Posts Tagged ‘repentance’

PSALM 51:1-12

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

There is a high probability, although we can’t be absolutely certain, that David wrote this poetic prayer in the aftermath of his moral collapse. We hear in its words a profound sense of guilt and a desperate longing to be made clean. The sin he had tried to hide could no longer be blanketed behind a veil of denial and self-justification. As long as he persisted in walling off this part of himself, he was living a divided life.

For the ego this is rather typical, but for the soul – that dimension beyond our personality where our autobiography is archived and our highest spiritual aspirations are conceived – this divided state is intolerable. Whereas the ego coordinates the multiple roles we play in life, our soul thirsts for wholeness and authenticity. While David’s ego could go on with the charade of self-justification, his soul was tormented and in deep need of forgiveness.

Repentance involves a series of subtler moves beginning with the admission of guilt, and moving on through inner remorse, self-examination, personal confession, acceptance of consequences, attempted restitution, a pledge toward moral improvement, letting go of the past and moving on. The forgiveness of God makes all of this possible by holding before us the promise of freedom, love, and fulfillment.

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.

JOHN 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

In many ways, the gospel of Jesus is the esoteric (inner-oriented) and spiritual fulfillment of the historical saga of biblical Judaism. If the fall of Adam removed our species from proximity to the tree of immortal life, so that we pain and hope for a life after death, the gospel of Jesus reveals the path back into Eden, to authentic life before (and hence also beyond) death.

If the journey of Abraham was across the geographical terrain of the ancient Near East, that of Jesus is across the spiritual landscape of the soul. If the mission of Moses was to gain the political freedom of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the work of Jesus is to liberate the human spirit from the prison of guilt and fear. If the old Joshua led the way into the new frontier of the Promised Land, the New Joshua (the Hebrew form of the name Jesus) opened for us the higher frontier of freedom and love, the kingdom (or kin-dom) of God.

This means that there are two ways of looking at the same phenomenon of religion – according to its outward, external, and historical aspect; or its inward, subtle, and eternal aspect. It’s the difference between mythology and mysticism, religious ceremony and spiritual awakening, dogma and experience, logic and insight, worship of God and union with God.

These are not exclusive of one another, but neither should they be thought of as co-equal. The one is meant to be form to the other’s substance, body to its soul, house to its living presence. Nicodemus to its Jesus.

                                                                                            

The problem is that Nicodemus can’t understand Jesus, just as religion will never be able to understand spirituality. It will try. It will try to force its rigid nouns and logical rules over the intangible and elusive mystery of Spirit, but to no avail. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries; words just can’t define the indefinable, can’t capture the ineffable. The deep experience of Mystery simply cannot be translated into the boxes of language, however inspired.

Indeed, the harder Nicodemus tries to comprehend (literally, “to grasp”) Jesus, the more frustrated he is bound to become. This may very well account for the violence-prone desperation one finds in fundamentalist religions.

As Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth, Nicodemus is trying to imagine the gymnastics required to get a full-grown adult back into his mother’s womb for a second go at it. And when Jesus speaks of “eternal life” – literally a life with no beginning, life outside of time altogether – all that Nicodemus is likely to hear is only some formula for “everlasting life” (a life that never ends, and which remains stuck in time).

What Nicodemus needs is a transformed mind (metanoia, the Greek word that most frequently gets translated as “repentance”). His religious ritual of baptism, “being born of water,” must give way to the new creation within, where the inner self is infused by the Divine Mystery beyond.

“How can these things be?” the bishop asks in bewilderment. He will never understand.

ROMANS 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

If we take Abraham as an archetype (a controlling pattern) for understanding the dynamics and progress of faith, then his relationship to God in the period prior to the Law under Moses represents a connection more “primitive” and therefore also more universal than the kind that is defined and validated in the system of religion.

