Peter’s speech that makes up the bulk of Acts 2 makes an impact on the crowd. We looked at the sermon itself last week, at how Peter broke down the things that were happening and steered the attention of the crowd back to Jesus, showcasing for them the fact that he was the one they had been waiting for and that they had failed to read the signs and missed him. After they hear all this the people are moved by the case that he makes and they realize they’ve got to do something, so they ask for the next step. They ask what they should do and Peter gives them two steps, repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Neither of these are original concepts to Christians, we see scenes of repentance, both individual and communal in the Old Testament and we see baptism taking place, most notably the followers of John the Baptist were baptized and Jesus went and was baptized by John. Neither of these concepts ancient either, repentance and baptism are still at the basis of what it means to be a Christian so I want us to take a minute and unpack what these things really mean because it is easy for us to brush past things we know and not give them the attention they deserve.
Repentance was and remains an important concept for Jews. In Judaism then and now there were several elements of repentance that were expected to be present. The first was a recognition of sin as sin. Pretty straight forward there, you’ve got to realize what it was that you did that put you in this position. Naming sin is important. Because a lot of us find it easy to say we’re “sinners” but would never admit to our actual sins. It is a lot easier to say “oh I’m a sinner,” than to say “my greed drives every decision I make.” It comes across better to admit “I’m a sinner” than to recognize that “my pride has consumed my life.” I’ve heard people say in response to some of the issues of race that have come to the surface in our country over the last few years “American doesn’t have a race problem we have a sin problem.” Which sounds very profound and holy but really is a way to cop out right? The race problem is the sin problem. We cannot repent from something we’re not willing to name.
Second, repentance in Judaism required and still requires remorse. We all know a fake apology when we hear it right? Last week Oklahoma beat Ohio State at Ohio State and the Oklahoma quarterback got the school flag and speared right in the middle of the field. People apparently got upset so on Monday he “apologized” to anyone who was offended. That’s the best fake apology, “I don’t really believe what I did was wrong but if it bothered you I feel bad about it.” We’ve all heard 8-year old’s forced to apologize after they get in a fight, that’s not the standard our repentance before God is held to. Real repentance requires remorse. The fake apology doesn’t cut it.
The third aspect of repentance in Jewish tradition is desisting from sin. You have to stop doing the thing you’re doing and attempt to make it right. So if your sin is you stole from someone you need to return what was stolen or make restitution. If your sin is that as a nation you have turned to other gods you destroy the idols and return to worshiping the one true God. Repentance requires action. The elements come in stages: there’s a moral/intellectual stage where you realize you’ve done wrong, there’s a feeling stage where you’re legitimately sorry for what’s been done, and then there’s an action stage, a moment where you attempt to move into a new way of doing things.
The people are convinced of their mistake by Peter’s words, the realize their sin, that they had God’s Messiah in their midst and not only did they fail to recognize him they turned him over to be killed. They are remorseful about this, they’re pretty concerned, and so they’re baptized. Good Baptist representation of baptism here too, obviously representing their rejection of a previous way of life and embrace a new way.
What’s really interesting to me is that we don’t only see the repentance and baptism of these new believers, 3000 of them, we’re told, we see the aftermath and that’s what I think has the most to say for us today. When these folks repent and are baptized their lives change. There is a real and tangible difference in the way they live because of their baptism. That’s not necessarily the case today. Michael Horton is a Presbyterian professor and writer, he wrote a book called Christless Christianity. His premise is that the church in America has become such a part of culture that we’re held captive by it, and one of the manifestations of that is faith that is “trivial, sentimental, affirming, and irrelevant.” Its faith that is about comfort and self-help and self-improvement and individualism. Its faith that is missing its central component. Its faith, I think, that is missing the change and the action that we see in Acts.
