Signs and Wonders of Repentance

[The following was presented at the House of St Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference in January of 2012]

Jesus acts in and through the Church which acts in his Name.  In the book of Acts, Luke tells us about the signs and wonders which characterized the life of the early Church – signs and wonders done in and through the Name of Jesus, signs and wonders that echo those Jesus performed before His death and resurrection.  For some observers and some followers, signs and wonders validated the ministry of Jesus. Peter preaches on Pentecost that “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him.”  Likewise the Church is accredited by signs and wonders which God performs through the Church.  Peter says to the lame beggar, “‘Silver of gold I do not have, but what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And at once his feet and ankles became strong, he jumped to his feet and began to walk, going with Peter and John into the temple where he jumped around praising God for such a miracle.”

The picture is simple: Through the Church, Jesus continues to do the saving work he did before his death and resurrection. This is ministry in his Name.  Charles de Foucauld puts it this way: “[Jesus] works through [the Church] and by means of it continues the work he began in the flesh while he lived among men: the glorification of God by the sanctification of men. This work is the purpose of the Church, as it was Christ’s and Jesus accomplishes it in the Church unceasingly throughout all the centuries.”[1]

The Church’s purpose is the glorification of God by the sanctification of men and women like us.  This is what we see happening in Acts through the power of Jesus’ Name.  As Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the Church acts to bring about this sanctification, the story of course includes signs and wonders, sometimes dramatic signs and wonders like those reported by Luke. But, even in Acts, not every lame beggar received healing.  I think there is another miracle at work here, one that works deep beneath the surface in all places where Jesus acts through the Church to bring about our sanctification.  And this miracle is more subtly present in the text of Acts, but it’s even more pervasive than signs and wonders. It’s the miracle of repentance.

To those who heard the Gospel on Pentecost, Peter said “repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.”  If we want to live in the Name of Jesus – to be baptized into his Name, then minister in his Name, preach fearlessly in His Name, get up and walk in the Name, proclaim healing in the Name, suffer disgrace for the Name, be willing to die for the Name – we must begin with repentance.

And if we begin with repentance in Jesus’ Name, we may see many more miracles taking place in that Name today than we previously recognized.  Repentance itself is a miracle, a gift, a grace given by God.  In the final verse of our reading of Acts last night, Peter said “When God raised up his servant Jesus, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” Repentance is blessing from the Lord.  Acts 5:31 says “[the Father] has exalted [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.”  Jesus gives repentance.  In Acts 11, Peter reports to the apostles in Jerusalem about what happened with Cornelius, and they apostles respond by saying “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”  God grants repentance leading to life.

Even Peter begins his ministry in the Name of Jesus by receiving repentance.  God gave Peter the opportunity to repent of his denial of the Lord, and Peter accepted.  Is it possible that the power which flows through Peter in the book of Acts began with his repentance?  Perhaps Isaiah the Solitary’s words describe the repentant Peter: “when a man abandons his sins and returns to God, his repentance regenerates him completely.”[2] Peter is a very different character in Acts than he is the Gospels.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon him.  But what does Peter say about receiving the Spirit?  “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus . . . and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Luke the Evangelist would say that if we seek the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit without repenting, we are like Simon the magician in Acts 8.  Simon offered Peter and John money, “saying, ‘Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money.  You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.  Therefore, repent. . .” (Acts 8:19-22a).  Similarly, St. Mark the Ascetic says the one “who seeks the energies of the Spirit, before he has actively observed the commandments is like someone who sells himself into slavery and who, as soon as he is bought, asks to be given his freedom while still keeping his purchase money.”[3]  What begins with repentance ends with the gift of the Spirit, who then empowers ministries of signs and wonders in the Name of Jesus.

And repentance may have even more power than external signs and wonders. In the passage we just heard (Acts 4:1-31), the rulers and elders and teachers of the law acknowledge, “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows that these followers of Jesus have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it.”  They could not deny that a miracle had taken place, nor could they deny that it had taken place in the Name of Jesus.  But they still refused to repent.

What if repentance is a larger sign and a more amazing wonder than making the lame walk? A dazzling healing may attract immediate attention, but the fruit borne of repentance will only grow better with age.  Our culture trains us to pursue instant gratification, signs and wonders here and now which we’ll crave again tomorrow.  Repentance bears its fruit through patience, starting with small decisions for and against, and resulting in “trees firmly planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in due season” (Psalm 1:3).  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Mt 13:31-32).  Perhaps the seeds of the Kingdom are planted with the tools of repentance.

