If you haven’t heard: right now, we have a small, but mighty confirmation class here at St. Matthew’s. The curriculum of that class is pretty much the same you might remember from your time as confirmands. But the methods have changed. How, for example, did you learn about the Reformation? I from my time in confirmation class, I remember that a lot of dates and names were thrown at me, and I was more confused than enlightened. And my pastor could try to explain the circumstances under which people during the Reformation lived, but all that was still quite abstract to me.
So I can’t tell you how thankful I am that today, we have this really good Luther movie from 2003, an American-European co-production with Joseph Fiennes in the title role. Has anyone here ever seen this movie? I am showing this movie right now in our confirmation class. And let me tell you: a picture tells more than 1,000 words. One student, watching the first part of the movie, for example had her own epiphany – ‚I didn’t know people were so poor in Luther’s days.‘
Now another thing that is portrayed very well in the movie is the piety of the late medieval ages. What did it mean to be a Christian back in the day? There was the fear of purgatory and hell. The infamous indulgences, of course. Pilgrimages. The adoration of relics. And repentance, which could be expressed in many ways, with quite radical pragtices like praying on ice cold floors on naked knees to self-flagellation.
Martin Luther himself punished himself as an expression of repentance, when he was still a monk – he was convinced that this was the only way to appease God for his sinfulness, the only way to earn his way to salvation. But then, of course, he started studying the Holy Scriptures, and quickly figured out, that God doesn’t expect this kind of self-punishment; no, we are already redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s grace saves us instead of anything that we do. And that, of course, was the theological breakthrough of the Reformation.
So when we hear the word ‚repentance‘ today, we maybe think of all those draconian practices in the age of Luther. And we may think that repentance belongs in the dark Middle Ages, but not in our time. After all, we are redeemed, enlightened, post-modern people.
But then we are reminded once in a while that repentance is essential to our faith. During Advent, we hear John the Baptist exclaim, ‚Repent!‘ And repentance is also Jesus‘ first message as he begins his minsitry, as we hear in today’s gospel lesson. Even before he calls his first disciples, even before he heals the sick and performs miracles, Jesus preaches, ‚Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.‘ It seems that repentance is important and a prerequisite for following Jesus Christ.
This probably sounds slightly uncomfortable to us. And, as I said, this may have something to do with all those fire and brimstone ideas of the Mediaval Ages we have. Repentance as some sort of punishment. And when we think of all that, who wants to repent?
But what, exactly, is repentance? The word we find in the New Testament for repentance is the Greek ‚metanoia‘. Literally ‚metanoia‘ means that the thoughts are turned around; it is a change of mind, a change of heart. So the meaning of repentance is for us to look at things in a different light, and to consequently change the way we think and possibly change our ways of doing things. As you can see, the original biblical understanding of repentance has nothing to do with self-punishment, as we know it from the Medieval Ages.
Repentance means that we realize and acknowledge that our thining and our doing leads us in the wrong direction. And thus repentance often includes the confession of guilt and also asking for forgiveness. Now that sounds much gentler than self-flagellation, but if we think about it, repentance is still difficult.
I think we all know how hard it is to change our opinion or our direction. We have our pride; we think we show weakness when we admit our mistakes. We may think that others may respect us less or that we come across as unreliable if we change our mind. We don’t want to lose face. And so we often stubbornly pursue the road that leads in the wrong direction – as individuals, but then also as groups in society – instead of changing our thining and our actions for the better. Even though we may know deep inside of us that it would be better to change our mind and our ways. Even though we may know deep inside of us that we are on a collision course.
But what is more important? My pride? This urge to hide my shame? Or God’s dream for this world, a dream that is all about forgiveness and reconciliation?
More than 20 years ago, back in my seminary days, I had a very good friend who had this postcard hanging in the entrance hall of his appartment; on this postcard, there was a quote by French artist Francis Picabia, ‚Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.‘ Sounds very much like ‚metanoia‘, doesn’t it? Back then, I just thought this quote was genius, and it has become a guiding light for my life. For once, this quote taught me not to take myself too seriously. And then I always think of this quote whenever I think of repentance. Because repentance is about the change of mind and the change of heart. And because we all are only human, a change of mind or heart should be absolutely acceptable. It is okay to change our minds, because, after all, we are all fallible, we all make mistakes, and we are not all-knowing.
It is absolutely okay to broaden our horizon through new experiences and new encounters; to learn something new; to be amazed and surprised. To understand others whom we might now have understood before. To forge relationships we never dreamed of having. In my life, there were quite a few people I quickly judged when I first met them – people I initially didn’t like very much. But then I got to know them better, I had a change of mind and change of heart, I realized, that I had misjudged them, and some of those people have become very dear friends. And: I even wouldn’t be married to my amazing husband if I had stuck with first impressions…so it’s been a blessing for me to have a change of heart! How happy I am that I didn’t cling to my first impressions, but was open to getting to know them. This is repentance.
Repentance thus is not simply an ancient and obsolete concept of faith – repentance, turn-around, a change of mind and heart, the change of opinion is still very relevant for us – and for the weel-being of all of God’s creation. If we continue to stubbornly or ignorantly moving in wrong directions, the world will go to hell in a handbasket rather sooner than later. Just think about all the violence in this world, wars, hate, fear of the stranger, the exploitation people all over the world, the destruction of our environment – all this cries out for a turn-around. And this turn-around starts with us, since we all are cogs in the bigger system. We need to do better.
And think about what happened yesterday: according to the BBC, more than 3 million people, mostly women, took to the streets worldwide, and significantly more than one million here in the U.S., protesting peacefully. And what else is protest but the expression of the awareness that we need to think about our ways, that we are possibly headed in the wrong direction? All those protesters yesterday expressed their concern that the U.S. under the new government is veering away from all the values that have made the it strong and that it’s admired for in the world: democracy. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Women’s rights, Innovation. Close cooperation with many allies in this world. The openness to the hard work of immigrants. Equality for all. Is this country perfect in all these things? Absolutely not. But it has been on the right path and shouldn’t leave it. And so I would say that currently, we have a lot of repentence in this country – and around the world – people assessing their ways and the ways of the government and choosing what they think it the better way, the right way. Instead of just being complacent.
So when we hear the word repentance today, we should take it as an encouragement. As an encouragement to admit to our mistakes and ignorane about certain issues – to change our minds – to ask for forgiveness, to heal relationships and to go new ways. We don’t need to feel ashamed to the point that we are paralyzed – because we know God has already forgiven us and wants us to discern our ways; God wants us to turn around when we are on the wrong track. God knows we all make mistakes. God knows we sometimes choose the wrong path. So? Why do we have so much trouble ro admit our mistakes and to forgive ourselves?
God encourages us to repent. Jesus calls us to repentance. When we heed this call and turn our thought around and change our ways, we truly reflect Christ’s presence in this world. Then the kingdom of heaven has truly touched us – and come near.
This post is also available in: German