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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An Inconvenient Truth

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.

As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”

This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.

John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.

I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.

But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.

Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).

The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.

My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.

But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.

Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?

Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).

If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.

Big Salvation Words: Repentance

And so we come to my final big salvation word: Repentance. In case you haven’t figured it out, this little collection of essays are a Lenten meditation. It might seem odd to choose the word “repentance” on this day after Easter. “Shouldn’t you be talking about victory, or new life, or bunnies?” you ask.

Ah, but in truth I am talking quite precisely about our new life in Christ that is made possible in Christ’s resurrection. For millennia those intimate with the spiritual practice of the church has said unequivocally that the Christian life is a life of repentance.

Once God’s divine life and light begin to flow into our being the secret corners of our life begin to be revealed. Once the light is turned on, we see that we need to change. Once we are given the gift of new life, we have the ability to change, or more precisely, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit within us.

And so I repent: I begin to clean out the cobwebs in the corners I have carefully avoided for much of my life. And as I clean out the cobwebs, I find another secret door that I have forgotten about. As I open it and God’s light shines in, I discover that I need to repent all over again. This leads to more inner hallways and doors, more spider webs, and alas, more repentance.

Said in this way, it all sounds rather dreary. But in fact, it is the most joyful thing a Christian can do.

Sometimes we are seduced into thinking that the Christian life is mostly about “fellowship” (ie, coffee and croissants at the coffee shop with my church buddies), “service” (ie, serving meals at the local homeless shelter), spiritual growth (reading Christian blogs, listening to Christian podcasts, reading the Bible), and thinking good thoughts that will chase out the negative thoughts.

None of these are bad things, but too often we settle for the good and never get around to the best things. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9f). This can only happen in the midst of repentance.

I remember renting my first apartment, a dark, dingy thing that was dirty and bug infested, but something I could afford. I was pretty depressed. But a group of college friends came over and helped my roommate and I clean it up. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down and new bright curtains were put up. Light bulbs were replaced. The carpet was cleaned. Wash buckets of pine-smelling cleaner were handed out. By the time we ordered pizza that evening, we were shocked to discover that we actually had a nice little apartment.

That is a picture of true Christian repentance and the resulting authentic Christian joy. Christ is risen. His light shines. Make the most of it. Amen.

Sheep and Goats

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

I saw this Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog, Glory to God for All Things