‘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.

 

To Be

What we need is a form of life which is completely pointless . . . Rather than serve some utilitarian purpose or earnest metaphysical end, it is a delight in itself. Ot needs no justification beyond its own existence.In this sense the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaninglessness. Religious believers who find this version of the meaning of life a little too laid-back for comfort should remind themselves that God, too, is his own end, ground, origin, reason and self-delight, and that only by living this way can human beings be said to share his life.

Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life: A very short introduction (Oxford 2007), pp. 100-1. Quoted in ‘Take the Plunge’: Timothy Radcliffe

‘Only joking . . .’

I have been thinking lately about that quality that we call ‘a sense of humour’.

For some it is thought of in terms of being a national characteristic. Something shared amongst people of a similar outlook.

A friend told me before I came to New Zealand that I would be OK here, for folk would ‘get’ my sense of humour. He went on to say that I wouldn’t go down quite so well in the USA. Indeed when I visited those shores 15 years ago or so, I was alerted to that. Things that I saw as being funny weren’t perceived so as my hosts. Sharing a meal, a place where in my life laughter has found a home, was a very different experience for me.

This isn’t to say that American’s don’t have a sense of humour!!!! [doing my level best to avoid unintentional offence!! 🙂 ]  Like most folk in the Western world, I grew up with US humour streamed into my living room via the TV. I ‘got’ ‘I love Lucy’, ‘Happy Days’, Frasier, and ‘The Simpsons’. I came to appreciate American humour because in some regards I was immersed in it over a period of many years (as you will have realised from the list of programmes (sic! 🙂 ), and learned over a long period to appreciate its particular characteristics and nuances.

Humour to ‘work’ requires relationship. It took me time to learn US humour – my long suffering congregation are gradually learning mine (not ALL humour is shared between Northern England and Southern New Zealand 🙂 ) – and my VERY long suffering family have learned to smile weakly . . .

But what is it for humour to work? It is surely when the joke is Shared – when there is sufficient commonality at how we look at life to see the humourous, for we both stand in a similar position. In other words it requires Love.

Thus the bully uses humour to hurt. As a school teacher I regularly heard the defence, ‘I was only joking, Sir’. Much stand up comedy it seems to me is laced with such a distant approach to its subject. So, recently, many laughs have been harvested in the UK over the death of Margaret Thatcher. In a sense one may well argue, that this is precisely what I have been suggesting is healthy. It was the common experience of those who lived through the years of her premiership that enabled the humour of the various comedians to work. Except of course it was still out of relationship – Mrs T wasn’t there to share in the laughter . . .

The best Comedy, and my favourite comics are those who observe the absurdities of our lives, in other words, those who teach us to laugh at ourselves 🙂

Which brings me to my point – before we learn to laugh with others, we need to know them, and above all we need to be honest with ourselves

Life giving humour comes from the place where we are able to laugh at ourselves, gently and kindly. Like all things that are truly life giving, humour requires us to be at peace with ourselves, which is perhaps the first step to living in peace with others.

This is a lesson I am still learning. The more God reveals to me of myself, the more I have to make a choice, either to despise myself, or to laugh at the absurdity of myself 🙂 If I choose the former path, I will still use humour to wound – but if the latter then I might learn a greater sensitivity to others – and thus discover more occasions where we can laugh together.

One of the interesting thing about scriptures is that laughter is almost entirely portrayed negatively. [Indeed if you put laugh into Oremus Bible browser there is a salutary lesson to be learned from the word in which the letters ‘laugh’ are most commonly found]. And yet this should not surprise us – so much of the Scriptures find people at war with one another and with God (literally or metaphorically). Which can only occasion harsh and derisive laughter.

Laughter is perhaps one of those things which more than most belongs to the End, one of those things which we need a lifetime’s schooling in that it might be life giving. We must Know each other and be utterly safe together, before we can laugh. I know that in my own experience, those with whom I laugh most freely are those whom I have known for many years, and yet it is Still a learning experience.

This experience is renewed each day as we look in the mirror, appreciate God’s humour – and the staggering fact that we are unreservedly loved.

