(A sermon on new chances, new beginnings)
Tom Sorenson, Pastor, Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
Preached at Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
April 14, 2002
We've all heard it: Repent! Repent, for the end is near! Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ! Yes, repent is a big word with sloganeers of a certain Christian persuasion. For some of us in the more mainline Protestant denominations, the word has taken on almost comic overtones. When I hear it any way, the first image that comes to my mind is of a cartoon character with ragged clothes and a long, dirty beard standing on a street corner with a Bible in one hand and a crude cardboard sign in the other that screams at passersby: Repent! And although I now know better, and by the time this sermon is over I hope you'll know better too if you don't already, I also have an automatic emotional reaction against the implication I associate with the word that God wants us all to feel really guilty for being such bad people. Certain Bible passages are susceptible to that interpretation. Perhaps the most famous is Job 42:6, where Job, having seen in incomparable majesty of God revealed in the whirlwind, says: "Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Still, my first reaction on hearing the word is that it is not one we need to take very seriously.
Born again is another one. Have you been born again? Are you a born again Christian? It's a good Biblical phrase in our tradition. It comes from John 3:3, which in many translations, including the King James that I read this morning, has Jesus saying to Nicodemus: " Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again." Never mind that more modern translations render the phrase as "born from above," or "born anew." It has passed into our cultural and religious heritage as born again. But it has been so badly abused by some of our co-religionists that I generally have a pretty negative reaction to it. When it is taken to mean, as it so often is, that our loving, forgiving God will condemn you to Hell for all eternity unless you have a particular sort of conversion experience, then, for me, it becomes a perversion of the Gospel.
And yet, these two terms, repent and born again play central roles in the three New Testament readings we heard this morning. In the reading from Acts, Luke (The author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote Acts. It is the second volume of a work scholars call Luke-Acts, for any of you who didn't know that) Peter has just convinced the people to whom he was speaking, the people of Jerusalem, that they were responsible for crucifying the one whom God had made "both Lord and Messiah." Thus being "convicted of sin," as the old time preachers used to say, the people ask what they should do. Peter's first response is: "Repent." Now he says they should do some other things too, like be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, but the first thing he says is "repent." In the letter known as 1 Peter, the author (who certainly was not St. Peter) has Peter saying to the members of the churches to which the letter is addressed "you have been born anew." In the King James Version it reads "born again...." Clearly the author of this letter, like the author of the Gospel of John, sees being born again as central to the Christian life.
What are we to make of these words that Scripture wants us to take seriously but which give so many of us, or at least give me, so much trouble? Let's start by taking a look at the term "repent" so see what it really means.
The first thing to keep in mind about repentance is that it has little or nothing to do with feeling bad, Job's cry of self-loathing to the contrary notwithstanding. It most certainly is not about getting stuck in a kind of self-loathing because of past sins or wrongdoing. Regret over mistakes we have made, things we have done wrong or good things we have left undone, may be part of it; but if that's all we think it is about we're missing the point. Maybe a little academic discourse on the meaning of the word will be helpful to some of you. If it isn't, just chalk my next remarks up to Sorenson's weird academic inclinations and ignore them. The most common Hebrew word for repent is shub, which, according to the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary "expresses the idea of turning back, retracing one's steps in order to return to the right way." To the Hebrew prophets it means "an interior conversion manifested in justice, kindness, and humility."
The word used in the New Testament for repent is "metanoein." It doesn't mean feeling sorry or guilty or bad. It has nothing to do with those things. Doesn't really have much to do with feelings at all. It means to change, to have a change of heart, to change the direction of one's life. In the New Testament writings in which it is used, it means to change one's heart by turning to Jesus Christ. End of scholarly excursion.
To me, the term repent very much has the sense of starting over. To repent doesn't mean to hate your old self and your old life. It means to start a new life as a new self, renewed by the grace of God in and through Jesus Christ. You may then dislike or regret your former life, but that isn't primarily what repentance is about. Repenting is about starting over. It is something we do more than something we feel. So, when in Acts Luke has Peter say to the new Christian converts "repent," he is really saying "start over. Change the things your heart is set on. Set your heart on God and Jesus Christ. Begin anew."
