Repentance: From Scarcity to Abundance; From Death to Life

Repentance: From Scarcity to Abundance; From Death to Life
Photo by Edward Howell / Unsplash

Today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles is an important moment. Peter is giving an impassioned speech to people gathered around Solomon’s Portico at the Temple in Jerusalem. He reminds them that all of them are called to repent, that the resurrection of Jesus has made possible a world in which perfect health exists and that they have all seen it happen just now! But what have they seen, exactly?

Immediately prior to this speech, Peter and John met a man at the Beautiful Gate to the Temple who was there most days, begging for alms. He had legs which could not support him and, so, begged as his only possible source of income. Peter speaks with him and, rather than money, tells him that God has healed him. The man stands and realizes that he is able to walk, skip, dance, and jump for the first time in his life. He proceeds into the Temple with the apostles and, shortly thereafter, the crowd forms. (Acts 3.1-11)

The crowd is eager to acclaim Peter and John as miracle-workers. Holy men of great power! The two are quick to point out that the man was healed by God’s power, not theirs. Their role was to speak to the man and tell him what they had seen God reveal in him. His faith in God and the helpful lens of the apostles’ eye for miracles aligned to bring him to the wholeness he desired.

Our relationships and how we see and speak about one another are important things. Sometimes others see possibilities in us that we haven’t recognized ourselves. How many of us have heard a story, or had the experience ourselves, of another person seeing something in us that we hadn’t recognized, only for it to become a real blessing? “You have a real eye for colour, have you ever tried painting?” or “You’ve a real way with words. You ought to be a writer.” And so on. The observer hasn’t created anything in us that wasn’t already there. All they have done is comment on what God has shown them in us. Their observation has freed something in us previously hidden or restrained.

Now, in the world of Peter and John there is a cultural association in this scene between disability and sin. Physical differences are understood to be manifestations of sin, either of the one who is different or perhaps their parents or ancestors. The man born with legs that could not hold him probably believed this to be the case. And, like many people, probably excluded himself from the Temple precincts, thinking himself unworthy to be there. Nor can he work, in part because of his body’s limitations, but also because others are unwilling to associate closely with him. Similar to observations of talents and possibilities, the perception of others can also bind us, hold us down, and limit us.

Our society is much better at including people with varied physical capacities and limitations than that of Peter and John. However, the attitudes about disability, what it means about the person, and where it originates are often not so different. We still tend to be most concerned about limitations or differences that we can readily see and hear. Whether it is someone who speaks differently or someone who needs a device to help them move about. But there are a host of disabilities that we have either normalized or which are not immediately apparent and which garner very different responses.

I wear glasses and hearing aids. These both compensate for parts of my body that basically work as intended, but do much better at much lower cost with a bit of help. These are not commented on in the way that, for example, a wheelchair would be. In addition to my sensory aids, what is not readily seen in me are the bits of metal bolted to my bones, helping to hold them together after being broken so badly that they could not restore themselves. Or the complicated arrangement of metal, plastic, computer chips, and medicine that compensate for a pancreas damaged beyond repair by a well-intentioned but confused immune system.

All of these conditions are limiting, but because of their invisibility and my own, vain desire for them not to be readily apparent to others, they are not thought of as disabilities. They are not signs of uncleanness and certainly not sources of social exclusion. They do shape the way that I experience the world and, more importantly to this sermon, the way that I understand and know God. Amy Kenn, in her book My Body is Not a Prayer Request, observes that too much conversation around disability focuses on the limits. She argues that experiencing the world as a disabled person also brings with it the blessing of knowing God in different ways. She may not be able to walk in the way most people do, but with her wheelchair she glides through the world. What does moving in this way reveal to her about God and this creation that is missed by those of us who mostly walk? 

Even when the man outside the Beautiful Gate is healed, the leaders in the crowd want to make the scene about Peter and John’s miraculous powers, not about the man they all knew. Though the cause for his exclusion has been removed, he remains a suspect figure in their minds. Peter calls their attention to this fact. In his way, the man born with weak legs has repented; he has changed his heart and realized his own worthiness and is now in the Temple, praising God. Repentance is the work to which everyone in the crowd is called. To look at themselves and bring to God the pieces of their lives that do not match with God’s loving image of them. And in that process of repentance and healing and refreshment, it is also for the sake of the whole beloved community that their experiences are to be honored and shared. When the community’s narrative about someone in our midst is about possibility, gifts, and ability, that narrative is liberating, empowering, and blessing. When our narrative is about disability, limitation, unworthiness, and exclusion, that narrative is oppressive, disenfranchising, and a curse.

Peter’s speech is a reminder to the crowd, and to all of us, that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ God has made true repentance possible. True change is possible. We are able and called to change our hearts and minds, the ways that we live and move and have our being in this world. We are called to experience healing and the refreshment of God’s Spirit when we unburden ourselves and one another of our sin. In a world where Easter is real and the resurrected Jesus walks with us, prays with us, and speaks to and through us, we are called to change the narrative from disability to possibility, from separation to healing, from scarcity to abundance, from curse to blessing, from death to life.

Thanks be to God.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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