Put another way – learning to be funny is at once uneccessary (look in the mirror 🙂 ), AND a lifelong task.

Through the Bible in a Year – April 19

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Jos 1-3; 1 Tim 5-6; Psalm 129-131

‘Those who want to be rich fall into a trap . . .’

The desire to be wealthy is almost universal and yet it is deceitful, for it is founded upon a deceit from the Father of lies – that we can secure a life for ourself. The life we secure for ourself is no life at all, for it is the rejection of the life that is given. It leads to ultimate loneliness. Thus Jesus when he meets the Rich man counsels him to give up the life he has made for himself. To share in Life with the company of disciples

However much we may wish to ‘spiritualise’ Jesus’ words and plain teaching on worldly wealth, and we have all tried one way or another – it comes back to us over and over. Woe to you who are rich now – for you have received your reward. This is the material counterpoint to Jesus’ counsel over our spiritual practices. If we do them publicly then we get our reward. We get what we seek. So if we seek security in this life we will find it.

But the life we make for ourselves ends with the death of our body, and then we discover it is all we have.

Of course this isn’t to say that there are wonderful riches to be had in this life having given our self construction project up in favour of the Life that comes fom above, that is Gift. Peter tells Jesus – look what we have given up – and Jesus’ reply to him is ‘Open your eyes – behold the riches of life shared with so many who have heard my voice’

As so often it comes back to what does it mean to be the people of God – that is the Church. That is Shared Life – Life in abundance – a life we discover when we come together, not as individuals but as Christ’s body – as great a challenge as that of letting go of our wealth.

Through the Bible in a Year – April 18

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Deut 33-34; 1 Tim 3-4; Psalm 126-128

Reading here in Timothy the qualifications for Bishops and Deacons, it is not at all difficult to read that the early church must have been a very mixed bag of believers. Given that these are probably by the standards of the times very exacting standards, they suggest to us a church which is rife with all sorts of goings on. Which of course it was, as we know if we take but a moment to read any of Paul’s letters to the churches. Notoriously of course, the church in Corinth was accepting of incest amongst its members – and we may well say, ‘We thank you O Lord that we are not like that!’

Certainly, on the whole the moral standards of the church as we know it is ‘higher’. Certainly we wouldn’t have too much trouble finding a good number amongst us who might fill the qualification for Bishop or Deacon. But that is to miss the point. For whilst there was much amiss in terms of ‘good living’, the early church as we know was full of Good Life.

We may consider the early church in some sense morally dissolute – but it had a spiritually vibrant in a way that few churches are today, certainly in the West. We may well have an enticing, culturally acceptable, morally clean shop front, but is there any Life to be had?

Is it perhaps the case that we have confused middle class mores for Christian Life? So often I hear from those outside the church, ‘I am not good enough to be part of the church’. However much we might say that isn’t the point, few of our churches reveal in their common life the truth of that. It may seem rather perverse to suggest this, but is there any chance that those who come amongst us find that their culturally unacceptable lives are welcome?

The room has been swept clean, but have we allowed the Living One to come amongst us. Indeed we may well ask if we’d let the one who had nothing in his appearance that we might desire him in . . .

Sermon for Lent 3 – 2013 – Year C ‘Time is running out’

Sermon for Lent 3 – 2013 – Year C
Isa 55:1-9
Ps 63:1-8
1 Cor 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

‘Time is running out’

Whilst I was on retreat I celebrated my 51st birthday – and to celebrate, did something I love and actually haven’t done since I arrived here – I climbed Ben Lomond above Queenstown. Like it’s namesake in Scotland it’s a friendly hill, a gentle climb, and has the same amount of ascent as Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and an old friend. So the day triggered many memories for me. In particular, as I skipped up and down in five hours, it triggered a memory of my father.