The obvious analogy is the individual development each of us undergoes in our growth from infancy to adolescence. Erik Erikson named this the progression from “basic trust” to “social identity,” with the first being pre-verbal and intuitive while the later stage is more rule-bound and rational. Abraham, then, is the exemplar in Paul’s mythology of heroes of faith in its deepest dimension, coming before reward motivation and obedience to law. God called him, and he trusted. That’s faith.

It was with this deep primal faith in mind that Jesus called his disciples to “become as little children” and warned us that without such simple faith a person “cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It wasn’t a license to act childish (Lord knows we’ve got enough of that going on in our churches!) but an invitation to release ourselves in complete trust to the present grace and providence of God.

This was a point of critical importance for Paul, for he was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the grace revealed through Jesus was more foundational than religion itself. For that reason, it is universal and available to all.

                                                                                             

If the favor of God, according to the Christian revelation, is not our compensation or reward for obeying the law, then its “motivation” must come from elsewhere. That is to say, if it’s not my obedience to the law that wins God’s blessing on my life, then that blessing must be sheer gift, coming out of the essential generosity (grace) of God’s heart.

By seeing this transaction of grace and faith deeper down and prior to the authority of the law, and further, by acknowledging it as fully sufficient for salvation, Paul was putting religion (law) in its proper place. In this order, with grace coming before religion (and not as its benefit), he confirmed what had been fundamental to Jesus’ teachings as well.

When you see that love, grace, and forgiveness come first, then your religion takes on a whole new orientation and purpose, serving as the vehicle of your gratitude and service rather than the way of salvation you had once mistakenly thought it to be. In the spirit of Jesus’ gospel, we can say that repentance is not making ourselves worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness, but is rather the turn-around that accepts it in joy and thanksgiving.

All along and from the very beginning, the creative and redemptive current of blessing and grace has been “the one thing” that the religions have quantified and tried to manage, under the many names of God.

MATTHEW 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

To the degree that the portrait of John the baptist in the Gospels is confirmed also in the report on first-century religious and political movements given by the Jewish historian Josephus, we can say that John stood rather squarely in the tradition of what we earlier called an exclusionist messianism.

The Gospels themselves don’t give us any suggestion that John reached out beyond the boundary of Jewish identity, though he did attract a remarkably large following of Jews from just about every walk of life.

Both his geographical and ideological proximity to the sectarian group known as the Essenes places him as a possible one-time adherent of their community. His message marked a strategic departure from the sectarian outlook, however, in that he offered repentance with a requirement of formal sect membership through world-renunciation.

Upon repentance and their ritual washing in the Jordan, those responding to John’s call were sent back into their work-a-day world with a new ethic – not of separatism but fairness, honesty, and charity on behalf of the needy.

John’s concept of how the messianic age would come, and to what effect, was less kind to Pharisees and Sadducees – at least as Matthew tells the story. Their so-called leadership among the Jewish people had only magnified the law’s burden and depressed the human spirit. Both were in agreement that salvation needed to be officially mediated – by the law (Pharisees) or by the temple (Sadducees).

                                                                         

The Gospel writers inform us later on that John eventually grew somewhat disillusioned with Jesus and sent a delegation of disciples to inquire whether he was really the messiah of their expectation.

As far as his original insight was concerned – that the messiah of God’s in-breaking kingdom would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire – John was right on the mark. But once again, he was mistaken over the ultimate outcome.

John was anticipating that Jesus (or the messiah of his expectation) would cast the unrepentant moral reprobates of the world into the “unquenchable fire” of God’s wrath – and that’s where he got it wrong. Jesus did not, in fact, bring God’s vengeance but God’s forgiveness. And forgiveness, at least as Jesus understood and advocated it, is something that does not compute in the calculations of a black-and-white worldview.

But as a figure, John serve as the historical bridge from the moral paradigm of conventional religion (represented in the story of Judaism) to the mystical paradigm of esoteric religion. This move from membership to spirituality, from orthodoxy to enlightenment, and from an ethic of duty to an ethic of compassion, is a passage that faith must make in its progress to maturity and fulfillment.