Which sounds a lot like being born again, doesn't it. Especially when you know that many modern translations render that term "be born anew," as we learned a few minutes ago. What can being born again possibly mean? Well, I suppose that before we can understand being born again, we have to understand what it means to be born in the first place. Of course there is the rather obvious meaning of physical, biological birth. That's what Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about. As I've said before, in the Gospel of John Jesus is almost always misunderstood. Nicodemus misunderstood him here. Clearly Jesus has some other meaning of birth in mind. What could that meaning be? Well, birth is a pretty good metaphor for a beginning. We use it that way all the time: the birth of an idea, the birth of a nation, the birth of a political movement, and so on. So birth means the start of something new, the commencement of a new life either literally or figuratively. A birth is a new beginning, just like repentance.
We've all had one such beginning, of course. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. We are born flesh and blood of flesh and blood as the result of natural biological processes. That's our first birth. It is the necessary condition of our existence. It is established and ordained, sanctified by God as God's way for God's creatures. It is good, it is sacred. Yet Scripture talks about a new birth, about being born again. Why? Because the truth of the matter is that God continually calls us to start over. God wants us to change our minds, change our hearts, when our minds and hearts are set on things that are not what God desires for us. God wants us to have new beginnings. Scripture's call to repentance and Scripture's call to be born again are both calls to start over.
So what are we to make of that? Why this emphasis on starting over? Do we really need to start over? What's wrong with the start we've already made? Some of you might well answer that question "nothing. Nothing's wrong with the start I've made. I don't need this starting over nonsense. I don't want God to tell me to start over, I want God to be here with me in the life I've already started." Well, maybe you're right. Maybe you don't need to have a change of heart, to begin a new way of life. I can't speak for you. I can only speak for myself and from my own experience. I know that there are times when God does call people to repent, to change their heart and their life, and to be born again. It has happened to me. There was a time in my life when I needed to change my mind and heart, to change my course, to start over. That's why I'm here. That's why in mid-life I left a private law practice and went to seminary. Otherwise, someone else would be here talking to you today (which you may think would be a good thing, but for now you're got me).
Have you had experiences of new beginnings like mine? I imagine many of you have. But repentance and being born again isn't, as I said, a once for all thing. It is an on-going process. We are continually called to it. No matter how satisfied we are with the way we live our lives, God is always there, quietly urging is to examine anew the ways in which our hearts need to change, the ways in which we need to start over, always ready to support us when we make the effort. That's part of God's grace. That's part of the Good News. God always offers us another chance, and wants us to take it.
Does that mean that we must repent, must be born again in order to earn God's love? Does it mean God is there calling us, supporting our efforts, offering another chance but rejecting and condemning us if we don't answer the call and take the chance? Absolutely not. One of the most radical mistakes of much of contemporary American Christianity is, in my opinion, that it makes repentance or having a born again experience a prerequisite of God's grace, an indispensable condition precedent to salvation (if you'll forgive for a moment my lapse into legalese, but then that way of thinking is quite legalistic). Nothing could be further from the Gospel truth. That formulation gets things exactly backward. The truth is that God's grace precedes any effort we make to repent or start over. The truth is that it is precisely God's prior grace that makes our repentance, our rebirth, possible.
One of the best formulations of this truth I've ever seen comes from Walter Wink, one of my favorite theologians these days. In his book Engaging the Powers, Wink says this, referring to the way in which Jesus accepted precisely all those whom the religious establishment of his day rejected:
Jesus lived out [God's] new creation in his table fellowship with those whom the religious establishment had branded outcasts, sinners, renegades: the enemies of God. He did not wait for them to repent, become respectable, and do works of restitution in hopes of gaining divine forgiveness and human restoration. Instead he audaciously bursts upon these sinners with the declaration that their sins have been forgiven, prior to their repentance, prior to any acts of restitution or reconciliation. Everything is reversed: You are forgiven; now you can repent! God loves you; now you can lift your eyes to God! The enmity is over. You were enemies and yet God accepts you! There is nothing you must do to earn this. You only need accept it.1
Isn't that great good news? We can repent, We can be born again, because God's grace lets us let go of our past mistakes, our old, unfaithful ways, and start over. So: Repent. Be born again. Give up the things that r\are keeping you, keeping us as a community, from being as faithful as we can be. God is there, accepting us and calling us forward into a richer, fuller life.
Let us pray: Loving God, you call us to repentance and new birth. Free us by your grace from the things that hold us back, that keep us stuck in our old ways that diminish us and keep our lives from being what you want them to be. You call us to repentance and new birth. Help us by your grace to answer that call. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life we seek to follow. Amen.
1Wink, Walter, Engaging the Powers, Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992, p. 266.