In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last Sunday I set off some discussion by mentioning that Mark Sanford, who two years ago resigned in disgrace as Governor of South Carolina in a swirl of adultery, misuse of government funds, private and lying, is now running for Congress there.
He says that he’s repented, and asks the voters’ forgiveness. These are two different meaty topics very suitable for our thoughts during Lent, so important that I’ll consider repentance today and forgiveness separately next Sunday.
Among coffee-hour questions last week someone asked, “How can we tell if Sanford or anyone has actually repented?” A good question, one you and I often have to ponder in our own relationships. Certainly Mr. Sanford has apologized, has said that he’s sorry, has asked voters there to forgive him – isn’t that repentance?
But to me most of the media discussions about this reveal – amongst other things – a woeful lack of understanding of what Christians believe and mean when we talk about ‘repentance.’ Now, anytime is a good time for anyone to know what he’s talking about before he starts talking, and certainly Lent is an excellent time for us to consider what we mean – or are presumed to mean – when we say in just a few moments that “We do earnestly repent…for these our misdoings…”
As Christians we should start by asking, what did Jesus mean by ‘repentance,’ often and in today’s Gospel when he twice warns his hearers and us, Luke 13 verses 3 and 5, that “Unless you repent you will also perish!” That sounds pretty clear, but best find out what this actually means that you and I have to do – or else… lest we think we’ve ‘repented’ but really haven’t. (We do so easily delude ourselves…)
The verb here, metano- ay-te from meta-noi-a, in everyday Greek means “to change one’s mind” but in New Testament usage involves “an unconditional turning to God” and “an unconditional turning from all that is against God.” Pretty clear…
But not what Jesus’ hearers wanted to hear. This discussion in Luke 13:1-9 is yet another occasion when people wanted to talk about theology, or theodicy, some topic vague enough to be safe, but Jesus nails them and says, “Let’s get personal.” They want an intellectual discussion about God, did God make that tower fall on and kill those people, and if so, why? But, Jesus says, “Hey! How’s your heart? Your mind? Your soul? Are you going to turn your whole life over to God and live, or do you choose the only other alternative?” And He asks you and me the same question, here, now, and every day: Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”
In the first chapter of the first Gospel ever written down, in Mark 1:15, the very first words Jesus utters are “Repent, and believe the Gospel/the good news!” In Luke 5.32 He declares that the purpose of His coming is to call us all to repentance. In His final commissioning of His disciples before His Ascension, in Luke 24:47, Jesus commands them [and therefore us] that “repentance and the forgiveness of sins be preached in His Name to all nations.” In Acts 17.30 Paul, preaching to the pagans in Athens, says that “God commands all people everywhere to repent.”
So you and I had jolly well better find out what ‘repentance’ means, that’s the necessary preliminary to doing it, before we casually say that we do it. Minds deeper than mine have found four  aspects of true repentance:
- True repentance requires personal understanding and acceptance of the fact that we have done something wrong. [Again, we so easily rationalize, delude ourselves…] In Luke 15:10-24 the Prodigal Son “comes to himself,” realizes and accepts and admits to himself that he has done wrong…then, and only then, can he repent-turn-around to go to his father and say “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee…” because
- Recognition of sin is not by itself repentance: there has to be some actual tangible movement toward cleansing – talk is cheap, and a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. In Biblical times wearing sackcloth and ashes manifested publicly a sinner’s repentance and reminded all who saw them that every sin is not only a deadly personal affront in-the-face of Almighty God, but also a wound to the corporate body of His whole faithful people that will fester until it is cauterized.
- These initial gestures produce a new yearning for God, a realization that without a gracious and loving and forgiving God we are lost in the dead end of our own self-centered self’s self-seeking – and there’s nothing there but death eternal.
If ours is true and godly repentance, then inevitably follows  amendment of life. Repentance is much much more than a ‘feeling’ – John the Baptist, with Jesus’ resounding second-the-motion, declares in Luke 3:8 that we sinners must “bear fruits that befit repentance.” Again, talk is cheap. In Acts 26.20 Paul praises those whose changed lives demonstrate their repentance “by their deeds.”
Now, all this is hard for me. Maybe it is for you? I suffer not honesty-twinge when I say “I’m sorry,” because after all that statement only talks about me [I’m sorry] and my own feelings – if I’ve really goofed, and been caught, I can also say [and usually mean] “I apologize,” which is more complicated than “I’m sorry” because it does involve a second person – but still “I apologize” is all past tense and carries nothing of nor for the future, the future commitment, of saying “I repent.”
That’s very hard – but Christians can do it, because we repent not in order to make God love and forgive us, but because He already does love and wants to forgive us. We Christians are bold even joyful, to accept and admit and confess our sins because we want to get them off us because “the burden of them is intolerable” – we repent not as some device or price or deal to “get” God’s love, but rather precisely because we rejoice in the confidence that we already have and enjoy all the love against which we have sinned, God’s heart we have wronged, the offer of healing forgiveness and that might strength of clear purpose that can only be given us by God alone – and is so graciously offered to us, always in confession in prayer, manifestly in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion this day…
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.