Repent is one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian religious vocabulary. The sound of it typically conjures up images of wild-eyed, Bible-thumping preachers screaming about hellfire and damnation from atop a soapbox on a street corner. Even those who know better still tend to associate repentance with feelings of guilt and shame over past failures.
Jesus uses that word in this morning’s gospel reading when he says to the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I don’t think he was trying to lay a guilt-trip on his listeners, nor was he trying to frighten them into becoming disciples.
When Jesus uses that word, repent, he is inviting his listeners into an experience of expanded consciousness. The word repent in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) is metanoia. It literally means “to change one’s mind.” Jesus is trying to get his listeners to think differently, think bigger, think outside the box. Specifically, Jesus is inviting us to change the way we think about three things: God, ourselves, and the world.
First, Jesus is inviting his listeners to think bigger, think differently about God. In the world of first century Judaism, people thought of God as being far away. Moreover, they thought there were certain things that people needed to do or think in order to get God’s attention. They thought God had to be appeased by certain rituals or impressed with good moral behavior and theological belief. This is what groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees did with their time: they worked hard to get God’s attention/approval.
All of this is pretty consistent with what I call the human religious instinct. In just about every human culture, on every continent, in every part of history, people have had some kind of belief in a Higher Power (e.g. God(s), Brahman, Tao, etc.). Likewise, they have also had some kind of system in place for contacting, relating to, garnering favor with, or even controlling their Higher Power(s). This is how religions are born. Some scientists have even done studies that indicate our brains might be hardwired for forming religious beliefs and rituals.
One of the really interesting things about Jesus is that he takes this whole human religious enterprise and turns it on its head. All religions present us with a way to find God, but Jesus presents us with a God who finds us.
He says in today’s reading, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Other English translations read, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Think about that: at hand. Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it. Think about those words: “The kingdom of heaven/God (i.e. the place where God lives) is at hand.” Later on, Jesus would take this idea even further and say, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
This is a radical, prophetic, and mystical shift. If it doesn’t blow your mind, then you weren’t really paying attention. This turns the whole human idea of religion upside down. God is not far away, God is close. How close? At hand. Within you. Taking a hint from Jesus, St. Augustine of Hippo says that God is closer to you than your own heart.
The other part of this is that there is nothing we have to do (or can do) to get God’s attention or gain God’s approval because we already have it. Theologically speaking, this is called grace. Grace is the unmerited favor, or unconditional love, of God. Grace is God’s basic orientation toward the world. It can’t be earned any more than a baby can earn the milk that comes from its mother’s breast. It’s just there, free for the taking, because that’s just who God is in relation to the world.
This is how Jesus changes the way we think about God: he turns the whole human religious enterprise on its head by presenting us with a God who is close by and accepts us as we are. The importance of this shift cannot be overstated.
As one might imagine, this change in the way we think about God would naturally have a profound effect on the way we think about ourselves and the world.
Under the systems and institutions created by our own human religious instinct, membership in the community of faith is intentionally kept exclusive. There are certain things one has to do, think, or say in order to be let into “the club.” The privileges of membership are reserved for the few who prove themselves worthy. There is always an us and a them, insiders and outsiders, the saved and the damned. This is the way that our human religious instinct has trained us to think, but it’s not the way that Jesus thinks. To him, there is only us, there are no outsiders, no one is damned, and all are destined for salvation. This is the good news that Jesus preaches.
And he doesn’t just preach it, either; he practices what he preaches. For Jesus, the community of faith is not exclusive but radically inclusive. They literally let anyone through the door of this party.
Jesus demonstrates this first of all in his ministry of table fellowship. Sharing a home-cooked meal with someone in the ancient near east was a powerful thing. It meant that you accepted this person as is, with no strings attached. So, it was quite the village scandal when Jesus gathered a reputation for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” in the towns where he traveled. The religious leaders of his time were constantly up in arms over the bad example he was setting by his willingness to accept and love all people unconditionally (even the losers, rejects, ne’er do wells, freaks, geeks, and criminals).
Another way that Jesus demonstrates the inclusive nature of his ministry is in the calling of his first disciples, which was also part of today’s gospel reading. Look at this text with me, if you will. What kinds of professional or spiritual qualifications does the text say that Andrew, Simon, James, and John had before Jesus was willing to call them to be his disciples? Does it say anything about an interview process? Do they have to attend classes first? Does the text of Matthew’s gospel say anything about how often they went to synagogue, prayed, or studied their Torah? No, it doesn’t. Jesus just calls them and something within them responds, feels drawn to this person. As I once heard someone else say, “Jesus doesn’t choose the qualified; he qualifies the chosen.” That certainly seems to be the case here, even when it came to Christ’s apostles.
In the centuries since then, the Christian Church (in its better moments, anyway) has tried to embody the same kind of open inclusivity in its community that Jesus demonstrated in his. In the early days of the Church, the big controversy was over the question of whether or not to let Gentiles (non-Jewish people) join the Church. This might not seem like such a big deal to us, but I assure you that it was to Christians in the first century. The debate got so heated that it almost split the Church. They fought about it for a long time, but eventually landed on the side of inclusivity, saying that their faith would be a global faith with room for “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”
In more recent times, we’ve seen Christians reach out in the name of our inclusive faith to bridge the gap between denominations and religions. We’ve worked hard to make room in our congregations for people from every race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and disability.
Right now, at this divided and polarized point in our nation’s history, when the spirit of community seems to be breaking down at all levels, the inclusive gospel of grace is one that people particularly need to hear. In spite of the fact that people in our age are more electronically connected than ever, we have never been more spiritually isolated from one another. We, the people of Christ, have been called to carry his subversive, disarming gospel to the nations.
We are called by Christ to repent (metanoia – “change the way we think”) about God, the world, and ourselves. The gospel of Christ calls us to let go of our efforts to get God’s attention by doing, thinking, and saying the right things. Christ calls us to rise up out of our polarized, divisive, and tribal consciousness shaped by the human religious instinct. We are called to be a light to the world and show them by our gracious living that there is another way to be human. We are called to lift up every voice and preach the good news of salvation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”