‘Repentance is . . .’ NOT ‘saying sorry’

More and more these past years, I have wrestled with the obvious fact that the lives of Christians and non-Christians are all but indistinguishable.

In part this is no doubt down to the Solipsisitic nature of contemporary life. Rene Descartes has won out and we are our thoughts. Thus faith is just a matter of what we consider to be true.

I was going to say that ‘it hardly needs saying that this is so far away from the Biblical conception of the life lived in the light of God as to constitute something other than Christian life’. Except it does need to be said – for if it were utterly obvious, why are we not concerned about the gulf between the life of faith revealed to us in the pages of Scripture and our own lives??

At this point the answer usually trawled out is – ‘well we are all sinners . . . ‘ Yet again, this is not the picture that the New Testament paints of the people of God, rather that we are New creatures in Christ, the ascriptiion most commonly used is Saints. Yes we do sin, but this is now revealed as a terrible contradiction of who we have been made by the power of the Holy Spirit. So it will not do to say we are sinners, rather we are saints who from time to time grievously act in contradiction to our new nature.

Of course what the old saw about us ‘being sinners’ does is frees us from any sense that we ought to be live differently from those around us. Certainly it leads us to reduce those texts which speak of us being children of light in a dark world to the point of absurdity, where we in effect deny them whilst devising clever theological schemes so that we do not. The idea that to be ‘In Christ’ is be a fundamentally different order of being from those amongst whom we live, including friends and family . . . I need not go on

What is the root of this??

Well put plainly we haven’t repented and thus received the life of Christ. The church requires above all, to use another oft ignored phrase, to be converted.

Of course most of us, if we have ‘come to faith’ later in life may well think – ‘Well I have repented! I said sorry to God. I changed my mind about Him. I acknowledged I was wrong in my thinking about Him. I changed my mind. Therefore I am converted!’

But the picture of repentance, that it is ‘saying sorry’, that it is fundamentally to have a new set of beliefs about spiritual matters – is in itself just plain wrong. As St Paul tells us, sorrow is not repentance – it leads to Repentance. It leads to changes in our behaviour which make it possible for us to receive the Life of Christ.

Put this way, to most of us this will sound very strange – but after much thought these past years, I believe it to be true.

Let us for a moment consider the forerunner, the Elijah, who comes before the LORD to prepare his way – to turn the hearts of the people of God to God. John the Baptist is just that! He is not the Life. We tend to think that John has little to do with us – yet the work he comes to do, must be done in us before we too can receive the life of Christ. Repentance is a precursor to the Life of God. We first have to turn to God, THEN we can receive his life – this new nature that he promises, that sets us apart as that which we are meant to be ‘Light of the world’.

Joseph Ratzinger – later to be Pope Benedict XVI puts it thus : As for the contents of new evangelization, first of all we must keep in mind the inseparability of the Old and the New Testaments. The fundamental content of the Old Testament is summarized in the message by John the Baptist: metanoeìte—Convert! There is no access to Jesus without the Baptist; there is no possibility of reaching Jesus without answering the call of the precursor, rather: Jesus took up the message of John in the synthesis of his own preaching: metanoeìte kaì pisteúete èn tù eùaggelíu

Repentance precedes the Life of Christ. The Baptist comes first preaching repentance – only those who respond to his message are prepared – the way made straight – to receive the Baptism of fire – of Life in Christ.

Of course we may thus so far assent – or we may not – but, we must ask, what is the content of this repentance which John preaches? Here we find no warrant for ‘saying sorry’, for a mere changing of our lives – we are called to change our lives – to bear fruit worthy of repentance. This is no mere change of mind – the Baptist puts this repentance in the clearest possible terms, and it is expressed with regard to our life with our neighbour. [Anthony of Egypt puts it thus ‘Our life and death are with our neighbour’]

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

That is the preparation for the Life that Christ brings – it is the opening of the door of our hearts to the other, to our neighbour. In its essence it is this, to live as humans with humans. When we have much and others go without, we are to supply their need. There is nothing ‘legalistic’ about this, it is not even ‘kindness’ – it should in no way be extraordinary. People starve = you have more than enough to eat. People are naked – You have more than enough clothes to wear. People are lonely – your house is full of the warmth and light of friendship. People are impoverished – you live way beyond the simple necessities of life. Love the other! Feed, clothe, invite them to your house, share your abundance with all and sundry.

There should be nothing extraordinary in this – but there is. If Christians took it upon themselves, merely to respond to the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, that would cause such a stir throughout the world. Who can conceive of such a thing? Yet it is no more than simple care – the basic requirement for being human.

When those simple things are done, the active love of neighbour that sees need and responds out of our wealth, then the door is opened to the ‘one who comes after me’ And without those simple things, our hearts are closed to Christ. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it ‘There is no access to Jesus without the Baptist” Repentance.

The one who lies at the breast of Christ – the beloved disciple to whom the heart of the Good News is revealed puts it thus : How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Love your neighbour, as yourself. Do you look to your own needs? Do so to others.

At the last when Jesus comes he expresses it in the most powerful of terms in the blessings and woes in Luke 6, and in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus.

The gulf between the Rich man and Lazarus could easily have been crossed in life, but that which existed after the death of the rich man could not. We can only wonder at how what we must presume to have been a religious man [he calls Abraham his father] might have not seen to the needs of the man who lay at his gate? As Abraham gently tells him, his brothers have Moses and the prophets – what other warning do they need? If they do not respond to these basic needs of their brothers and sisters, knowing what simple humanity requires, how might we expect them to, even if one rises from the dead?

This gulf is exemplified in the minds of contemporary Christians who reduce faith to a thing of the mind, or indeed ‘the heart’ where that is no more than a code for the emotional life. The question is, is this gulf fixed? Have we heard the call to repentance? Are we even ready to receive the Life that comes from above?

May God grant to us all as we have need, Godly sorrow which leads to Repentance, which opens the door to Life.

 

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