‘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.

 

Through the Bible in a Year – April 3

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 34-36; Eph 5; Psalm 116-117

It would be very helpful, if you have not done so already, to read the previous post in this series , for Context is everything here.

As so often is the case in reading the Scriptures, chapter and section divisions can obscure significant truth. So Paul concludes his arguments in Chapter 4 with the opening words of Chapter 5, ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ It takes just a moments reflection to hear once more the words of Christ, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ – that in the mutual love of the Body of Christ we are imitating the very heart of the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the mutual indwelling in Love.

It is very important that we carry this image with us into what is for many one of the most difficlt passages in scripture. For some Ephesians 5:21 et seq. is a ‘text of terror’, for others a means to cast in stone a way of life, ‘which was from the beginning’. But for St Paul it is neither of these things.

Again the section heading does us a huge disservice – Paul is talking here about the mutual submission of members of the body of Christ. First it needs to be said over and over and oever again that in the body of Christ, the age to come is being manifest, thus the PRIMARY relationship of ANY Christian to ANY other Christian is that of brother and sister – kin, dearly loved children of the Father.

So Paul works out his theology of mutual love in terms of mutual submission, or in the NRSV translation which I am using here, ‘Be subject to one another out of Reverence for Christ’

Firstly, we must consider, what does it mean, ‘out of reverence for Christ’ – at a simple surface level, we might say that simply put, this is what Jesus commands, thus we must so do. But the command of Christ can Never be disassociated from the Life of Christ. In other words in obedience to the command of Christ, we enter into the Life of the one who became subject even to death, death on a cross. The One who is first, who takes the Last place, and who is thus in the Kingdom exalted to the highest place.

So to follow Christ is to humble oneself and become the willing slave of all.

Next we must come back to Paul’s larger argument. This Way of being, that is the very Life of Christ manifest, is the Way of Life of the Church. In other word this is NOT primarily about the specific relationships Paul later speaks of, rather Primarily this is about Every relationship within the Body of Christ.

This said, Paul recognises that there are those within the church who are relate to one another in ways which are not of the eschatological kingdom. Temporal relationships which in the End will be no more.

Thus the words of Paul to husbands and wives, owners and slaves, parents and children are as it were footnotes to the Primary command of All believers as Kindred in Christ to ‘be subject one to another’

What Paul has in view here is the HOW of mutual submission. In these extra-ecclesial and thus secondary relationships, HOW is this worked through.

So wives be subject to your husbands ‘as to the Lord’ – husbands be subject to your wives by loving them as Christ loves the church, giving himself up for her – the husband gives himself up for the sake of his wife. The wife looks in love towards her husband as she does towards Christ himself. Indeed it may well be argued that here what is asked of wives is no more than is asked of Every member of Christ’s body one to the other – be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Treat your husband as you would any of your kindred. The Husband is given the culturally mind boggling command that in Christian households he is to be as Christ to the Church to his wife – he must lay down his life for her. He is not Lord in the heirerarchical sense. Our Language breaks down here as we can only understand Lord in temrs of earthly Lords and masters who Lord is over their subjects . . .

And so we could go on through the other categories of relationships

The point is that these cases are in face Secondary – they are not the primary relationships within the church – husband and wife are brother and sister, Mother and son are sister and brother, ‘owner’ and slave are brother and brother.

Paul in effect, in his call to all to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ recognises the ephemeral nature of these other passing relationships.

Through the Bible in a Year – April 2

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 33; Eph 4; Psalm 114-115

Paul here is leading us in what is for most if not all of us, foreign territory. that is that the Primary arena for the working out of the Christian life is within the community of faith. The Risen Christ says ‘By this shall they know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another’.

I have written and spoken elsewhere on the marginalization of the church in almost all Western traditions – read almost any contemporary book on ‘spirituality’ and abracadabra, the Body of Christ disappears . . . We have by and large reduced the Church at ‘best’ ‘to a man-made society for promoting and developing ideas’  and at worse to a social club for the religiously inclined, or organising place for ‘social justice issues’ We have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten our Calling, to ‘grow [as a body of people] into the full stature of Christ’ that the Wisdom of God may be made known to the rulers of this dark age, as we are built up in love. THIS is what the church must give herself to. Yes we must teach, but the goal of the teaching is te building up of the whole body. Why, Why, Why is much if not all of our teaching directed at our individual lives, when in truth these are something of which the Scriptures know little if anything?

