The Joy and Beauty of Repentance (?)

Last summer I finally had a chance to read Will Campbell’s memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly. Toward the latter half of the book, Campbell describes his interactions with with his friend, P.D. James, a journalist who was vilified for his views on racial equality. At one point, as they were driving together, James, who had a cynical view of Christianity pushed Campbell to ‘Just tell me what this Jesus cat is all about. . . . [this is quoting now from the book]

“I’m not too bright but maybe I can get the hang of it. If you would tell me what the hell the Christian Faith is all about maybe I wouldn’t make such an a** of myself when I’m talking about it. Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?’ I said, “‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.’ He swung his car off on the shoulder and stopped, asking me to say it again. I repeated: ‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.’ He didn’t comment on what he thought about the summary except to say, after he had counted the number of words on his fingers, “I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again, you have two words left.’”

There’s more to this episode in the book, but it presents an interesting question for us to think about: If someone asked you today, What is the Christian message, in simple terms, Ten words or less, how would you summarize it? How would you boil down the gospel to its essence? I’m not talking about a bumper-sticker slogan, but a way of saying what this is all about at the core.

Thinking about this question can help us understand today’s Gospel text, as all of Jesus’ teaching is summarized here by Mark in one phrase. Mark 1:14-15 is summation of all Jesus’ message, as he started his public ministry. All of his sermons, teachings, parables fit under this theme, this one phrase: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There are two parts to this statement: the first half is an announcement: “the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Everything that has been spoken of, all that has been promised is coming to completion. The long expected restoration for God’s people is here, in Jesus, the Messiah, and things will be set right. Jesus comes to his people and tells them that all of their collective hopes for freedom, healing, justice, love, mercy, salvation, are coming to be. A new order is being set up, the reign of God is coming—God is breaking into the world in a decisive way. I’m talking about the Kingdom in these terms because I think we have to hear this as a joyous announcement—not a doom and gloom pronouncement.

The second half summarizes what Jesus’ called for in response to this: “Repentance and belief.”

In thinking about repentance, I couldn’t help think about the baggage that comes with the word. There are people in our community that have had the Bible jammed down their throats, who’ve had and repentance held over their heads as an ultimatum for social acceptance. They’ve seen “Born Again” as a cultural category, not a way of life. They might have grown up in the church, or later in life wanted to give it a chance, but found themselves excluded by it. They might be intrigued or inspired by Christ, but turned off by Christians. Talk of repentance brings up resistance.

I know several people—Christians—who avoid words like, “repent,” “born again,” “evangelize” like the plague, because of the enormous cultural baggage that has come with them. I can’t blame them. But rather than avoiding them for the sake of sensitivity, which is not a bad thing, I’ve always considered it more challenging to go deeper with these words and concepts, to ask “what does repentance really mean?”

Clarence Jordan, the farmer-theologian: who’s been a tremendous influence on me shed a light on the subject, and I can’t say it any better than he did:


To repent, to go through metanoia, is to open ourselves to transformation into a new creation, to be who God created us to be. To repent is to turn from the ways we’ve been defined (by our own false conception or social structures), and how we act out of that definition, and turn toward the reality that at our core, our identity nothing but this: a beloved child of God. It should frighten us to realize that most of what we claim to be, to think, is nothing but a mask, or as Thomas Merton said, “the voice of the anonymous authority speaking through your mask.” Metanoia is to strip this away, to turn from what was, to tear away the masks, to see ourselves as God sees us: broken, sinful, but beloved.

Why metanoia? Because the Kingdom of God is a beautiful thing.

In it we discover the love God has for us, and as we discover this we see that this is what we share with all humanity—that we are children of God, and we are compelled to love one another—not by arbitrary demand, but by the compulsion out of our own hearts. Isn’t this what Jesus told us are the core of his teaching, “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind . . . and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This is how Metanoia translates into belief; how belief is the fruit of repentance.

The world doesn’t need us to dig our heels into the ground, to build bigger, stronger walls to protect our beliefs. It needs us to open ourselves to God’s transformative work in our hearts, our minds, and our lives–and to demonstrate God’s Kingdom in the world. It’s not a one-time deal. We repent, we’re saved and then we’re in the clear. From the youngest in the room to the oldest, God’s Kingdom is here and invites us to transformation. So too, our voices need to one of invitation, not exclusion; of open doors, not lines drawn. This means not just being nice to people who come in the doors of the chapel, but being there in others’ lives, and inviting them to join us in this journey of transformation. When you pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” this week, I pray you experience the beauty of the kingdom, and if it challenges you to repent, then let go of whatever fears hold you back, because the kingdom of God is forgiveness.

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