s036g99 Sunday 3

<<I am on holidays for another week, so here are some notes I prepared before going away.>>

"From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."" (Matthew 4:17).

Repentance, one of the crucial phrases of the Church - yet surprisingly it is very infrequently heard on the lips of Jesus. It really is a clarion call, that announces the beginning of the ministry, which Matthew goes on to describe straight afterwards - the call of the fishermen and the travelling around Galilee - teaching, proclaiming the good news and healing the sick.

"Repent!" then is the call of the prophet to all of humanity not to persons in particular.

The call to "repent" is in fact not heard again. The ministry is not therefore to continue to call people to repentance, but the travelling, the teaching, the proclamation and the healing.

Yet sometimes when I hear the Church, it seems the ministry has become one of the continually calling of humanity "to repent". It comes in various guises, like "do this" and "don't do that". It is no wonder the Church is viewed I think as stuck in a bit of a groove - and why there is a deal of frustration within the Church too.

Other than the general call to humanity it is I think otherwise directed towards the religious people of Jesus' day - those who wondered what some particular people did to deserve Pilate mingling their blood with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1-5). It was those who worried about other people's sins that needed to repent - not sinners. Jesus seemed content to accept ordinary sinner's hospitality.

The call to repent is not a call to turn away from a life of dissipation and sin to living a life of everlasting moral purity. The religious people of Jesus' day, just as religious people today still strive to do - live a morally pure life. While the word "repent" is not directed towards them, Jesus' strongest words are those against the: "scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them." (Mat 23:13). These words are just before the religious authorities moved against Jesus, and it seems that Jesus perceives the path that the authorities and knows that they will not be deviated from it by anything he says. Indeed to call them to repent, would only inflame them more, and Jesus makes plain the specifics of his complaint against the exercise of their religion, rather than use the general call to "repent". The specifics are that they "stop" others "going in". Jesus questioned the exercise of their faith which was to lead them to crucify him to stop him accepting others they thought he shouldn't accept.

It is significant that Jesus was largely silent in front of the secular authorities, like Herod and Pilate, when arraigned before them. If we had an opportunity to tell a politician how to run the country better, we would hardly let such an opportunity pass :-)

Again the great conversion experience of St Paul was NOT to turn away from a life of dissipation and sin to living a life of everlasting moral purity - it was to stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion.

So the call to "repent" is a call to live life knowing that nothing separates us, or anyone else, from God - that we can "sin boldly".

It is because we fail to see that we are called to freedom and fail to communicate that call to others that the world hears the word "repent" and assumes we are saying: "Become religious like us ..." when if anything we are saying the opposite of this - "... be accepting of others..."

St Paul has no illusions about the Church in Corinth - there was far more in the Church that resembled the petty divisions that characterised the ordinary community, than acceptance and love which ought to have distinguished the Church from the community.

Indeed in some senses there was (and is) more acceptance in society than in the community of faith, because like families, living closer together, there was more opportunity and occasion to argue.

Indeed one of the reasons I am wary of being called a "Christian" is because I see doctrinaire matters being used to denigrate others. I see compassion sometimes more clearly in the attitudes of non-Church goers - and I wonder why this should be so.

One of the things that Australians are particularly averse to are "religious" people, those who pray, read the Bible and talk about God. It is not that the ordinary Australian will criticise such behaviour, but generally they have no interest whatsoever in becoming religious like that. If we as the Church have only the goal of making others "becoming religious" like this - then it is no wonder that people are simply not interested - and I wouldn't blame them at all. We have missed the point and our religion is little different from our interest in playing chess, gardening, sport or other hobby. None of these things are a problem, but Jesus wasn't crucified that we might practice a hobby of ours without fear.

The call to repent then is NOT to say that we are not measuring up to the standards that God expects of us - it is a call to be accepting of other people - in their faith and their lack of faith. The call to repent is a call to respect all those for whom Jesus died - and that is of course all people. The call to repent is to not write people off because they do not profess the faith in our particular terms or live the same sort of life that we try to do. The call to repent is a call to respect even those who are averse to religious people, those who do not seem to pray, read the Bible and talk about God.

For there is in fact much goodness in all sorts of people, in religious and non-religious people, in Christians and Jews and those of all sorts of faith - indeed in Australians who call the Church to be true to Jesus and accept those of differing faiths and even those of no faith at all.

I am particularly grateful to Molly Wolf and her continuing Sabbath Blessings. For last Sunday (17/1/99) she wrote: "We fail because love calls on us to be open and vulnerable and imperfect, and we're afraid of being like that. We fail because we'd rather sit in judgment on others than love them, because it feels *soooo* good, so richly soothing to the ego, to establish our own superiority and to avoid looking at our own imperfections." So "Repent" is no longer the message of the Church to the world, for that is to remain aloof, when Jesus calls us to see the beauty in all.

Links to other sites on the Web:

About the author and links.

To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.

To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.

Back to a sermon for next Sunday.