Acts 11:1-8 (Easy to Read Version) – Peter Returns to Jerusalem
The apostles and the believers in Judea heard that non-Jewish people had accepted God’s teaching too. But when Peter came to Jerusalem, some Jewish believers argued with him. They said, “You went into the homes of people who are not Jews and are not circumcised, and you even ate with them!”
So Peter explained the whole story to them. He said, “I was in the city of Joppa. While I was praying, I had a vision. I saw something coming down from heaven. It looked like a big sheet being lowered to the ground by its four corners. It came down close to me, and I looked inside. I saw all kinds of animals, including wild ones, as well as reptiles and birds. I heard a voice say to me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill anything here and eat it!’
“But I said, ‘I can’t do that, Lord! I have never eaten anything that is not pure or fit to be used for food.’”
Here, the Jewish people didn’t understand that God’s mercy could extend to those unlike them—to Gentiles. It even took a dramatic housetop vision to open Peter’s heart to accept Gentiles in the church. The next line in the Scripture is God opposing Peter’s commitment to a Jewish (only) church, saying, “What God has made holy, you must not call unholy.” The people kept separate are welcome. The tent for believers is big.
But there could not be unity or reconciliation then or at any time without accountability and without repentance. Repentance, a forsaking of sin, of our violation of the image of God in others, of accepting lies as truth, of exploiting neighbor and nature. God held open the tent flap for anyone who repented, who turned from darkness to light, who reversed their direction toward God. A change of mind is of no value if it isn’t accompanied by a change of direction, a change of life and action.
In the early days of the church, Lent was a time during which people who had offended the standards of the community—even to the point of being physically exiled from it—were restored and welcomed back. Presbyterians have always taken sin and the need for forgiveness seriously. We follow patterns of sin, repentance, and gratitude for God’s grace that is our basis of hope. Sin, repent, grace. Lather, rinse, repeat. Grace from heaven makes us new people. Grace on earth affords the possibility of reconciliation, of unity. In both cases, it is undeserved love.
Today’s efforts to heal a divided country are often framed as two paths that you can go by: unity or accountability. I hope this is a false dichotomy, a false fork in the road. No matter how we define bad acts, we can challenge ourselves and our nation to confront them, to confront our own motivations and desires, and to try to repair them. My change of mind is of no value if it isn’t accompanied by a change of action. Grace and unity are never a simple arithmetic exchange for accountability and repentance. Accountability and repentance give witness to a deep and enduring change of mind. They signal a transformation and a new path and direction. No forks. Unity and grace follow reconciliation, which follows repentance and accountability. It is not a forgive and forget process, and none of the steps can be skipped. We don’t stop Luke 17:3 in midsentence when one sins against us. If there is repentance, forgive. As we prepare ourselves for Easter, we remember, we repent, we reimagine, and we receive the grace of God and grace from each other.
Dear God, help us come together during this time of Lent, to give thanks, and to overcome our divisions. Help us become interdependent so our outcomes and fate are connected. Help us apologize to those we have wronged and resolve not to do those things again. Help us forgive those who have wronged us. Help us work toward being Easter people in a Good Friday world.