Reclaiming Repentance

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Amen.

Repent! Think Different.

This morning’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Mark 1:9-15.

Three brothers grow up together in Dublin, Ireland.  When they come of age and go off to make their way in the world, they make a pact: whenever they drink, they’ll always order three pints of Guinness, one for each brother.  One of the brothers settles in New York, where he finds an Irish pub and becomes a regular.  He explains the pact to the barkeep, who always knows to bring him three pints.  Then, one fine day, the man comes in and asks for only two pints.  The barkeep realizes that one of his brothers must have died.

“Condolences,” he says as he brings the pints over, “these are on the house, on account of your loss.”

“What are you talking about?”  He says, “There’s no loss.  I just gave up drinking for Lent!”

I think this guy has the right idea about Lent.  He’s creative!  He’s thinking outside of the box.

Traditionally, this is the season of the church year where they really turn on the guilt.  A lot of people talk about “giving something up for Lent.”  This tradition got started way back in the olden days when new church members (called “catechumens”) would spend several weeks spiritually preparing themselves for baptism on Easter Sunday.  They would pray and fast for extended periods of time, sometimes intentionally going without food for days on end.

Eventually, this practice was extended to all Christians and has been watered down to the point where people symbolically try to break a bad habit or deny themselves some minor luxury, like chocolate, during the 40 days before Easter (as if going without M&Ms for a few weeks was really supposed to be spiritually empowering).  Our scripture readings in church during this time tend to be a little more somber in tone.  For example, Jesus starts his sermon in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel with a call for people to “repent.”

I don’t know about you, but that word (repent) stirs up some very specific mental images for me.  Maybe it’s just because I grew up down south in the Bible Belt, but I have several memories of fiery preachers on street corners with signs that said things like, “Repent, sinner!”

These guys (they were usually male), had a knack for going into great detail about the pains of hell that awaited those sinners who would face the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment.  The only way out, they said, was to repent.  And by repent, they mean: convert to (our version of) Christianity and feel really, really sorry for all your sins.  Do that, and maybe (just maybe) God won’t burn you in hell for eternity.

So, that’s their story.  I think I want to tell a different one.  I think we need to take a good, hard look at that word, repent, and see what it actually means, rather than let some fire-breathing preacher do the job for us.  The word repent in Greek is metanoia, which literally means “to change the way you think.”

Do you remember that series of advertisements for Apple Computers that came out about ten years ago?  They had pictures of all kinds of original geniuses like Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jane Goodall.  And next to each person’s photo was the phrase: “Think Different.”  To me, that’s what the word repent means: “Think Different.”  Think outside the box.  Get creative.  Imagine new possibilities.  “Explore strange, new worlds.  Seek out new life and new civilizations.  Boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So the, what is it that we’re supposed to “think different” about?  Well, the full text of Jesus’ sermon from today’s gospel reading goes like this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We’ve already talked about what “repent” means.  What about the rest of it?  As many of you already know, one of my favorite phrases in the entire Bible is, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  A lot of folks like to think of “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven”) as a happy place that exists way up on some cloud or in an alternate dimension where people go when they die, but that’s not how Jesus uses the phrase.  Listen to what he says again, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Another way to translate “has come near” is “is at hand.”  Let’s try something.  If you’ve been hanging out here for a while, you’ve probably done this with me before, but we’ll do it again, just so the message sinks in.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Jesus says, “the kingdom of God (heaven) is at hand.”  How far away is heaven?  As close as your own hand.

For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a present reality.  It has to do with this world.  The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision of what this world would be like if God were allowed to be in charge instead of the powers that be.  In a world where “might makes right,” Jesus has the audacity to stand up and say, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” and “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”  Remember the Berlin Wall?  It stood for decades as a symbol of the barrier between democracy and communism.  The powers that be on both sides of that wall had their guns and missiles pointed at each other around the clock.  Do you remember how it came down in a single night in 1989?  It didn’t happen because we Americans scared those Russians away with our big, bad nuclear weapons.  It happened because one East German official mistakenly announced on TV that their borders were now open.  Later that night, as people started lining up at the border, Harald Jaeger, a low-ranking border-guard, made the first decision to open his gate.  People flooded through to the other side.  Within days, the wall was torn down.  Within a year, Germany was reunited.  Two years after that, the great Soviet Union itself was gone.  An entire generation of Americans and Russians was raised to believe that the Cold War would end with a mushroom cloud and the fulfillment of Mutually Assured Destruction.  But it ended with dancing instead of marching, singing instead of marching, and the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked instead of the sound of gunfire.  Who could have imagined such a peaceful resolution?  “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Now, that’s a big-picture example.  I think the kingdom of God comes near to us every day.  Whenever we’re at the pharmacy, café, or supermarket and we look the server in the eye, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever some jerk cuts you off in traffic and you don’t give him the finger or blow your horn out of spite, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever two people in conflict sit down together and try their best to work it out, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever your kid comes home and says, “Mom & Dad, I’m gay,” and the first words out of your mouth are, “I love you,” “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever your spouse is in the hospital and you’re standing by the bed, holding his/her hand and saying, “We’ll get through this,” “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Whenever aging parents agree to let their children hire in-home assistance for them, even though they don’t think they need it, but know that it will put their children’s minds at ease, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

The kingdom of God is a present reality.  It’s Jesus’ vision of what this world could be like.  He calls it “good news” and invites people to “believe in” it.  Have you ever “believed in” something or someone?  Maybe there’s some high school kid who is nervous before that big performance or big game and the coach or teacher says, “I believe in you.”  It’s empowering, isn’t it?  A statement like that can really make a difference in a kid’s life.  And I don’t care how old you are, whether you’re age 9 or 90, we all still need to hear that from time to time: “I believe in you.”  In the same way, you might donate your time and energy to cause you believe in: feeding the hungry, taking care of young kids, or helping underprivileged families have a Christmas.  When you believe in it, you give yourself to it, and that makes a difference.  Jesus called it “good news.”  He invites all of us to believe in that good news: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

And that leads us back to that word, repent.  It’s has nothing to do with guilt or fear.  It has everything to do with thinking outside of the box.  The great scientist Albert Einstein once said, “A new type of thinking is essential if [hu]mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  Jesus is inviting you today to embrace the mystery of imagination and participate in the miracle of creativity.  Think different in order to make a difference.  That’s the “good news” Jesus is inviting you to “believe in” and be part of: the kingdom of God come near, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

We pray for it every Sunday:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”