True Repentance

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Byrn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Every time we renew our baptismal vows, we answer the following question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” This question makes a somewhat surprising assumption, namely that falling into sin is inevitable and that repentance is something we will have to do over and over and over again throughout our lives of faith. This is not at all what we expect. As you probably know, “repent” comes from the Hebrew word for “turn.” Repentance, in other words, is about turning our lives around and starting with a clean slate; it is the means by which we turn away from our sins and live righteously. It is something that we should only have to do once. And yet, we know that this is not true. We know that no matter how hard we try, we will fall into sin. We know that no matter how much we want to give up self destructive behavior, we will invariably fall back into our old patterns. Moreover, our failure leads us to feel guilty and frustrated with ourselves. It’s enough to make us think that we should just give up the possibility of renewal, that any effort at living righteously is ultimately hopeless.

Repentance is a theme that appears repeatedly in the gospel narratives. All three of the synoptic gospels begin with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus takes up this mantle: in both accounts, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God and saying, “Repent and believe in the good news.” In this sense, Jesus is the successor to John the Baptist. He is carrying on a mission that was begun by someone else. Though he transforms this mission and brings it to its conclusion in a way that no one before him could, the mission that Jesus fulfills in the gospels of Matthew and Mark ultimately originated with someone else. This is not true of Luke’s gospel. In fact, Luke does not mention repentance at all once John departs the scene. While this may just be a narrative quirk of Luke’s gospel, it is unlikely that Luke ignored a theme as significant as repentance for mere stylistic reasons. It is far more likely that Luke has a unique and challenging understanding of repentance.

We see a glimpse of Luke’s unique vision of repentance in our gospel reading this morning. Most interpreters of Luke note that the moment when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem is the pivot point the gospel. This is no surprise. The idea of “setting one’s face” comes up pretty frequently in Scripture: the psalmist uses the expression to indicate resolve in the face of adversity, the prophets use the phrase to highlight their righteous indignation against their people. Even apart from the Scriptural allusions, Luke’s point is clear: Jesus has turned in the direction of his destiny. plowing-cottonEverything Jesus will do from this point on will be shaped by his inexorable march toward his crucifixion and death at the hands of the authorities. We see this play out immediately. Jesus plows through Samaria, refusing to address the ancient grudge between Jews and Samaritans and ignoring his disciples as they dwell on petty slights. He tells those who would follow him that they can neither bury their dead nor say goodbye to their families. To underscore his point, Jesus announces that anyone who puts a hand to the plow and even turns back for a moment is unfit for the kingdom of God. The only thing that matters now is the fact that Jesus has turned toward Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny.

It is in this moment that Luke very subtly returns to the theme of repentance. Though he doesn’t use the word, the physical act of repenting is there: the lynchpin of Jesus’ ministry is marked by a literal turning. Implicit to this moment is an understanding that Jesus is the only one who can do what he is about to do. Jesus is the only one who can submit to and transcend the violence of this world without looking back. Jesus, in other words, is the only one who can truly repent, once and for all. Only Jesus can turn toward his destiny without being hamstrung by fear, doubt, or regret. Only Jesus is truly fit for the kingdom of God.

This is enormously significant for us. We tend to assume that if we try really hard, we can turn away from sin, that we can make ourselves fit for the kingdom of God. The bystanders who would follow Jesus, however, demonstrate the folly of this thinking. No matter how dedicated we may be, something will always distract us from fulfilling our goal. None of us is able to put a hand to the plow without looking back. The fact is, any effort at living righteously that depends on us is hopeless. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Every time we attempt to make ourselves righteous, every time we try to overcome our sins, every time we turn repentance into a self improvement project, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The great paradox of the Christian life is this: we can only turn in the direction we are meant to go when we recognize that we are powerless to do so on our own. It is God through Jesus Christ who makes us fit for the kingdom of God. It is God through Jesus Christ who empowers us to live in righteousness and peace. It is God through Jesus Christ who frees us to live the life we have been called to live.

To be clear, this freedom is not mere libertinism. Paul makes this clear when he reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence. Moreover, this freedom does not negate our responsibilities to one another. Paul highlights this when he tells the Galatians they should use their freedom to become slaves to one another. Rather, Jesus Christ frees us to be defined, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. The freedom God offers through Jesus Christ unshackles us from our failures and empowers us to hope for the future. In this sense, our repentance is less about what we have turned away from and more about who we have turned toward: Jesus Christ, the one who set off to defeat the power of sin and never looked back.

