when we live in daily repentance, our lives will glorify God who calls us to live in God’s grace, and most importantly in love.