Willingness to grow and change is part of revival and reformation. There’s no doubt about it. But what is revival and reformation? Has anyone defined it or do we all assume we know what it is? The introductory lesson to this quarter told us, ‘Revival is all about a God of loving kindness seeking to deepen his relationship with us.’
The most significant attempt to revive the people of God was the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Both he and his forerunner, John the Baptist, sought change and reformation in the lives of the Jewish people. As He announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ first command was “Repent”. Literally the word ‘metanoia’, repentance in Greek, means to perceive afterwards, to reflect on one’s life and then to change one’s mind, to re-form, reshape one’s mind.
In the story of the prodigal son we learn about the reshaping of the young man’s mind. ‘He came to himself.’ In modern language we might say, ‘He got real’. Repentance and reformation is encouraging people to ‘get real’ and ask, ‘Who am I? What’s really important to me? What/who matters in my life? To what or whom am I really giving my commitment and energy? It involves asking, ‘Who or what is dragging me down?’ or ‘What’s holding me captive?’ or ‘What cannot I live without?’
Christian psychiatrist Dr Gerald May says, ‘
The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word. [i]
To put it in a more biblical context, the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ applies to each of us in a different way. Each of us has a tendency to commit to one non-divine thing or many non-divine things for our security. Some of us prefer to attach to food or money or work as a means of security. Others rest our security in much more subtle qualities like intelligence or status or recognition. Religious addictions include helping others and being right and lots of other superficially laudable behaviour. Jesus calls us to repent of these dependencies and to tell others to do the same. Doesn’t He?
Well does He? What did Jesus really teach individuals about repentance? Actually there is no evidence in the gospels that Jesus told any one person to repent. There is no evidence that He told anyone directly, ‘You are a sinner.’ Other people wanted Him to pronounce judgement but He refused.
In fact, in the rest of the New Testament, there is only one instance where a person-to-person call to repent is described. And that call came to a very specific sort of sinner.
This stern individual call to repentance came from the apostle Peter to Simon Magus, the magician who thought he could buy the power of the Holy Spirit and manipulate it for his own purposes. (Acts 9) Among religious people, the misuse of spiritual power and influence is a serious addiction from which to repent. Perhaps this story should give us Adventist Christians pause for thought when we seek to exercise spiritual power in the lives of others.
So if Jesus didn’t call individuals to repent – how did He seek to bring renewal and reformation when He was on earth? The synoptic gospels show Him teaching groups about the traditional idea of repentance. They do not show him preaching to individuals about repentance.
Matthew gives an account of Jesus reminding people that big impressive external events –dramatic miracles or great preaching-do not necessarily bring about real changes of mind – real repentance.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Matthew 11.21
Luke gives an account of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where Jesus taught that even people rising from the dead didn’t necessarily make people repent or change.
The rich man said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:30
In chapter 13 of his gospel, Luke describes people coming to Jesus interested in the sinful status of other people and whether bad things only happen to bad people. When the Tower of Siloam fell and killed people, the disciples asked whether this was a punishment for those killed who were sinners.
Jesus responded twice, ‘No I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ Luke 13 v.3 & 5
It’s more important to repent yourself, Jesus seems to be saying, than to decide when or why others are getting punished and create reward and punishment schemes for others.
It’s clear then, that in the synoptic gospel accounts, Jesus doesn’t tell individuals to repent. He points out that miracles and other exciting nine-day wonders do not necessarily bring on revival or change in the inner world where it matters. Finally, He discourages people from focusing on other people’s sinful status at the expense of their own.
But perhaps the most interesting fact is that in the account of Jesus’ life in John’s gospel the word ‘repent’ never occurs.
John shows Jesus talking to people about their inner lives at appropriate times when they express need or interest. He talks to them more like a poet than a preacher in appropriate and imaginative language about things that matter most to them. He adjusts their focus. His pictures offer them new ways of looking at their world. He piques their curiosity. He shows profound understanding of the difficulties they face and the situations they are in. He does not adopt the moral high ground. He encourages and challenges them almost as an equal rather than commanding them or shaming them to change the way they look at their inner lives.
He challenges the religious leader, Nicodemus, to look at his spiritual commitment from a different perspective and tell the story of his inner life using a new, striking, poetic metaphor: ‘You must be born again.’
He talks to the woman at the well not about theology but about what matters most to her – her relationships. He challenges her to tell the truth about her search for love.
He challenges the temple goers in imaginative concrete terms over the way they had made a market place of the house of prayer. He suggests to people who follow Him because they like the idea of being fed without having to work that they should stop and re-think their ideas about basic methods of survival. What part should those two important matters: work and food really play in their lives? Recognise the need to discern between the vital and the important. ‘Don’t work for the food that perishes’ He says. In all of these challenges there is an imaginative, fresh use of language, the offering to his hearers of fresh, simple, new pictures of their lives – new ways, not discouraging ways of looking at the world within.
So as we think about repentance in our own lives, how might we make repentance and change a reality for ourselves as we live in relationship to friends and family, go to work, go shopping, go to church…
Here are just a few suggestions:
1. Reflect in silence on the lives of people who repented in the gospels. Cultivate your religious imagination. Try to think outside the box – your box! Ask for new eyes to know and understand God’s love for you…yes you!
Sit with the long-lost son and ask for grace to ‘get real’ and courage to be honest about who you really are. Pray for grace to ‘come to yourself’.
Sit with Zacchaeus in his tree and ask, ‘Is there a tree I need to come down from?’
Sit with the Rich Young Ruler and ask – ‘Do I need to change the way I handle money – and other resources like time, energy, brain power?’
2. Practice confession. Tell God and a wise trusted human being about your own inner truth (Psalm 51.6)
3. Be humble enough to recognise that change in your life is not a one-off event but a way of life – kingdom branding.
4. Don’t be discouraged or cynical about yourself. We shall all have to go back to repentance at least 490 times. If Jesus told Peter to forgive his neighbour who repented 490 times, God must be ready to forgive us an infinite number of times – and for an infinite number of shortcomings
The hall mark of Christian growth is not someone who has less to repent of but someone who recognises how much there is to repent of.
God is …. patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9
When this inner work is done, repentance will be proclaimed in the way that Jesus proclaimed it. It will be proclaimed by people who know its dynamics for themselves because their lives have been softened and moulded by the patient waiting and final embrace of the Father not the duty-ridden, finger-pointing of the elder son. It will be proclaimed with thoughtfulness and imagination culminating in individual loving work with people. It will not be proclaimed from the moral high ground by people who think God is ‘on their side’ or even that they are ‘on God’s side’. It will be proclaimed by men and women whose own blindness to themselves and distorted vision about God has been adjusted and will continue to be adjusted in the light of human and divine love.
[i]May G., Addiction and Grace, Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions(New York, Harper Collins, 1988), pp.3-4