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The Full Stature of Christ

Sermon on Galatians 1:11-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Though he loved performing as a young man, Gary Stocker’s career initially took a very different path. After excelling in school, he studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. By the time he was thirty, he was living very comfortably: he had a lucrative salary and a house with a pool in the London suburbs. By any objective standard, Gary was walking an enviable path: he was well-respected and almost guaranteed to have gainful employment for the rest of his working life. imgresThat changed when a friend of his made an unusual request: he wanted Gary’s help building a cannon suitable for a human cannonball stunt (I suppose everyone needs a hobby). For several months, the cannon languished in his backyard until another friend, who was starting a circus, wondered whether Gary, who never quite lost his love of performing, would close the show with a human cannonball stunt. With that invitation, Gary Stocker abandoned the job security, predictable salary, and social prestige of the law for a career as a human cannonball.

For the most part, we tend to admire people who do what Gary did. We often tell our kids how important it is for them to pursue their passions, just like Gary. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life,” we repeat with confidence. In some ways, Gary Stocker is the embodiment of this truism. His own words are revealing: “the elation I felt the first time I performed the stunt in public was incredible.” This is clearly a man who has found his passion. At the same time, one of the reasons we admire Gary is because we recognize we could never do what he did. His career change seems irresponsible at best and reckless at worst. It’s one thing when someone makes a dramatic career change after losing everything, but Gary willingly gave up everything to venture into the unknown. Most of us can’t imagine giving up everything he gave up: not only the predictable salary and job security, but also the years of study and work that went into becoming a lawyer. Sure, he’s doing what he loves, but how could throw all that away?

Like the lawyer turned human cannonball, Paul also experienced a significant change in his vocation. This morning, we hear Paul remind us of that vocational shift when he tells the Galatians of his “earlier life in Judaism.” “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it,” he recalls. But as we all know, Paul went from a zealous persecutor of the Church to its most enthusiastic apostle. He left everything behind to become a minister of the gospel. And lest the Galatians think that Paul converted because he lost everything or hit rock bottom, he is careful to explain, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul had everything going for him; he was respected by his peers and was cultivating a position of authority in his religious community. His future was secure. Paul wasn’t looking to change anything about his life when he received his revelation of the gospel. In fact, he couldn’t have imagined being an apostle to the Gentiles. Therein lies the crucial difference between Paul and others who have changed their vocations, like Gary Stocker. While Gary had always nurtured a passion for performance, Paul had never considered that his vocation would be to proclaim good news to the Gentiles. Gentiles weren’t even on Paul’s radar. Prior to his conversion, Paul, like all first century Jews, understood the world to be divided between Jew and Gentile, between covenant insiders and covenant outsiders, between those who followed the Law of Moses and everybody else. Gentiles simply did not belong. This deeply held belief was a fundamental element of the Jewish tradition. In other words, the revelation Paul received from God not only forced him to abandon a secure future, but also to reevaluate the way he understood the world, to give up everything that made sense to him, to empty himself of everything he thought was important for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that for Paul, it is this act of emptying that defines what God does through Jesus Christ. In another letter to another community, Paul articulates that though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. It is easy to miss the significance of this statement. There are few things in this world that we value more than security. Whether it is the basic yearning for physical safety, or the impulse to predict what will happen tomorrow, or the desire to know that our lives are meaningful; security is an elemental human aspiration. Yet this is what Jesus Christ gives up at the most fundamental level. He gives up the deeply human desire for security and willingly submits to the evil powers of this world. He forfeits the one thing that all of us cling to with everything we have. And in spite of his death at the hands of the authorities, Christ Jesus was vindicated in the resurrection. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ accomplishes something that no one else can accomplish: he nullifies the power of the death and frees us to live in the shadow of God’s grace. This is animating force behind Paul’s conversion. Through the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, Paul was able to give up everything he thought made him secure and gave his life meaning and recognize that his true worth came from God alone.

In our baptismal service, the parents and godparents of a child about to be baptized are asked a curious question: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” This is an unusual term, and it would be easy to assume that growing into the full stature of Christ is about acting like Jesus, which is ultimately an impossible goal. I wonder, however, if the meaning of this phrase can be found in the words of Paul. Before he explains how Christ emptied himself, abdicated his desire for security, and became obedient to death, Paul invites us to “let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, Paul suggests that we too are to give up our preoccupation with security, to let go of our desire for predictability, to recognize that our true worth comes not from what everyone else thinks of us, but from God alone. Growing into the full stature of Christ is about letting this mind of Christ be in us. It is about recognizing that everything we think is important, everything we think is worthwhile, everything we think defines us, everything we think will guarantee our security is not worth comparing with the grace that has been made known to us through Jesus Christ.