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On Repentance

Lent 1, 1 March, 2009
Bishop Graeme Rutherford, Acting Vicar, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Mother Mary Clare, a former Mother superior of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, summed up her prayer life in just one sentence: "Here I am Lord, what a mess". Lent is the season of the church's year when we are called to be 'more up front' about our brokenness and sinfulness. It was Socrates who once said, 'the unexamined life is not worth living'. Lent calls us to self-examination and repentance. 'Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news". (Mark 1:14,15)

Repentance is not an enjoyable exercise. But neither is it to be thought of in totally negative terms. It was part of the 'good news'. It's a way of entering into a whole new future, a 'new Kingdom' — a new way of life, a new set of values, a new array of priorities and commitments, a new vision of peace and how to achieve it.

So let's be clear at the outset about what our Lord's call to repentance is and is not. First what it is not.

1. Repentance is not Regret

Sin-soaked gloom doesn't lead to the Kingdom. Wallowing in self-pity and regrets is not what repentance is about. The give-away lines for this attitude are: 'If only I had ...' or 'If only I hadn't ...' or 'I wish I hadn't ...'. We all live with regrets, regrets about decisions made or not made, regrets about actions committed or not committed.

It is impossible for us fallen, fallible human beings, to go through life by walking a completely straight path. Somewhere, somehow, when we least expect it, mistakes creep up on us and temptation overcomes our best intentions. Underlying the 'If only' syndrome — our tendency to wallow in regrets — is the erroneous belief that we should never make mistakes. We fear that people will think less of us if we are not perfect. This kind of regret or remorse, has negative consequences. It leads, very often, to a neurotic sense of guilt over our lack of perfection.

Repentance is not about going on and on about sin — a blubbering self-loathing, sitting in the garbage pile feeling miserable. It's about getting out of sin. It is not regret.

2. Repentance is not Reform

This is the attitude of the person who makes a New Years resolution or a resolution for Lent by saying to themselves: 'I'll get myself right and then I'll be in a fit state to come to God'.

Jesus says, it's the sick who need the doctor. Not those who are well. The Lord Jesus is the great physician who holds hospital for those who have things wrong with them. He accepts us not when we are better, but 'just as we are'. As the old Billy Graham crusade hymn put it:

'Just as I am without one plea
but that your blood was shed for me,
and that you would my Saviour be,
O Lamb of God, I come'.

'Just as I am'. Grace accepts us as we are. Of course, it doesn't leave us as we are. Nevertheless, grace reaches out not to the reformed but to the needy, those in the casualty Ward of a hospital who know they need a physician.

Repentance is not remorse. Repentance is not reform.

3. Repentance is not Repaying

There are those who think that repentance is a form of penance in which you make up to God for all yesterdays bad deeds. The history of the church is littered with those who have gone to extreme forms of asceticism, thinking that by so doing, they will in some way repay God.

When I was a student in the UK one of my favourite forms of relaxation was to set out from the magnificent Norman Cathedral in Durham and follow the banks of the river Wear some 9 Kilometres towards the ruins of a medieval Priory at a place called Finchale. The ruins of Finchale Priory dated back to the 11th century, and it was the holiday place for the Durham monks. At Finchale there lived a hermit by the name of Godric. He entered the Priory in order to do penance for his youthful misdemeanours. In particular, sex had been a great problem for Godric — not the first and not the last to have a bit of trouble integrating his spirituality and his sexuality!

Whenever his testosterone began to stir, the history books tell us, Godric would strip naked and go out and roll around in a patch of nettles. Alternatively, he would go and sit up to his neck in the freezing river Wear. I don't know whether it helped to subdue his sexual urges but it must surely have promoted his arthritis! Like so many of the extreme ascetics in the medieval period of the church, repentance was understood in completely negative terms, as self-inflicted punishment, whereby a person felt they were repaying God for past sins, as though God were the ultimate control freak, crushing all the joy out of human life.

And today, there are many who, though they desire forgiveness at a one level, live with a conscience that is harsh, unrelenting and unreasonable, and their psyches insist that they must be punished. Subconsciously they force themselves into dejection and depression.