When I was growing up, we always went as a family to North Wales for a week’s holiday in a rented caravan – and sometimes, we’d climb Mount Snowdon – the highest point in Wales – and a serious hill – Sir Edmund Hillary and the rest trained there for their ascent of Everest. the particular memory it triggered was of the last time I remember hill walking with my father. Together with my mother and one of my brothers, we set off up what is called the Watkin path – a less popular way up than many, it is a long and very easy climb until you come to a large rock, at which point the path turns what we might call vertiginous – Steep it most definitely is. As teenage lads we raced on ahead to the bottom of this climb, and when my parents finally caught up – they announced they weren’t going any further – Dad couldn’t manage it. He was 50. As young lads we just thought, ‘he’s getting old’, as I guess did he.

So on my 51st birthday, as i wandered back down Ben Lomond – congratulating myself on conquering the hill two hours faster than the times shown on the DOC notices, I remembered my dad and thought once more of how things have changed and how now – we are so fortunate to have trained ourselves to stay alive longer. . . to our infinite cost

We live in perhaps a unique age, an age where we fear death far more than we fear God. My father’s generation was the last where Church was in any sense normative.
The vertiginous decline in the church both in England and here in New Zealand began around the time I was born – and the last 50 years have seen unparalleled growth both in the arena of medical technology and interest in bodily health – keeping fit – putting death off as long as we can.  When God is wiped from the horizon of life, as he is for many, or reduced to the role of Chaplain to Our lives as many understand Christian faith, then this is the obvious thing to do. Life is short, we need to make the most of it and to do our best to extend it as long as we can. We have trained ourselves to imagine that the goal is to stay alive longer – we are perhaps thus more averse than ever to hearing the costly word of Grace which tells us that to know Life in its fulness we must first die to the life we have.

As we have journeyed thus far through Lent, I have been at pains to re-emphasise the message of Ash Wednesday, with its focus on our mortality and need for repentance towards God, that we might know the Life he has for us. But it would be all too easy to turn that into a message about preparing for our physical death, which is only part of what we are called to. Rather the confrontation with our mortality is intended to Wake us up to the seriousness of our condition – to bring us to repentance Now.
So, Jesus points to the deaths of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with his sacrifices, and to the death of those upon whom the tower of Siloam fell, not to raise abstract questions about the goodness of God or the evil of men – but to confront his hearers with the FACT of their deaths and the Urgent need for repentance – and the heart of Repentance of that appeal, is that this life is not about Us, but about God – a theme which I picked up on last week and our gospel today takes us deeper into.
The seriousness of this we pick up when we realise that Jesus really is Not interested in our questions – he recognises that at their heart, they are but carefully concealed means of avoiding the Cost of discipleship. We avoid it by insisting that he makes sense of it all for us, we unlike the fishermen want to stick with the boats, not leave our lives behind, and so we start interrogating Jesus, ourselves.

I remember Nicky Gumbel, the driving force behind the Alpha course describing an encounter with a young man who had LOADS of questions. He, rather wisely I think, asked him – ‘If I answer all your questions, will you become a Christian – the young man thought for a while and said, ‘probably not’, and Nicky was thereby saved what many of us have discovered to be a futile path. The list of questions is unmasked as unbelief.
I further remember that on our website we pride ourselves on being a church where we don’t check in our brains at the door when we come in, nor our faith at the door when we leave. But, in this, there is an insidious trap. For if our minds have not been consecrated to Christ, if we have not died to our sinful desire for Knowledge of God, to get him worked out, then as is the case with all too many churches today, that apparently Christian trait, thinking, takes us further and further away from Christ. St Paul calls us to be transformed, by the renewing of our minds. Minds that are not given over to the love and worship of Christ, to a sincere desire to follow him wherever he goes, to acknowledge that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and that often the ways Christ leads us will make no sense to us, as it did not to the first disciples – such minds will always rebel at the Truth of the Gospel call. We start by willingly laying down our lives – our ways and our thoughts, and asking Christ to renew them – for we are helpless in and of ourselves so to do, dead in sin as we are.

So people ARE asking Jesus, ‘what about those Galileans – Pilate mixed their blood with his sacrifices!!’ Or those on whom the tower of Siloam fell!! They must have been great sinners!! And Jesus is not interested in their questions [note how our questions have swung 180 degrees round – now we look at that and Say – does God exist?? ] Terrible things happen and are not seen as evidence for God but against God. Our questions, distorted by our disobedient hearts seem as reasonable to us, indeed moreso, for “we aren’t so primitive and superstitious as those ridiculous people who came to Jesus” . . . – but Jesus is having none of it, he knows that at the heart of all our questions is the desire to keep him one step removed from our lives.