As Acts continues from this point, the story of the Apostle Paul dominates the narrative.  Like Peter’s story, Paul’s begins with repentance and ends with powerful life and ministry in Jesus’ Name.  Saul’s reception of the gift of repentance transformed him from one who persecuted those who called on the Name into one who preached fearlessly in the Name of Jesus.  As one who died to sin by being baptized into Jesus’ Name, he became one willing to die for the Name of the Lord Jesus. To live in the name of Jesus is to be conformed to his likeness, to have the pattern of one’s life altered to resemble that of Jesus.  And the Apostle Paul’s story demonstrates this, not only in the signs and wonders which Paul performed in Jesus’ Name, but even more remarkably in the likeness of Paul’s suffering to Christ’s.  When Ananias didn’t want to go to Saul in Damascus, the Lord told him, “Go for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my Name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel, and I will show him how much me must suffer for the sake of my Name.”   By the time we reach Acts 21, Paul has been persecuted, interrogated, imprisoned, beaten with rods, stoned and left for dead.  With all this behind him, he’s waiting with the Church in Ceasarea when a prophet comes to him.  He takes his belt, binds his feet and hands and says to Paul you will be bound like this and handed over to the Gentiles if you go to Jerusalem.  Those closest to Paul try to dissuade him from going, they try to protect his life.  But Paul says “I am ready not only to be bound but to die for the Name of the Lord Jesus.”

That is a miracle, a sign, and a wonder. A persecutor of Christians transformed into Christlikeness, even to the point of suffering, beginning with repentance.  And this sort of transformation is vital for us if we are called to minister in Jesus’ Name.  The Good News for us today is that such transformation is possible, and is taking place even right now.  Behold the Name of Jesus performing miracles among us: The person set free from bondage to pornography or any other sexual sin is a great miracle.  The person set free from lies about her self-worth or image is a great miracle.  The greedy person who becomes generous, recognizing that the Name of Jesus is worth more than silver or gold – there is a miracle.  The manipulator who tried to exercise power over people, transformed by repentance into a loving servant – there is a miracle by the Power of the Name of Jesus.  The prideful person humbled, brought low – there is a miracle in the Name of the one who humbled himself and became obedient even unto death. The person addicted to comfort who becomes willing to suffer for Jesus’ sake – there is a miracle in the Name of the crucified Lord.  We who are experiencing such release from bondage should join together like the disciples who prayed after their release from prison, calling upon the Lord to “Stretch out [his] hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the Name of [his] holy servant Jesus” (4:30).

Thanks be to God, we are given companions on this journey of repentance, fellow pilgrims on the road with us now and saints who’ve gone before. One such companion who’s gone before us is Brother Charles de Foucauld.  I quoted him briefly near the beginning of this meditation because he’s yet another example of a miracle of repentance followed by a life lived in Jesus’ Name. Brother Charles was a French man who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  In his early life as a soldier and explorer, he knew loose living, gluttony, excitement and adventure.  Then he experienced a radical conversion to Christ.  Curious about Christianity, he visited a priest and asked for book recommendations.  The priest responded that books didn’t have the answer Charles needed.  What Charles needed to do, the priest said, was confess his sin and then receive Eucharist.  He did so, and he was transformed.  After that day he knew his personal calling was to imitate what he called the “hidden life of Jesus.” By the hidden life, he meant the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, before his public ministry, during which Jesus lived a simple and quiet life of poverty, work, prayer, and obedience. Brother Charles became a monk and eventually moved to Nazareth to imitate those years of Jesus’ life in the very place where Jesus lived.  After several years, Foucauld felt called to live this simple life of poverty, labor, and unceasing prayer in the midst of people who didn’t know Jesus.  So he moved to the deserts of North Africa and lived this prayerful life among the Tuareg people-group as a quiet form of witness to them. He earned a reputation among them as a holy man.  In 1916, thirty years after his conversion and calling to live a life in Jesus’ Name, he was martyred there.  Though he died thinking he was a failure in the eyes of the world, Foucauld’s example and his writings have since inspired thousands to follow him in imitating the hidden life of Jesus.  His repentance and the life he then lived in Jesus’ Name are still bearing fruit today.

As we seek to live more deeply in the Name of Jesus, I want to invite you to join me in praying a prayer written by Brother Charles.  It’s a bold prayer, one that is fitting for repentance, but one that also commits ourselves to ministry in Jesus’ Name.  And it is a prayer that I believe the Lord is eager to answer.  So if you will, please pray in your hearts with me:  Jesus, “live in us, rule in us, so that it may be no longer we who live, but you in us, [our] God.  Use our bodies and souls, which we give you unreservedly, continuing through them your life and work in this world, the glorification of God and the sanctification of men, as you yourself laid down in your eternal design, in you, through you, and for you. Amen. Amen. Amen.”[4]

[1] Charles de Foucauld, The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld, Jean-Francois Six, ed. (Ijamsville, Md: Word Among Us Press 2003)  p. 100 emphasis added

[2]St. Isaiah the Solitary, “On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts” in The Philokalia vol. 1 trans. & ed. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber  1983) p. 26

[3] St. Mark the Ascetic, “On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts” The Philokalia vol. 1 trans. & ed. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber  1983) p. 130

[4] Charles de Foucauld p. 101

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