But as Fr Herbert McCabe once said, 'If we go to confession, it is not to plead for forgiveness from God. It is to thank him for it ... When God forgives our sins, He is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.' Self-punishment and repayment are totally unnecessary. As another old hymn puts it:

'Could my tears for ever flow
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone'.

Disciples understand that God forgives and saves by grace, so paying and earning aren't even part of the sane disciple's vocabulary. Repentance is not about regret nor reform nor repayment.

How then, must repentance be understood? Some one has composed a little ditty that rather cleverly captures the essence of the word repentance, which was at the heart of the teaching of Jesus, as well as the teaching of John the Baptist — 'repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand'. The ditty goes like this:

To get out of your troubles:
The economists say earn,
The educationists say learn,
The revolutionaries say burn,
The Lord Jesus says turn.

Repentance is turning around more to face Jesus so that the Kingdom of God can begin to operate afresh in our lives.

The early church thought of this process of 'turning around', as a three-fold process. It was the way of what they called, purgation, illumination and union with God.

The first part of this ancient process is what I have been speaking about this morning. Purgation or repentance leads to seeking to be purified, purged, debugged, liberated and transformed. In particular, there were three dark forces, three monsters, that this ancient process constantly confronted. The early monastics took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a way of committing themselves to a life-long struggle against greed, lust and pride — money, sex and power.

Brian McLaren writes helpfully and soberly about purgation when he says, 'By facing these monsters and exposing them to the light of God, novices would not be cured of pride, greed and lust, but they would begin to be cured of a dangerous naivete about them'. And McLaren goes on to suggest some ways in which this ancient process of purgation might be used by Christians today.

I hesitate to make suggestions of practices that we might consider for Lent. On the whole, most of us don't need to add further to our 'to do list'. If you're anything like me, you probably need to do the things you're already doing a little bit more carefully and prayerfully rather than take on additional things.

What is certain, however, is that the ancient practices associated with purgation are not intended to make us more religious but rather to make us more alive. Alive to God. Alive to our selves, our spouses, children, strangers and even our enemies. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, 'the drama at the core of our humanity is about our reluctance to be human; and the gift that the church offers is the resource and courage to step into Jesus's world and begin the business of being human afresh — again and again, because our reluctance keeps coming back'.

Let me therefore conclude by briefly making three practical suggestions that you might consider during this Lenten period:

1. First, forming what McLaren calls a "vulnerability group". He says, 'it might involve a small group or pair of spiritual friends who gather regularly (in Lent) — to review honestly together the hold of money, sex and power on their lives. Their gathering wouldn't be an "accountability group" exactly, where the shame of having to admit failures to your group members is supposed to motivate you to avoid failing. It would instead be a "vulnerability group", where the members tried to admit to themselves and others how much power pride, greed, and lust have on them'.

2. Secondly, we might be aided in this process, McLaren suggests, if we did some journalling, taking time each day (during Lent) to write down anecdotes where the big three showed up in our thoughts, words, or behaviours.

3. Third, he suggests, the very ancient practice of fasting from various pleasures, 'not because pleasure is bad — what a ridiculous thought! — but because pleasure is so good that we are all in danger of becoming addicted to it'.

What this ancient process of purgation makes abundantly clear is that repentance has nothing to do with remorse, or reform or repayment. Rather, it has, as McLaren says, 'everything to do with practice not penance; practising humility and service rather than pride and power; practising generosity and simplicity rather than greed; practising self-control and a willingness to suffer pain for a good cause rather than lust for pleasure and comfort'.

But most important of all, the facing of our own demons of pride, greed and lust during Lent will surely mean that we will become more gentle and kind towards others, less judgmental and less harsh, more empathetic because 'we will realize as never before that everyone is pitched in an invisible battle, and the battle isn't easy for anyone'. I know that, I for one, have a long way to go.

Let me end with a prayer:

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free, this Lent, from a past that we cannot change; open us to a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.


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