What if Vital in Religion: Part III
How Repentance Can be Good News
Preached by Rev. Todd Weir
July 15, 2018
(click the play button to listen)
A tourist rang the church doorbell, who was an antique Bible salesman, who also loved Jonathan Edwards. I lead them to the meeting house for a tour, but what he really wanted was stand in the pulpit and shout “Repent!” Once is fine. Twice is awkward. The third time is disturbing. He was enjoying this too much. He explained to his wife how people would gather down front, “Right here!” and they would groan for their sins. I thought of explaining this is the fifth meeting house and that was the third, which burned down, but that might be unkind. Besides he was committed to the story and likely to keep telling it anyway.
You will detect a little mocking in my tone, which reflects my discomfort with judgmental religion, and perhaps my own judgement of his judgmentalism. It is an odd legacy for a progressive church, “open and affirming of all people” kind of church. I get odd little reminders of our past, like this pencil engraved with the words:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider…over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…” Jonathan Edwards
The pencil is 16 inches long, which makes it as difficult to write with as it is to read. Edwards was a brilliant man, and I cannot match his intellect or eloquence. But we live in very different worlds. An angry God was the norm in New England. The ministers of Boston preached against the early use of lightning rods to protect buildings from being incinerated by a lightning strike, because lightning was the judgement of God and who are we to question God?
Reverend Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, blamed Franklin and his invention of the lightning rod for causing the Massachusetts earthquake of 1755. In Prince’s sermon on the topic he expressed the opinion that the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He went on to argue that “in Boston more are erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God!” http://miltontimmons.com/ChruchesVsLightningRod.html
In our day, the wrath of God is not something we talk about, and many New England churches removed a unison prayer of confession. You can still find “Hellfire and brimstone” lite in Evangelical churches, or even flame broiled. But in our progressive tradition this sounds more like spiritual terrorism. How did the Gospel of love come to this? I believe its because fear is a strong short-term motivator. Love wins, but it isn’t always easy or apparent right away. Even Augustine for all his talk of original sin once said,
For the man who only fears the flames of hell is afraid not of sinning, but of being burned;… the fear of punishment has torment, and is not in love; and love, when it is perfect, casts it out.
The point of a vital faith is to live in love, not to tremble in fear. (Actually fearful people don’t just tremble, they often lash out and violently attempt to impose their beliefs.)
Jesus preached great love, love of God, of neighbor, even of enemies; a love that gives and serves others. He had some occasional stinging remarks about broods of vipers and hypocrites, usually towards clergy, but directed love and forgiveness towards sinners.
In Mark’s Gospel we read this brief description of Jesus preaching,
“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:14-15
This is what stands out right away. Jesus preached good news. The words “good news” frames the beginning and the end, so we don’t miss it. Preaching is to be the good news God has for us. Preaching, “You are all a bunch of miserable sinners and you better get your lives straight or you are going to Hell,” is not Good News. This is spiritual malpractice and bad theology. There are progressive forms of this malpractice too. If the message is, “The world is full of injustice, democracy is under threat, racism is running rampant, and you are complicit, so you better get your you know what in gear and do something,” that is also not Good News, even if it sounds true. Prophetic preaching is not simply taking people to task for the ills of the world. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Liberation theologian, said, “The task of the prophet is not just to denounce injustice, but to announce the hope that God has in store for the future.”
Raging against sin or injustice is not by itself preaching, nor is it prophetic. Martin Luther King might begin preaching about the nightmare of living under segregation, but would pivot to “I Have a Dream.” People will live together in Beloved Community. The prophet Isaiah was scathing about economic injustice, yet also proclaimed a jubilee where the captive and oppressed were set free and the blind and lame were healed and made whole. The lion and the lamb will lie down together in a peaceable Kingdom. Good News does not mean we just preach sunshine and rainbows. We must boldly face our individual and collective failings, but always in the context of “God so loved the world.”
Mark’s gospel is clear that Jesus preached good news, and the first line is “the time is fulfilled.” The good news is not for the next generation, or after the next election, or when you get to heaven. Now is the right time. In the original Greek there are two words for time. Chronosis measured time. Church starts at 10 AM. July has 31 days. Chronos is about watches and calendars. In contrast, kairostime is the opportune moment. In classic rhetoric, kairos is “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” Christian theology adapted this word to mean “it is the appointed time for God’s purposes.” The orthodox Christian liturgy beings with the Greek words, Kairos tou poiēsai tō Kyriō), i.e. “It is time for the Lord to act.”
What is the good news? Jesus says, it is the Kairos moment, the time of God’s appointing. What is appointed? “The Kingdom of God has drawn near.” Notice the verb tense “has drawn near,” meaning this has already happened. Jesus is not predicting the future, he is announcing what God has already done, we just have not noticed yet. I can’t say emphatically enough how wrongly this gets interpreted. The sign, “Repent, for the end is near,” is the exact opposite of what Jesus preached. Mark’s words about Jesus are more like, “Get ready, because God’s future purpose has arrived.”
The Kingdom of God is breaking out right as Jesus speaks. How do we understand this Kingdom. Feminist theologians tweak the word “kingdom” to “kin-dom.” In our day, Kingdom implies a top down monarchy where decisions flow from the power center, often excluding people from having a voice. A “kin-dom” is a kinship community. It envisions an inclusive community, everyone has a voice and shares in the values, hopes and benefits of the whole. Martin Luther King (Martin Luther Kin?) used the word “Beloved Community” to express the nature of church and society. Thy kin-dom come, thy beloved community come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus uses the word “repent” in this context. Listen to the good news, this is moment where God’s beloved community has drawn near, repent. In Greek, the word is metanoia, “meaning turn around and go in another direction.” Repent doesn’t mean “you are a terrible, sinful totally depraved person who needs to get their act together for God to love you or you will go to Hell.” Metanoia just means “turn around and go in another direction.” You don’t have to walk in despair, you don’t have to tolerate injustice, you don’t have to continue on the path of divides people from each other, or where the rich get richer and everyone else struggles. You don’t have to stay in relationships that are demeaning and disrespectful of you. You don’t have to escape into addiction, or hide in fear. Turn around and move towards the Beloved Community. This is the right time, the opening if you are willing to push through it.
Repenting may mean some changes which may feel painful. It may mean breaking some destructive habits, taking a fearless moral inventory, asking for forgiveness, or giving forgiveness. It may require deep listening, a change of heart, a new perspective, admitting mistakes, rebuilding bridges to friend and foe. But the context of repenting matters. In Mark’s context, Jesus is not preaching “The end is near, you wicked humans, so repent and be saved.” He preached, “Hey folks, good news, God has brought the beloved community near to you. Turn and move into it, for there is a place for you. You are loved so don’t worry, even if it’s hard. Remember, this is good news. You can count on it!