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Repent or Die

Second Sunday in Lent: 24th February, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Repent or die. This appears to be the message of today's gospel. Some people approach Jesus with the latest terrible news of the day, "What do you think about the recent Galilean massacre? Pontius Pilate ordered that their own blood be mixed with that of the animals they were sacrificing. Were these people terrible sinners?" "No," he replies, "but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." And then he gives them another example just to press home the point, "remember when the tower of Siloam fell on the crowd killing eighteen people? Were they bad people, worse than others living in Jerusalem at the time? No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish just like them."

These are harsh words: repent or you will perish like those killed in a massacre or terrible accident. I'm not sure I like the teaching of Luke's Jesus at this point of his gospel. It certainly isn't a theological message that comes easily to my lips. There seems to be an almost medieval harshness to the words when they are boiled down into this disturbing message; in fact there is a board game you can buy with that very title: "Repent or Die"; it is sub-titled "Rules for the Wars of Power & Religion 1492-1660." Surely we should skip over this reading and find a nice passage about love or peace. Doesn't this teaching of Jesus just feed into the hands of our detractors?

Salman Rushdie famously wrote, "Religion, as ever, is the poison in India's blood," which Richard Dawkins reflects on in The God Delusion (2006):

What is there to respect in any of this, or in any of the crimes now being committed almost daily around the world in religion's dreaded name? How well, with what fatal results, religion erects totems, and how willing we are to kill for them! And when we've done it often enough, the deadening affect that results makes it easier to do it again. So India's problem turns out to be the world's problem. What happened in India has happened in God's name. The problem's name is God.

Perhaps the writings of a medieval theologian might be a good place to look for a way through the impasse. Around 1340 Richard Rolle, an English hermit and mystic, wrote a compact and surprisingly accessible contemplative treatise entitled Emendatio vitae or Mending of Life. He opens with a passage that sounds very much like the Lukan Jesus in today's gospel (from my own modernization, as yet unpublished): "Tarry not to turn to God, nor delay from day to day. For suddenly he takes wretches in the sharpness of death, and before they know it the bitterness and hideousness of punishment shall devour them." The fear of death and purgatory were very real in the medieval mind, but Rolle goes on to clarify what should motivate us in our turning to God. Death is a reality, it comes to us all, but it is not a fear of punishment that should spur our turning to God: "And where-so-ever we are, or what-so-ever we do, walking or sitting, the fear of God never leaves our heart. I speak not of the fear of punishment, that is a servile fear that only abstains from sin for fear of the punishment of hell .... But I mean love-fear [lufe-dread], such as when the child fears to offend the father; through which love-fear we behold what reverence, what honour and worship we may give to so great and worthy a majesty, evermore fearing to grieve or to offend it."

That is part of what motivates me to keep strong in my faith, to keep turning to God: love-fear. It is a harsh world. There are terrible things that can and do happen in life; that's a fact. In my last parish I was friends with a lovely couple who asked me to baptize their precious first-born child. Soon afterwards the mother was diagnosed with cancer and died. Then tragically the child was killed in a car accident. The husband was left alone. I still can't even begin to imagine the pain and suffering he went through. Did God do this? Was he a terrible sinner being punished? No, of course not! Did he lose his faith? Incredibly, no. I'm sure he felt angry with God, in fact he spoke with me about it, but he kept going. He prayed with me. He came to church. He put one foot in front of another spiritually, and somehow managed to hold on to his faith, managed to keep turning to God. And in time he remarried and they started a family together.

We may not have to face such extreme tests of faith, God willing, but our Lenten journey is still like this in a way. Life throws things at us. It is almost trivial, but still real, every time we want to break our Lenten discipline — to eat chocolate or drink alcohol, or what ever it is we are fasting — we face a choice: turn to God or turn away from God. That is really what Luke's Jesus is saying. Rather than the harsh Bible-bashing "repent or die" the heart of the teaching is this: "turn to God; for your own good and the good of those around you." Turning to God is not about fear, it is about love, it is about embracing life.


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