Community of the Holy Spirit: Repentance as a Way of (Dis)believing

This past Sunday we looked at Peter’s Sermon in Acts 2. I struggled over this text for a while. How do I preach a sermon on a sermon and keep it interesting? Actually, I’m trying to avoid using words like “preach” and “sermon” because they feel less participatory and Quakerly. I really am interested in developing a style of relfecting on the text and inviting others to do the same. In either case, it took me awhile to work through some of my own feelings about Peter’s Sermon. I had a hard time moving past the tendency to quote Peter’s statement, ““Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38-39 NRSV)” as a kind of revivalistic salvation message.

Repentance as a Way of (Dis)believing

Once I was able to move past some intital feelings around the text, Acts 2 really opened up for me. I realized the tendency to read this passage from Peter’s point of view. It’s much easier to side with the “good guys” in Scripture than those being chastized. Instead,  we should not afford ourselves the luxury of siding with Peter. I found that if we could identify with the Jewish audience, a profound meaning arises from within the text. We must refuse ourselves the chance of getting out from under the fiery preacher’s gaze too quickly.

The gist of Peter’s message was to point to the Old Testament and say, “This is That!” As if Peter was saying, “What you see happening with the Holy Spirit, and what happened with Jesus are things that Joel and David, among others, spoke about in our Scriptures. However, you have believed too much that your own way of thinking was the right way, and so you not only misinterpreted the Scriptures, you killed the Messiah!”

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” (Acts 2:22-24 NRSV).

In other words, Peter’s call to repent is a call to change of both the direction they were living as a community, and enter this new Holy Spirit community, but to change their very way of believing.

Repent from the way of living and believing that led to this crucifixion, be forgiven and join this community.

Thus repentance was a call to (dis)believe:

  • Disbelieve in a theology that calls for perfect observance of a legal code
  • Disbelieve in ideas that allows God to be kept within our theological and political control
  • Disbelieve in the idea that we can force others to believe what we believe
  • Disbelieve in the theology that says difference is bad
  • Disbelieve just enough in all your beliefs so that God can reveal himself in ways unexpected

It’s important to remember that Peter’s target audience were believers. ((In the opening of his address Peter directs his comments to  the “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem.” But then he focuses more narrowly on the Israelites, addressing them specifically in a number of following verses v. 14, 22, 29, 36.  His whole sermon is based on “This is that” drawing on the OT narratives of both Joel and David. )) They were Israelities. He is not trying to get them to believe, but rather get them to (dis)believe their beliefs and open themselves up to an alternate understanding of the narrative they were a part of. Peter was not saying to believe nothing, but rather to change your allegiance to those beliefs. Peter din’t want people to become agnostics who weren’t sure whether they could believe anything at all. He hoped that they would take what they already believed and redirect it in a way that allowed room for God to do the unexpected.

Peter’s address to the crowd seeks to put a crack in their “perfect observance,” trying to create a fissure, a gap, of (dis)belief, so that a new rendering of God’s works can register. He wanted them to see that their good intentions of wanting to be right, their desire for perfect (black and white) observance of Torah, got someone killed. And it just so happened that someone was the messiah.

In my reading Peter said something like, “here was one of our own, given to us as a gift by God, who was in fact the Messiah, the one you have been waiting for, the one our ancestors have waited for, but you got carried away and turned him loose to people who do not play by our rules.”

A Deep Rift in Our Society

An extreme, yet timely, example of an undying allegiance to belief was the shooting last week of George Tiller. Tiller was an abortion doctor who conducted late term abortions. He was gunned down at his church past Sunday while handing out church programs as an usher. Someone believed so strongly that abortion is wrong, that the ultimate faithfulness to that belief was to committ murder.

The gunman needed a crack, a fissure in his allegiance to his belief not necessarily the belief itself. What happened was that his undying allegiance to the belief that life should not be taken led him to take a life.

And while it may be easiest to take the role of Peter, and point our fingers at the gunman, don’t we first need to turn the perspective around and become the audience, become this man and take blame for our own complicitness.  How have we, the church, contributed to the culture of a society that says true fidelity to certain beliefs are worth killing for?

Christian leader Frank Schaeffer wrote a moving piece this morning titled, “How I (and Other “Pro-Life” Leaders) Contributed to Dr. Tiller’s Murder,” where he confesses his, and his father’s, roles in this death.

He rightly points out that so much of the rhetoric around this particular topic, and a few others, are so hateful, so inflammatory, and in your face, that violence is the only possible end. Matching wrongful behavior with more wrongful behavior continues the logic of the world, and ultimately displays our own disbelief in the power of God’s kingdom to bring about redemption and salvation amidst sin and destruction.

And Peter’s audience responds, just like Frank Schaeffer, with a confession of their own: “Dear Brothers, we do not know what to do, we do not know how to respond!”

Now let’s be clear, this reflection is not about abortion and neither is Peter’s.Whether or not we have contributed to Tiller’s murder is not the point either. The point is how do we as the audience respond in confession to Peter? How have we contributed to the kind of allegiance to beliefs that leave people in our communities maimed and hurt by the things we say and do? How have we missed understood our Scriptures in this way? Who have we place in “the hands of those outside the law?”

The Community of Forgiveness

If anything Peter’s sermon was about forgiveness. And you can see this in the turn of his sermon. After he challenges their beliefs, he turns around and says, “this promise of the Holy Spirit is for you!”  The text says the people are “cut to the heart.” They realize that they missed their chance to follow the messiah. And they don’t want to miss it again. The people become (dis)believers just enough to accept Peter’s message and God’s new work.

They recognized they needed to change their way of thinking.

And so it all starts with acknowledging we don’t have all the answers: “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37-38).

There is a deep rift in our society that only the Holy Spirit, which grants forgiveness, can bring. There is much forgiveness needed for the acts Tiller did as an abortion doctor, there is much forgiveness needed for the gunman. Peter says the same thing. There is much forgiveness needed here. You have killed the messiah, but even still God turns around and offers you forgiveness and the sign of forgiveness in the Holy Spirit.

And this promised Holy Spirit offers forgiveness seeks to shape us as a people who freely ask for and freely give that forgiveness to all people. This is the key to how such a diverse community can sustain itself, the gift of forgiveness that is given by the Holy Spirit.

A breathing prayer for forgiveness: Slowing inhale and receive forgiveness saying, “Forgive us our debts.” Then, slowly exhale, freely giving forgiveness to those who need it saying, “As we forgive our debtors.”


  • What’s the gift of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness to do with us today?
  • Who is it that we have trampled under foot in the process of believing and how do we initiate forgiveness?
  • How have I been trampled under foot and what’s my role in freely giving forgiveness?