We’re told about four things that these first Christians do, four things specifically that mark these new lives. First, they devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings. They don’t stop trying to learn more and grow more. Baptism is a first step not a final act. There is not a point in our lives where we reached “enough” faith. I had a band director in high school who would not give anyone a 100 because “music is the never-ending quest for unobtainable perfection. To give a 100 is to say that there is nothing that could be done better, and if we make that claim we have failed as musicians.” As pompous a statement as that was it had something profound in it. A lot of us get content in our faith. A lot of us are willing to say we’re good when we no that’s not the case. Or even if we’re not content, even if we know it could be better, we put that off as something we’ll eventually do better while really just accepting that maybe this is as good as we’re going to get. For the church in Acts there isn’t such thing as stagnant faith – there’s growth or there’s loss, and they dedicated themselves to growth.
They didn’t do it alone though, and that brings us to the second characteristic, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship. To the breaking of bread together. One of the things Horton laments in his book is the focus on individualism that exists in the modern church. We focus on ourselves, how our faith impacts us, what we like in worship, so much is me-centric. The early church recognized that faith can’t thrive or even exist in a vacuum. We should hear and study the words of scripture but it has its best impact on us when we hear it with real people. It is in fellowship, in hearing each other’s hopes and hurts and celebrations and concerns and praises and pains that the words of faith come alive and make a mark on us and our communities.
Hopefully we’re starting to see how these ideas build on and into one another, and the third element that set this community apart is similar in that it comes out of their fellowship and their togetherness: they have everything in common and they sell property and possessions to give to those in need. Now this is the part we like to tune out as commie nonsense, don’t do it, stay with me. A couple of things here: remember that in this time you were either rich or starving. There was basically no middle ground. There were folks who owned property and had steady sources of income and woke up each day knowing they were going to get to eat that day and folks who didn’t have any of that wealth or reassurance. The early church recognized something important: nothing good comes from that kind of inequality. There is no societal benefit to me having years’ worth of food in a storehouse when someone else is starving. It was also a continuation of an Old Testament idea. When the Hebrews left Egypt they had all been slaves, they all had nothing. And if you look at the laws in the Old Testament a lot of them had to do with trying to keep inequality and some kind of class system from taking hold. Because what generally happens very quickly, as long as we’re not the ones on the bottom, is that we accept that that kind of tiered system if fine. As long as we’re not the ones suffering the most, as long as we’re doing fine, we’ll figure out some way to accept the way things are as the way they have to be. The early church, at least in this moment, we see other places where it didn’t go so well, the early church recognized that excess in the face of suffering was sin, and as a means of repentance, as a means or confronting the ways they had taken part in that sin they sought to do something different. Now I don’t know what we do with that in America in 2017. I certainly won’t pretend I have the answers. I own more than one set of clothes and have a savings account, I certainly try to plan for the future. Several of us went and saw Shane Claiborne at Gardner-Webb in the spring, he and the folks in his community are taking this example incredibly seriously, I won’t speak for anyone else who went but my first response to him was to figure out reasons that his example wasn’t practical to my life and would never work for me. I don’t know what we do with this. I think a good place to start is to be a little less quick to judge who “deserves” our help. We love to put poverty and suffering into boxes. We love to try to figure out if people are going to “do the right thing” with our charity. Somehow I just don’t think that when someone comes up to us and says he’s hungry what we’re going to be judged on is whether he’s telling the truth. Its how we respond to the opportunities we have to deal with this issues that matters for us.
That hard question, and I think it should be hard, the question of what this element of the life of the early church looks like brings us to the final element, the final thing we in these first Christians. They devote themselves to prayer. They don’t seem as determined to figure out all the answers for themselves as we are, they bring the questions and concerns and big things and small things and all the aspects of their lives before God in prayer. They don’t pray as an afterthought, they don’t pray just to have their bases covered, they devote themselves to prayer. And when they did these things, when they took the idea of repentance and baptism seriously and acted on it, God added to their number. Their growth and success and all the things as a church we look for and long for started when they took seriously the call to take a realistic look at themselves, to repent where it was needed, and to follow through on that repentance and change their way of doing things.
That frame work exists for us today, as a church and as individuals. If we hear the message of Christ, that he came, lived, and died on our behalf to free us from bondage to sin, the way forward is clear.