May 8, 2011
Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
I Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24: 13-35
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
If we read the entire book of Acts as a narrative arc that brings the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, then these early chapters are essential for establishing the kernel out of which the Christian church will grow. Therefore it is interesting that the key message in this passage is the call to repent—which parallels the start of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15).
“Repentance” is a peculiar word in contemporary culture. Either it’s a joke—the bearded guy with sandwich boards proclaiming the end of the world—or it’s a less-than-sincere apology offered by fallen religious leaders and celebrities who regret not their actions, but only “if someone was offended” by them. We may not be able to rehabilitate the word for progressive use, but we definitely need to reclaim its original meaning.
There’s a common understanding that repentance means “to turn,” but that barely scratches the surface of its meaning. The Greek word translated as “repentance” is metanoia, which is more accurately translated as “a change of mind.” The implication is that this change takes place as a result of what one has seen or perceived. The “meta” part of the word includes the notion of “beyond,” or “outside of.” In a theological context, then, metanoia refers to a perception of the world that is so fundamentally different from one’s previous understanding that it results in a complete change of mind—a transformation, a new orientation. When we experience a metanoia, we see ourselves and the world in a profoundly new way.
Is it any wonder that Jesus would begin his ministry with a call to this kind of transformation? He is preaching the kingdom of God, offering it as a real alternative to the kind of worldly power structures so epitomized by the Roman Empire. In one parable after another, he will stand conventional wisdom on its head—in deconstructive terms, rupture the master narrative—to illuminate a deeper truth. If we are to grasp the kingdom of God taught by Jesus, we have to see the master narrative for what it is and turn from it, change our minds, be transformed.
The kernel of what will become the church must grow out of this changed perception—that there is another way to live in relation to others and another way to conduct one’s self in the world—not by the accumulation of wealth and power, but by the honesty and generosity of one’s heart.
This is one of those passages you don’t want to read unless you plan to preach on it. There is a message here that is appropriate within the historical context of the persecution faced by Christians in the early centuries: “Precious in the sight of God is the death of God’s faithful ones.” But unless one is addressing present-day persecution by extremists in the Sudan, Nigeria, India, or Indonesia, this sentence is too problematic. It is deliberately paired in the lectionary with the next text, so that listeners draw the conclusion that Jesus is the faithful one whose death is precious in the sight of God, and this is addressed more fully below.
I Peter 1:17-23
How important is the doctrine of atonement to Christian faith? For some, it is nonnegotiable. To others it is immoral. More confusingly, it is not a single doctrine, but several interpretations, none of which has ever been declared official doctrine. There is insufficient room to discuss all theories here; suffice it to say that the idea of blood sacrifice was adopted early in the church, though variously explained by ransom, satisfaction, or penal substitution. At the same time, another trajectory developed as early as Abelard flatly rejecting blood sacrifice (even ridiculing it). In this trajectory one finds Kant, Schleiermacher, and feminist theologians.. (Rita Nakashima Brock famously referred to it as “divine child abuse.”)
The doctrine of atonement is an attempt to understand the salvific efficacy of Christ. Whether stated in transactional or transformational terms, atonement addresses the Christian claim that something about this person (however understood) is redemptive. Without going into the “from what, to what, or for what” questions of redemption, it is possible to express redemption in a fundamental and nondoctrinal way as: “I was that way, now I am this.” Or “Before, I understood the world one way; now I see it differently.” Or, “Before, I lived according to one set of rules, now I live according to a different set of rules.” Or even, “Once I feared death because I understood it one way; now I no longer fear death, because I see it differently.”
In other words, at the most basic level, stripped as much as possible of the doctrines that divide us, we can say that redemption is a metanoia—“a perception of the world” (quoting from above) “that is so fundamentally different from one’s previous understanding that it results in a complete change of mind—a transformation, a new orientation.” Whether this requires blood as a willing sacrifice, or blood as the shocking event that ruptures our complicity with worldly power—however we view this from conservative or progressive positions, that it happens is something I venture we can agree on.
The question that always follows, then, is what do we do with this changed perspective? Here, Peter is quite helpful. He recommends obedience to the truth; that is, act accordingly to truth you have grasped. Practice “genuine, mutual love; love one another deeply from the heart.” Now there’s a worthy goal—one we could spend our lives pursuing.
These post-crucifixion stories have one objective: to demonstrate that Rome and its violent show of force did not win; that the “Jesus movement” is alive as long as people are persuaded (a very different kind of power) that it is; in other words, as long as people remember him. The “road to Emmaus” story points to a method for remembering, namely, the breaking of bread. The obvious connection here is to communion, where people gather, the story is retold, and the elements shared, in Jesus’ words “in remembrance of me.” But we would be remiss to ignore the larger context of hospitality in which Jesus’ ministry was practiced. He referred to this specifically in Matthew 25 (“hungry and you gave me food”) but it is also present in story after story where food is the literal topic (feeding of the five thousand) or the common table is used to signify a radical hospitality of inclusion. Do this, the writers say—remember by imitating—and Jesus will be ever with you.
Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith. She received her PhD from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct professor at the Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and also co- pastor of Brea Congregational (UCC) Church in Brea, CA. She is the editor of Creative Transformation, managing editor of Process Studies, and editor of The Process Perspective, by John B. Cobb, Jr., and The Process Perspective II.