A woman is being tailgated down a busy avenue by a guy in a Chevy Silverado. When the light turns yellow, she stops before the crosswalk rather than trying to accelerate through the intersection, which forces him to slam on his brakes. He is furious because he wasn’t able to get through the intersection, he’s going to be late for a meeting, and the sudden stop made him spill coffee all over his suit.
And he lets her have it. He slams on the horn and hollers in frustration, and was just in the middle of giving her a piece of his mind when he hears a knock on the window. A very serious looking officer is motioning for him to roll it down. The officer told the man to come out and put his hands on the hood of the car. He takes him down to the station where he is booked, photographed, fingerprinted, and placed in a holding cell.
A few hours later someone comes to get him and escorts him back out to booking, where the arresting officer was there with his clothes and keys.
“I’m very sorry about the confusion, sir.” said the officer. “I pulled up behind you when you were blowing your horn, giving the finger, and swearing like a sailor at the car in front of you. I noticed the What Would Jesus Do? sticker on your bumper, the JC4LIFE vanity tags, and the chrome fish-emblem on your tailgate. Naturally… I assumed you had stolen the car.
This Lent we’re talking about repentance. We’ve talked about how confession is an act of hope, how self-examination helps us become better Christians, and how good things happen when people turn to God. This week we’re going to talk about the nuts and bolts of repentance. Repentance begins with a thought, but it leads to action. Like Christianity as a whole, repentance isn’t about thinking the right things. It is about doing the right things. It isn’t about what you say you believe. It’s about how you live your beliefs. If you found you made a wrong turn on the highway, you wouldn’t keep going in the wrong direction. You’d turn around. In the same way, repentance only means something if we reorient our actions as well as our minds.
We have two stories for today. In our Gospel story for today, a rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he needs to sell everything that he has, and give it to the poor, and then come follow him.
In our story from Acts, Paul and Silas are thrown into prison in Philippi, and a miracle happens. An earthquake shakes the prison to its foundations, opening the doors and releasing the prisoners from their chains. The jailer is amazed at the power that seems to protect them. He asks what must I do to be saved? And they tell him that what has happened is the work of Jesus Christ.
In both of these stories, someone asks what they must do to receive the blessings of God. And in each story, they are given an honest answer. Become a follower of Jesus Christ. One of them is able to turn himself down the right path. The other is not. One story ends in sadness. The other in rejoicing. And the difference is that the jailer’s experience led him not just to thought, but to action.
When I was a teenager, our youth group used to go to the Montreat Youth Conference. It was always an incredible experience. We gathered in a big auditorium for worship, and we bonded with new people in our small groups. And every night we would get together with our own group for something called Back Home group. That was always the most powerful experience of the conference. We would talk about our experiences and our faith in ways that we couldn’t at home. We would have incredible spiritual awakenings. Our lives were transformed in Back Home group.
I remember one year we were in Back Home group talking about what happens when we go home. Anyone who has ever been to one of these things knows what happens. The feelings go away. The memory fades. We go back to school. Our friends we left behind expect us to be the same person we used to be. And hardly anything changes.
One year we were sitting with each other partaking in the annual tradition of saying that it would be different this year. But this time there was a girl who simply told it like it was. She was a pretty girl, and popular. And she said to one of the other girls (who was not so popular), “This week I’ve come to know you so well, and I love you so much. But when we go back to school, I won’t talk to you. I won’t even say hi to you in the halls. I can’t.” You might think she was shallow to say something like that. But really, she was just being honest. But even if we thought this year would be different, every single one of us totally understood what she meant.
At a retreat, you’re apart from the expectations and the pressure of your life. But when you came home, you’re not. Everyone expects you to be a certain way. The social pressure is too much. If she started talking to the wrong people, her friends might cut her off. They would say cruel things about her and anyone who spoke to her. It would be social suicide. Maybe you think it’s silly, but in high school that’s your whole life. Or maybe you know too well what being seen with the wrong people can do to your reputation. She couldn’t risk losing that because of a week of summer camp. And I don’t blame her.
And I don’t blame the rich young ruler either, to be honest. He makes the same decision that I have made many a time. I think about what I would have to give up in order to do the right thing, and I’m sad. Because I know myself. And I know I won’t. Whether it’s making myself look foolish for another, or giving up my comforts so that others might be included, I catch myself choosing like the rich young man more often than I’d like to admit.
But take a look at what the jailer does for Paul and Silas. At that very hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds. An hour ago he was ready to kill himself for fear of what they would do if the prisoners escaped on his watch. Now he was taking them to his home. Can you imagine if a jailer did that now? Brought a prisoner to his home, gave him a bath, made dinner? That jailer’s life would be over.
The moment of belief turns into action. He heard Paul and Silas tell the story of Jesus. Maybe they even told the story of how Jesus washed the disciples feet, and said that “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet.” And not an hour after he first believes, the jailer is washing their feet. He is an example of true repentance. True repentance begins in our heart, but it ends with our hands.
A young woman went home to visit her parents at their ranch and noticed they had some new neighbors. Making conversation with her mother on the front porch, she asked, “What are they like?”
“I haven’t met them yet,” her mother said. This surprised the daughter. Her mother had always been a social butterfly, and never before had someone new come to town without a plate of Jello or a loaf of her famous cranberry walnut banana bread. “I’m a little uncomfortable. It may take me a day or two to work up the nerve.”
“What makes you uncomfortable, Mama?”
“He is black… I know… it’s hard. I know it’s silly, but he makes me nervous, and uncomfortable. I grew up in a world where this didn’t happen. I’ve been trying to change the way I feel for 60 years. I finally realized I can only change the way I think and act.”
“But you never expressed any of this, the whole time I was raised,” said the daughter.
“I didn’t want to teach you wrong.” she whispered.
Later that day, she did work up the nerve, and brought over a loaf of bread that helped strike up a great friendship. And years later, when the daughter was sitting at her mother’s bedside in a hospital in the city, it was those friends who fed the animals and looked after the ranch.
Repentance is a process. It moves from a conviction in our heart to the movement of our feet. When we repent we do so in the hope that God has mercy, and in the hope that we can do better. We turn ourselves to God, because good things happen to people who turn to God. But in order for it to be effective, we must turn our hand to the plow as well. Make right the wrongs we have committed. Make amends for the wrongs we can’t right. Change the behaviors that led us wrong. It is hard. It is scary. It can be painful. But it is not repentance if we do not. It is something else, something lesser, a meaningless pleasantry, an empty offer. Love takes work, not just words.
But the work of repentance has rewards. The rewards are found in the knowledge that through repentance we are more whole people. They are known in repaired relationships, new friends, the profound experience of being forgiven. The work of repentance begins with God at work in our hearts, showing us what is good and right and perfect, but the work is not done until the rest of our selves is involved too.
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.