From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
When most people hear the word “repent”, they immediately associate it with that other religious word “penitence”. They assume they’re being called to get down on their knees to beg for mercy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, “repent” is integral to receiving good news.
I’d like to take time this morning to clear up some common misconceptions with regard to the word “repent”.
Often when translating the New Testament from Greek into English, two different but similar looking Greek words have been translated erroneously to have the same meaning. These are the Greek words “metanoia” and “metamelomai” The first of these “metanoia” literally means “to turn around”. It has become associated with “to change one’s mind” or “to redirect one’s path”.
The call to ‘repent’ is one of the foundational phrases of the church.
Surprisingly it is very infrequently heard on the lips of Jesus and, when it is (such as in this morning’s gospel), it is usually put there by the storytellers themselves. As such it is used by John the baptist when he calls people out of the city into the wilderness, then invites them to turn around, face Jerusalem, and return by crossing the River Jordan and being baptized. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus uses the same verb “metanoia” when he describes his intention to assume John’s mission and to extend a general invitation to others, such as Peter and Andrew, to redirect their lives by following him.
They were invited to leave their assured securities, and to enter into a relationship with Jesus. In their time and place it implied being at odds with the likes of Herod Antipas and those who ruled their religious and social agendas. Given the prevailing economic, social, and political powers, we can never accept this invitation lightly.
An example follows the conversion of Saul of Tarsus who was to become Paul the apostle and follower of Jesus. Saul uses the word “metanoia” to describe his sudden and radical change of mind. It came as a blinding light of realization that he was in the wrong and that he must immediately stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion. It prompted him to redirect his life and to follow in the very way of those he had previously been persecuting – to follow in the way of Jesus.
The second Greek word that is often translated as “repent” is “metame-lomai”. Like “metanoia” it is also associated with “a change of mind”, but implies a call to regret one’s previous behaviour and attitudes. When used in this way “repent” is most often directed towards the religious people of Jesus’ day. It should come as no surprise the the word “metamelomai” is used frequently within the epistles of Paul. It expresses his own deep remorse for his previous behaviour and attitudes when, out of religious zeal, he had persecuted the very people with whom he now identified – the church or the Body of Christ. Paul’s epistles stress the need to rely on the grace of God, and they appear to reflect his personal struggle to come to terms with his past behaviour and his on-going regret.
Paul’s former self-reliance on living in strict obedience to religious codes of behaviour caused him to not only judge himself but to judge others who appeared, in his eyes, to be avoiding the social mores and religious code of ethics. His struggle to fulfill the law of his religion prompted Paul to not only judge himself but to judge others. It is human to judge, but judging can become an end in itself. It assumes that your righteousness is not only superior to that of others, but greater than God’s righteousness. Religion gave us Antisemitism, Muslim-hating Crusades, moralistic Puritans, justification of slavery, segregation and apartheid, the diminution of women and the repression of LBGTQ persons.
Repentance for Paul was a dramatic change in the attitude and direction of his life by following Jesus. His dependence upon the grace of God for forgiveness didn’t relieve him of a lifetime of regret.
So the call to ‘repent’ is a call to live life in all its fullness and to provide others with that same opportunity. It is because we fail to hear and communicate this call to others, that others hear the word ‘repent’ and assumes we are saying: “Become religious like us…” When if anything it should be heard as the opposite of this: “Be accepting of others…”
Frequently, Christian belief and teachings are abused to denigrate others. Far too many modern assumptions about the Bible are just incorrect: – the Bible does not necessarily encourage slavish conformity; it has been suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of the prophets; and the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimise policies and rulings is out of key with its interpretive tradition.
I’m a follower of Jesus. Yet, more and more, I find it necessary to clarify my identity as a Christian. I do not identify with the brand of Christianity espoused by those who offered invocations at yesterday’s inauguration ceremony. Matthew’s Jesus warns “many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ, and they shall lead many astray.” We discover Christ when we feed the hungry, when we quench the thirst of those who are parched, when we welcome and provide refuge for the aliens, when we provide for the destitute, and visit those who are sick and confined.
The call to repent is a call to respect all people. For there is in fact much goodness in all sorts of people. In religious and non-religious people. In Christians, Jews and Muslims. And within those of other faith traditions and manner of interpreting the priorities of our human existence.
I am attracted to some of the thought of the radical English theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt . Cupitt has said, “Religion is a way of af-firming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last. It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe”. With Cupitt’s comment in mind, to ‘Repent’ requires us to remain steadfast in following Jesus day by day and by providing concrete evidence that the kingdom of God is indeed at hand.
The way of Jesus was never easy, nor shall it be for us. A friend recently offered me this Franciscan Benediction which I now share in closing:
May God bless you with Discomfort at easy answers, half–truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with Anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough Foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in their world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.
N. Carver 22.01.2017
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo