Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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Like so many of you this week, I watched in disbelief as the United States Congress was ransacked by an angry mob last Wednesday. The crowds’ wrath, inflamed by the president’s reckless speech, was expressed not just with words, but also acts of violence as windows were smashed and offices vandalized. Astonished, I sat mystified in my office in silence. My heart was heavy, saddened by what appeared to be the beginning of a democracy unraveled.
The following day I glanced over the pictures of the previous day’s events. An image caught my eye; it was of a man, perhaps in his late 60’s, holding up a Bible in the air and wearing a cap embellished with a cross. The man’s face was filled with rage. I paused and stared at the image. There was something about the juxtaposition of his rage with the two most symbolic images of Christianity. My first reaction to the image was of dismay; I wondered how many women and men would look at the man and say to themselves, “Well, there goes those crazy Christians again” and simply dismiss Christianity as another radical, violent religion in the world. Yet, as the day passed, I reflected further upon the man and the symbols he held. The more I considered it, the more I realized my unease with what the man was doing was less about what others might think and more of a sadness that we Christians might have forgotten what it means to be Christian. Faith was no longer about radical conversion, transformation and love, but a weapon of violence and hate. The cross that liberated humanity from the chains of sin and death, now became a symbol of violence and death to all who disagreed with the man’s politics and world view.
Now before you think me naive, I know well that this is not the first time Christian faith, the way of Jesus, has been used as an instrument of oppression and violence. In fact, one could suggest — and many historians, theologians, and philosophers have — that the worst thing to have ever happened to Christianity was that it became an official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. Ever since then, Christian faith has been used at various moments in history by kings and emperors, kingdoms and states, as a means of controlling their people. We still contend with the ghosts of our colonialist past. We’re haunted by images of Christians embracing, and in fact, intermingling Nazi propaganda with Christian faith and worship, all the while faithful ministers and lay people were imprisoned and killed for their refusal to conform to the state. We only need to recall the memory of the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his suffering and execution all because he refused to conform the Gospel to the wishes of the Nazi state. Were it not for the likes of saints such as Bonhoeffer and countless other Christians who’ve refused to relinquish the Gospel as an instrument of power and hate, Christianity would’ve likely died hundreds of years ago.
Yet we still find our faith, the way of Jesus, manipulated and used by others as an instrument of hate and discrimination. Perhaps it’s time for the Church, the entire people of God, to repent. Maybe it’s time for us to get on our knees and ask God for mercy and to conform our hearts and wills to the law of love and the way of sacrifice for others. If not, we might just see the death of Christianity.
Our reading from the Gospel of Mark and his telling of John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus seems to be apropos for this Sunday and for our time. While I could focus on Jesus’ baptism, I decided this week not to do so. Instead, I thought we might consider a word, namely the word repentance.
We’re told, in the first verse of today’s Gospel, that John the Baptist “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) If we could’ve gathered this Sunday in person, I’d likely would’ve asked you what you thought the word repentance meant. I suspect, as with so many other “religious” words, we would have a wide-range of responses and images come to our minds. In fact, I invite you at home to briefly consider the word; what does it mean to you? When you hear the word repent, what comes to your heart and mind? The word might evoke for some of you images of penitence, others notions of recognizing one’s sinfulness and asking God for forgiveness. You will all likely have numerous ideas of what repentance means.
While many of us have a relative sense of the meaning of the word repentance, the original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, meant “after thought” or “change of mind.” Biblical scholars, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington, note that the word is “virtually synonymous with ‘convert’ (Greek epistrephein; Hebrew šûb “to turn back”) and recalls the prophetic call for people to ‘return’ to their former relationship with God.” What is striking about the word is that it doesn’t necessarily mean a sense of sadness or remorse, but rather, as one text notes, “it indicates a change of mind, leading to different behaviour.” Jesus alludes to this notion of repentance in other places within the Gospels, such as in Matthew 21:28-32 when a father asks two of his sons to work in the vineyard; one initially decides not to do so but then later changes his mind and returns to work the field, while the other says he will go, but does not go. In the story, the sons are confronted with something new and must decide how to respond. At the heart of repentance is a person’s awareness of something new and changing their life accordingly.
Returning to Mark’s text, it is clear that John is calling the people to “return to the Lord” and to renounce their former ways of life. While we could easily speculate what those lives must’ve looked liked, it is clear from the Old Testament prophets, that the people of Israel and Judea consistently forgot the commands of God and failed to respond to his offer of love. Instead, they not only turned away from God and embraced other deities, the people also forgot to ensure justice prevailed. Although spoken in an earlier age, the Prophet Jeremiah’s words still rang true at the time of Jesus: “But this people’s heart is stubborn and rebellious; they turn and go away.” (Jer. 5:22) In turning away from God, the people no longer cared to do justice and walk humbly with God. Proclaiming the word of God to the people, Jeremiah tells the people to: “Do what is right and just. Rescue the victim from the hand of his oppressor, Do not wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22:3)
By the time of John the Baptist, and the period in which Mark puts into written form the Gospel he had received, social conditions were not much better than when Jeremiah prophesied. One could even suggest that the world was not all that different from our own. In fact, in some ways we are eerily repeating history. Rome had only recently emerged from a tumultuous period which saw the end of the republic and a civil war that brought about an empire which conquered much of the Mediterranean world and beyond. Those in authority — political and religious — had little concern for the oppressed and suffering. By the time Mark writes his Gospel, around 68-70 A.D., Rome endured a year of four emperors and was economically in ruins. And Jerusalem was to be destroyed in one of the most vicious and bloody battles the city had seen since the the time of Jeremiah the Prophet and the Babylonian Captivity.
It is within that context that John the Baptist comes onto the scene and calls the people to change their ways, know the way of God and to walk in his ways. It was also deeply symbolic for John the Baptist to invite the people of Israel and Judea to step into the waters of the River Jordan to be baptized. It evoked the story of the Exodus and the Israelites entering to the Promised Land. Although there were ritual washings during his time, John the Baptist’s act of plunging and dipping people into the river was unique in that it manifested the people’s turning away from their former ways and embracing the way of God and God’s kingdom. As he immerses the people in the waters, he proclaims the promised salvation of God in Jesus.
But to be able to partake of the new life of God, the people had to change their minds and turn away from their former ways. They had to repent.
And so do we. The events of this past week, and quite frankly the pandemic we’ve endured for many months, reveal how sorely in need we are of a repentance. The good news of Jesus and his way of love has sadly been set aside as a cultural artifact. Even worse, the gospel has been held captive by political groups as a tool to serve their own interests. And once again, just as in the days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have church leaders aligning themselves with one political agenda or another. Have we all forgotten Jesus’ reminder of the two great commandments? Namely, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
If we take to heart Jesus’ words to love the Lord our God and our neighbour, we will have to change our minds, turn-around, and walk in a new way. The repentance, the conversion of our hearts and minds will not be easy. It will demand that we live and proclaim peace in a time of turmoil and unrest. It will call us to love others, even those we find hardest to love. And it will draw us to go to the places of pain, hurt, and suffering: to the sick, the homeless, the refugee, and the stranger.
This past week, those of you who joined me for morning prayer listened with me to the First Epistle of John. In it, John articulates what living the law of God’s love looks like. I think his words are worth listening to again. I invite you to ponder them not only as I read this passage, but to perhaps spend some time with the passage this week. My friends, let us turn our hearts and minds to God and God’s way of love, as John says:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4:16-21)