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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