Face Reality, Jesus says! Away with your sepeculations – LOOK! People Die! Unless you repent, you all will perish likewise!
Jesus does not look for a meaning in those deaths – Death is the ultimate meaningless event, for it is the absence of Good, it is the absence of Life – it has No Meaning.  It is the wages of Sin. And Jesus says, your time is coming, the sands are running out, your death is inevitable – the question is will it like these deaths be meaningless?? Repent!

But, we may ask . . . how does repentance change this?? and the simple answer is this – it gets our dying out of the way. The whole point of the Christian life is that it is not about our lives – it is about the Life of God – so we might say with Paul, We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s – we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong to Christ. We are no longer the centre of things – the lives we live are not about us, rather in all we do we are instruments of Christ – the one who has conquered Death. In dying to ourselves we die the only meaningful death there is, the only death that produces the fruit of Life!

We cannot begin to be Christian without this – it is the meaning of our baptism – we are baptised into the death of Christ – Baptism is The Sign that this life is not about us – we begin by dying. Discipleship is impossible without this.

Jesus then goes on to tell a parable, of the fig tree, and I want to think very briefly about this idea of ‘the self centered life’ from another perspective, for the worldview of Scripture is Corporate – it is about a body of people. And bodies of people can be just as self centered. Indeed perhaps The Clash Jesus has with the Pharisees is precisely this – in them we see a people totally turned in on themselves, defending the barricades, defining their own life together.
Well, the Diocese and the life of the churches of the diocese has been much on my mind these past weeks – and I have to say I was utterly stunned by the timeliness of this  parable of Jesus, as time runs out for us here. The Word of God is inexhaustible and I noticed something I had never seen before.  As Jesus tells the story of the Barren fig tree, he says this ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” I had never seen those last words of the owner of the tree – ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’ Why should it be draining the ground of resources and not producing fruit?? And this really hit me like a hammer blow – for this reminded forcibly of many if not most parishes I have ever known, that their goal was to survive. As one of my former bishops would constantly complained, both privately and publicly – he was sick and tired of hearing parishes say – ‘as long as it sees me out’ – as long as the resources don’t run dry before I die – or clergy who said – ‘as long as there’s a pension scheme in place for me’ Parishes who demanded to have a vicar – even though there were not the resources for them, who gave next to nothing to the parish financially, but who wanted someone to be there for them. And as I sat through Diocesan council this week and heard the words ‘The key question is how we can continue to provide ministry . . .’ All I could hear were the words of Jesus – ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’

‘It will see me out’ – ‘it will provide for my needs’ – the church exists to look after me – and actually who can blame people for thinking that way – the Pastoral model of church is the only model we know- we grew up with it, and our forebears, from generation to generation – it is all we have known. And likewise those who came to Jesus with their questions, and likewise us to when we come with ours – it is the way of life we have been trained into, in the same way I had conditioned myself to stay alive longer and so could still get up the hill.

To us all, the Gospel is Christ and his Word – unless you repent, you will likewise perish! The Church does not exist as an instrument of pastoral care for its own, but as the means by which the fruit of the life of God is made present in the world – We do not exist for ourselves – for we no longer live for ourselves but for Christ – it is the meaning of our baptism. Unless we repent we will likewise die meaningless deaths, fruitless, no seed in the ground to bear more life. I cannot but think of that image of the fruitless deaths of the galileans and those on whom the tower fell, I cannot think of the fruitless fig tree, without seeing what seems to lie ahead for parishes in this diocese. But the gospel is always a word of Grace – Time Is running out – indeed those words of the servant are very prescient at this moment – “Sir, let it alone for one more year until I dig around it and feed it – If it bears fruit next year, well and good; If not you can cut it down” It is nearly a year since the bishop told us we had two years – We have a year – a Year of Grace – may it be according to that word of grace made known to us in Christ and his gracious command to Repentance

Amen