Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Repentance

I’m beginning today a seven-part series on “the call of the Gospel.” It’s a kind of overview of what it means to be a Christian, based on the Holy Scriptures. There could be more topics than I’ve chosen, but since seven is a biblical “perfect number,” I thought I’d limit it to that. The elements of the call of the Gospel I will treat are: repentance, faith, love, joy, peace, suffering, and communion.

I begin with repentance because no less a spiritual giant than St John the Baptizer also did so. And we can’t improve on the preaching of Christ Himself, whose first word of public preaching was, like John’s, “Repent!” (Matthew 3:1-2 and 4:17). Tomorrow we will write about faith, for according to St Mark, that was Jesus’ next word: “Repent and believe…” (1:15).

The Christian life must begin with repentance, as John as Jesus insisted. You can’t even have saving faith unless you first turn to Christ by turning away from evil. Repentance is an act of turning, changing, and even though some have had dramatic “conversion experiences,” repentance is not a one-time event, but it is an essential part of the whole Christian life. That is because repentance (Greek metanoia) means literally a change of mind and heart, and hence a change of the direction, meaning, and practical expression of one’s whole life.

Getting back to the Gospel text, why did Jesus and John first preach repentance? “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” that’s why! The Kingdom was at hand in the person of the King, who appeared on the scene as a poor working man, but a man with a message from God. He alone could communicate this word of God perfectly, for “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The fullness of time had come, the kairos, the moment that transcends time, the moment when the tired, sinful history of humanity was to experience the inbreaking of the divine. For this, people had to change, to re-turn to the One who had Created them and called them to a covenant of love and fidelity.

Today the call to repentance still graces the pages of the Gospel, yet many do not wish to hear it. They want to hear another gospel that is not demanding, that does not hold us accountable, that promises blissful spiritual experience without the carrying of the cross. But you know what St Paul said about those who prefer “another gospel” to that which we’ve received from the Apostles (see Galatians 1:6-9).

The Kingdom of Heaven is always at hand. That doesn’t mean the world is about to end (though you and I may come to our personal “end” in death at any moment). Christ is always present, always calling us to change what needs to be changed in order for us to live his word faithfully and to fulfill God’s intentions in creating us in the first place. Some people, not wishing to embrace repentance with all that it entails (self-discipline, breaking bad habits, standing firm against the seductions of this age, etc), rest in the affirmation: “God loves me as I am.” But there’s a better one, closer to the whole truth: “God loves you as you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay the way you are.”

The Christian life begins with repentance, and repentance (properly understood as the ongoing change or transformation of mind and heart and behavior) remains an integral part of the Christian’s entire life. Repentance isn’t only about being sorry for our sins and confessing them (though that is part of it). It is also—and most fundamentally—about change. That is why if we express sorrow for sin at one moment and go out and do it again shortly thereafter, we have not really repented. We will be known by our fruits. That is why the Baptizer exclaimed to the Pharisees: “Bear fruit that befits repentance!” (Matthew 3:8).

We have a petition in one of our litanies that reads: “That we may spend the rest of our life in peace and repentance…” This does not mean a life of remorse or of wailing “woe is me!” but rather a vigorous embracing of the truth of the Gospel and an equally vigorous rejection of all that comes to us from the “father of lies.”

Repent. Repent again, and still. Continue in repentance and rejoice in the Lord, who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. That’s the Gospel; that’s the Good News.