Repentance (Reflections from a Funeral)

I went to a funeral of the parent of an acquaintance this week. My acquaintance is that flavor of Baptist that is very knowledgeable about the Bible, can slip his faith or God’s blessing into every conversation almost without fail (ie, “witnessing”), and has a very specific and narrow meaning of being a Christian and what’s required to go to heaven. By his standards, his father did not make the cut, and so the funeral was a bitter-sweet event.

The funeral itself had a distinct emphasis on the need for repentance along with a large dose of “we don’t know the hour of our death.” There was urgency in the service (including a couple verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am”). Fortunately there were no direct aspersions cast on the deceased. Instead there was a focus on using our time wisely while still on earth. (That is, by implication, taking the time to accept Jesus as our Savior.)

I’ve been away from Fundamentalism for a long time, and as a result, it didn’t occur to me that all my talk about repentance in recent essays might be put into this conservative evangelical context by my readers. When it comes to how we understand repentance, context is everything.

Orthodoxy begins with a belief in a generous God. God is for us (the affirmation at the heart of Paul’s rhetorical question in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”). God is doing everything in his power to help us freely choose him. Orthodoxy moves from the foundation of a generous God to framework of joy. The eucharist is the joyful feast and every week we enter into the joy of God’s presence.

Repentance is also a very big deal. Our understanding of the human side of salvation is structured around repentance. But because Orthodoxy begins with a generous God and the framework is joy, repentance is often called “the joyful sorrow.” We are sorrowful for our own sin and willfulness; we are sorrowful for the corruption of the world, but it is a sorrow that set in the context of the endless joy of the kingdom. The sorrow comes because we know we’re missing out on the fullness of what might be because of our sin.

Fundamentalism begins, not with a generous God, but with a holy God. Furthermore, divine holiness is understood in a particular way. According to this tradition, holiness is such that it cannot abide the presence of that which is not holy. It is a holiness that seems fragile because it can be sullied  by the presence of sin. God can have fellowship with humans only because our sin is hidden by Jesus Christ. When God looks on us, he does not see our transgressions, but only Christ’s holiness. This is why God can bear to be around us.

There is a great deal of joy within fundamentalism, but there is also a great deal of fear. Because everything starts and ends with this particular view of holiness, one must worry a great deal about unrighteousness. Judgment can never be too far away from unrighteousness because can’t bear to be in the presence of that unrighteousness.

It is hard to state how different this is from Orthodoxy. Fr. Sophrony was once asked if he believed that unbelievers would ultimately go to hell. His startling answer was, “I don’t know, but what I do know is that if anyone is in hell, Jesus Christ is with them.

Orthodoxy also has a very strong emphasis on the holiness of God. I would argue that it has a far deeper sense of divine holiness than fundamentalism. But God’s holiness is not fragile as it is conceived in fundamentalism. It is a holiness that gladly veils itself so that it can be in the company of sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course Jesus, who embodied this sort of holiness, got into a lot trouble with the religious establishment (who had a view of holiness not unlike my friend’s view).

In this traditional view, holiness is frequently compared to fire. Fire doesn’t mind being in the presence of wood, it is wood that has a problem with being in the presence of fire because the fire will consume the wood. Repentance is the process of getting rid of the wood so that only the precious metal remains. Judgment does not destroy me, it only destroys the wood. But if I am in love with wood of my life, if I confuse the wood for the precious metal, when I enter into God’s presence it feels like I am being destroyed. Judgment is strictly a purification.

And this brings me back to the funeral, and funerals in general. I did not know the deceased and so I have no sense of who he was as a person. I do believe in hell, but my conception of it has changed dramatically from my fundamentalist days. I do not believe God sends anyone to hell. Those who go there do it by their own choice; they prefer the wood over the precious metal. Being absorbed by self and antagonistic to God, they would prefer an eternity in misery, holding on to the eternally burning wood of their false being.

Quite frankly, I have little sense of any other person’s eternal destiny. Some of the most wonderful people I have known have turned out to be truly terrible people. “Holy fools” are famous for being obnoxious people who are actually holy underneath the scabs of their humanity. The funeral is not, or at least should not be, a celebration of a person’s eternal destiny. It is, rather a celebration of Jesus Christ who is the Life of the World, the One who trampled Death by death and led the captives from the grave, the eternal Flame of God who burns away the wood of our false being so that all that remains is the precious metal of what God created and intended in the first place.

There is a “Where’s Waldo” sensibility to a proper funeral. Funerals are at the same time terrible and joyous. They are terrible because a dead person is laying there in our midst. They are terrible because funerals are inevitably a reminder of just how disastrous the corruption of the world truly is. But in the midst of this is the joy of Christ. Those who have eyes to see can find the life-giving Christ in any situation, even death. Funerals are an exercise in finding and focusing on the giver of Life and Light in the midst of death and despair. Whether the dead guy is a holy monk or a backslidden Methodist, the funeral is the same. It doesn’t revolve around the dead person; it revolves around Jesus Christ.

If I were in my friend’s shoes, how would I think about this guy in the coffin who apparently never repented. That’s not my problem. Every moment I am focused on someone else’s repentance is a moment I am ignoring my own repentance. This doesn’t mean that we should not spur each other toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But after death, it is actually a holy discipline to focus on the reality that God is a generous God. All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). Tallying up the sins and lack of repentance of the dead guy in the casket is in truth a subtle way of avoiding the state of our own soul, or comparing my seeming goodness to the other person’s seeming badness (instead of God’s goodness) and thus coming out looking good.

God is generous and good. The kingdom is preeminently a place of joy. Don’t let anyone, even your loved ones, steal that reality from you. Even in the darkest moment, the good God, living, loving fire of Christ’s presence can be found for those with the eyes to see it. Amen.

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