A ‘Come to Jesus’ Message

Christian 'welcome' goes through sin, repentance, and conversion

The past few years have seen a preoccupation in various ecclesiastical quarters about the Church’s “welcome.” It’s a strange preoccupation for an institution that has been around roughly two millennia and hitherto seemed to lack neither clarity about its welcome message nor success in its promotion. This year’s readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [here] provide a good look at that welcome message in the earliest Church. Mind you, there’s also a mindset — especially among a certain vintage of liturgist — that “penitential” motifs are banished from Eastertide. Again, even a cursory survey of the readings for that Sunday suggest such a mindset is at least simplistic, inasmuch as all three readings discuss sin and conversion from it.

Take the First Reading: Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19. Acts 1 treats Jesus’s Ascension, Acts 2 Pentecost and the first address of Peter to the crowds that gathered in reaction to the descent of the Holy Spirit. The four verses of Acts 3 follow those events, situated in the context of Peter healing a cripple on his and John’s way to the Temple for afternoon prayer. The healing attracts a crowd, to which Peter addresses his welcome message.

And what is his welcome message? That what he has done is nothing of his own but the power of Jesus Christ “whom you handed over… The author of life you put to death, but God raised Him from the dead.” These events — and this healing — are God’s signs confirming who Jesus is and what He did. So, it’s your decision but what you should do is “repent… and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”

Acts 3 is classical Christian theology. The healing of the man who cannot walk speaks of both the nexus between sin, suffering, and death — in short, human disunity — and Jesus’ mission to heal all that. But man’s fundamental problem is spiritual; therefore, his fundamental healing has to be spiritual.

Peter does not engage in indirection or “let bygones be bygones.” He tells this crowd, “You put [Him] to death.” This is not accusing Jews of deicide. It does make historical and theological points. Historically, some of those in the crowd may have been in Pilate’s courtyard roughly two or three months earlier, demanding to release Barabbas. Theologically, all men are sinners and, therefore, all men are complicit in Jesus’ death.

That said, Peter does not mince words: “You denied the holy and righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.” In his indictment, Peter does not exclude himself: “denied” is as true of Peter as the praetorium crowd, even if betrayal is individually tailored. Nor is the paradox lost: “The author of life you put to death… [You] asked that a murderer be released to you.” Barabbas had murdered. Barabbas, etymologically, means “son [bar] of the father [abba].” So, when Pilate asked the crowd who it wanted released, it was really a choice between the sons of two fathers, and for John, the father of a killer is the devil, who “was a murderer from the beginning” (8:44). The denial of the “holy and righteous One” is not, therefore, for Peter, just an historical choice; it is the fundamental choice that confronts everyman — God or evil.

The Second Reading, I John 2:1-5a, continues this theme of fundamental choice. To follow Christ is “not [to] commit sin.” The concrete test of loyalty to Christ is to “keep His commandments” because not to do so is a “lie,” another characteristic of one’s hellish paternity (John 8:44b-47). But to be honest means admitting we have sinned. That is not our defeat but our “happy fault,” as the Exsultet reminded us two weeks ago. “But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.”  Righteous (Δίκαιον) is the same word here and in Acts 3. And that Δίκαιον is the One whose death and Resurrection makes our reconciliation to God both possible and actual, so, again, for John it’s a “come to Jesus” moment.

Finally, consider the Gospel (Luke 24:35-48). The Gospel details Jesus’ encounter with His Apostles right after they have heard the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus having encountered and recognized Jesus. Now Jesus appears to all of them with His signature greeting, “Peace be with you!” But shalom isn’t just something nice, a mere greeting, a well-wish. It refers to harmony, reconciliation, and unity — in other words, what Jesus brought about between God and man as a result of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. As the Christmas carol puts it, “God and sinners reconciled.”

Jesus then repeats the lessons He gave earlier in the day on the road of Emmaus, when “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Him” (Lk 24:27). He concluded that Old Testament synopsis with the meaning of it all: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in His Name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Once again, Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection are connected to “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus’ statement is reiterated in the First Reading, where Peter’s preaching covers exactly those points in Jerusalem. It also stands with Jesus’ mandate to the Apostles, delivered just before the Ascension, to “baptize… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Since Baptism is incorporation into Christ’s Death (Rm 6:4-6), Baptism is the fundamental act of reconciliation.

Sounds to me like a pretty clear mission statement and welcome message. It’s a welcome message that recognizes “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but we can be OK by recognizing and renouncing what makes us not OK.” In other words, it’s a message that does not engage in circumlocution about sin or the need for repentance, even if those themes make everyone (since everyone is involved in both) uncomfortable.

Would that we heard such straightforward welcome in such plain terms more often today!

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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