Paul has not lost sight of this vocation – have we?

Through the Bible in a Year – March 30

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 27-28; Gal 6; Psalm 109

St Paul here condenses the Gospel in a single phrase – ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ’

To some no doubt, this will sound the very antithesis of the gospel, that we have to fulfill a law, were it not the command of the Apostle. Yet is this not the fulness of Life, to enter into the very Life of the One who bears us all upon the Cross, the one who sets us free to love one another as He has loved us – it is the Law of the Spirit of Life.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 29

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 26; Gal 5; Psalm 108

‘Freedom’ is something widely misunderstood in the Christian life – it is not at all the same thing as the idolatrous notion of Freedom so prevalent in western Society, ‘Freedom from . . .’ an unrestricted life.

Those looking in Paul’s letter to the Galatians for such a notion of ‘Freedom’ will find themselves puzzled if not disappointed. Thus far Paul has spoken of their re-adoption of the Jewish Law, especially with respect of Purity, as a Slavery. The imagery he uses is that they are in effect offspring of Hagar, the ‘bond-woman’. but then he goes on in Chapter 5 to explain the nature of Christian Freedom – not freedom to Self indulgence. Thus Not the Freedom as we are taught to think of it. Put another way, OUR problem is that we understand the Christian virtues in isolation. IF Freedom is sucha virtue, then it cannot be so understood, for if Freedom were to self indulgence, it would contravene the Key Christian virtues of humility and Pride. Put another way it is slavery to self, masquerading as Freedom

No, Freedom as understood Christianly is Freedom to do what is right. We are not set ‘free from’, so much as we are set ‘free for’. Set Free from the effects of Sin, which are always and everywhere to turn us in ourselves, and set Free for Love.

Put another way, we are set free to reveal what we are in Essence, to reveal our true nature, Children of the One who Is Love. Thus Paul’s command to walk by the Spirit, is no more nor less than saying, now you are free to be who you really are, children born of the free woman, of the one who says ‘yes’ to God . . .

Through the Bible in a Year – March 15

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Num 1-2; 1 Cor 12-13; Psalm 92-93

As we read the book of Numbers which, it is immediately apparent, is well named. It may well seem once more that as in Leviticus we enter into a strange world. With the LORD’s careful instructions for how the Israelites whould arrange the camp. On the one hand we need to remember the teaching of the letter to the Hebrews, that the earthly sanctuary, the Tabernacle or Temple (placed at the heart of the people) is a foreshadowing of things eternal. Put another way, the strangeness is in a sense pointing us to the strangeness of heaven.

So it would be easy therefore to read the familar words of 1 Corinthians 13 and consider we were on much easier ground, as if we knew what Love was. Except we don’t, neither do the Corinthians. In seeking to penetrate the mystery of Love, Paul concedes he sees as only in a mirror and an imperfect one at that.

As we read of the attributes of Love – it is instructive to place our own name in the text – to read ourselves into it, as we always should. And in so doing we realise that we are as much strangers to Love as we are to the world of the book of Numbers. All too readily we assume we know what love is. All too readily we assume that by and large we are loving. We have not the honesty, or perhaps better the self knowledge to say with George Herbert ‘Ah! I the wicked, the ungrateful one? I cannot look on Thee [Love]’

The great English Saint, John Stott, made it his practise to meditate every day upon one of the fruits of the Spirit. We might do well to adopt that attitude and meditate daily upon the attributes of Love, in the presence of the one who is Love made flesh. That by the grace and strengthening of the Holy Spirit, Love might become less of a stranger to us.

Perhaps we speak too easily of our ‘relationship with Jesus’ – our careful meditation upon his character revealed here, carried out in his presence – shows us how far we have to go to grow into the fulness of him who fills everything in everyway