Sunday, January 25, 2015

Epiphany 3B

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Repentance. What do you hear when someone speaks that word? What springs to mind?

I think the Christian proclamation has twisted this word into so many knots that it would be unrecognizable to Jesus’ first listeners. And now that the mere utterance of it evokes strong, feelings of shame. At least it does for me.

“Repent!” we hear preachers say. And what they usually mean is “Stop sinning! Change those parts of your life that is putting you in conflict with God. Cut out those impure thoughts and actions and turn to the purity of God’s will. If you want to be close to God then you have to remove anything that gets in the way with your relationship with God.”

Have you ever heard that? I have. And I’ve always asked, Where’s the good news in that?

But sadly that’s what I’ve heard a lot of preachers say. Maybe you have too. It’s hardly anything resembling what we call “gospel.”

That’s not what Simon and Andrew, and James and John heard when Jesus told them to drop everything, bail on the family business, and leave their lives behind to follow him. They would have known the code. They knew that Jesus wasn’t telling them to stop sinning. They knew that he asking something much harder.

But that word, “repentance” evolved down the centuries and lost its potency. And has created more confusion for people than it meant to, leaving some to needlessly worry about their relationship with God. 

For me, when I hear that, or even just hearing the word “repent” I always wonder if I have repented enough. I always worry that there’s something that I’ve missed, that there might be a spiritual blind spot that is keeping me from growing spiritually. I wonder if I’ve done enough to maintain my relationship with God.

Thankfully, in an old prayer of confession in the traditional Lutheran liturgy, there’s an escape clause. The prayer confesses those sins “known and unknown.”

While we may be forgiven of those sins with a linguistic sleight-of-hand, practically, we are no better off because we cannot change that which we do not know that we SHOULD change. Also, if being close to God and greeting the kingdom when it arrives is dependent on something that I do, then I’m not sure that really sounds like good news. If managing my sins is a requirement to receive the fullness of God’s love, then I wonder what Jesus was doing on that cross.

And I’m not sure that this was Jesus’ point. We’ve put words in Jesus’ mouth as a way of controlling each other. We’ve emphasized sin rather than freedom. And we’ve reduced sin to individual moral failings rather than the result of human brokenness and creation’s fallenness. A celebrity in a bikini on the front page of Cosmo creates more outrage than a child dying of hunger or preventable disease.

A lot of Christians are worried about moral confusion than they are about God’s love. They hate sin more than they love grace. They somehow believe that they’re under attack and lash out at an unbelieving world rather trust God with the final victory.

And Christians then become known for what we oppose rather than what we proclaim. We aren’t always know for our love. Care and compassion aren’t the first words that comes to many people’s minds when they hear the word “Christian.” Forgiveness isn’t even an afterthought.

Sadly, when many people hear the word Christian they think of judgment. Anger. Entitlement. Condemnation.

That could be because as Christians, we tend to focus our faith on the sin/forgiveness transaction. We reduce our faith to us sinning and God forgiving. And we repeat that over and over and over again, as if that is the full content of our faith.

This nothing new. Traditional Lutheranism has the sin/forgiveness transaction built into it, and it’s hard to tinker with it without damaging the whole. The Lutheran insistence on “grace” was a much needed corrective to the abuses of the institutional church. When Martin Luther recovered the word “grace” from religious bullies he set free all those who were trapped in guilt and shame by telling them that God loved them, and Jesus died for them.

They didn’t have to do anything to earn that love. No amount of proper prayer. No church obligations. No morally correct behaviour was going to bring them closer to God. God’s saving love was given to them as a free gift.

They received “grace;” which means “undeserved favour.” Or in other words, grace is God’s love for us even though we don’t deserve it.

But think about that for a minute. While I affirm God’s grace wholeheartedly or I wouldn’t still be a Lutheran preacher, I think we’ve created another trap for ourselves by such a puny understanding of it.

Lutherans throw that word “grace” around so easily that it’s become a buzzword. And keeps us self-identifying as people who are forgiven of sin, which is good. But it also reinforces our identity as people who are undeserving. Which isn’t the point of receiving grace. The point of receiving grace is feel loved.Also, grace doesn’t let us take the next step. It doesn’t ask the question “Now what?” The Christian faith becomes a matter of sinning and forgiving, and nothing more.

But our Christian faith is SO much more than that. Receiving forgiveness of sins is just the beginning of our faith. It’s not the whole of our faith.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There’s more here than meets the ear. Jesus’ first listeners might have gasped at the boldness of such a proclamation. Not because of it’s religious expressions, but for it’s political overtones. Such talk was a good way for a guy to get himself killed.

That’s because Caesar wasn’t interested in sharing his kingdom. And Jesus’ listeners had seen plenty of loved ones fixed on crosses so Caesar could keep his real estate.

So Jesus set up “The Kingdom of God” in direct competition to Caesar and the kingdoms of the world. And that’s the Kingdom call that Andrew and Simon, James and John responded to.

They knew that “Kingdom of God” that Jesus recruited them into isn’t a disembodied existence in the heavenly realm. 

But the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is God’s presence in this world. The Kingdom of God is God’s vision of life, of peace, of forgiveness, of justice, of mercy, alive and running loose in our world.

Repentance was the code word. It means to “turn in a different direction.” So when Jesus says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” what they’re hearing is:

“Turn away from the kingdoms of this world, and turn to God’s kingdom. Where the Caesar and kingdoms of this world protects its power through force and oppression, God’s Kingdom brings peace and justice.

“Where Caesar and the kingdoms of this world seek revenge against those who hurt them, God’s kingdom brings mercy and forgiveness, and blesses their enemies. 

“Where Caesar and the kingdoms of this world seek to grow their wealth by stealing from others, God’s kingdom feeds the poor and sets the captives free.

So don’t align yourself with Caesar and the kingdoms of the world. Be part of God’s kingdom. For it is here. The kingdom of God arrived!

Be an agent of healing, work for justice, seek peace, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive one another. That’s the kingdom that I have brought to the world.”

That’s the Kingdom that you’ve been called into. That’s the life that God has prepared for you. That’s the Kingdom that calls you beloved, and knows what you’re capable of. That’s the Kingdom that wants you to thrive in your gifts.

So, maybe, instead of confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness, maybe we could celebrate our Kingdom Accomplishments.

Instead of always talking about where we have failed, we can share about those times we have succeeded!
Instead of always admitting our guilt, we can proclaim our successes in Jesus’ name.
Instead of pointing to our shortcomings, we can share our victories for God’s kingdom.

You can talk about where you have seen God working the world.
You can tell stories of how God is working in your life.
You can share about how you have participated in God’s kingdom work.
You can talk about the forgiveness you offered and received.
You can talk about the justice you worked for.
You can talk about how you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. You can talk about how you were that caring ear, that comforting touch, or that encouraging word.

You can talk about how you fished for people by letting them know about a God who loves them.

You can share all of this, not to brag about how spiritually awesome you are. But because this is evidence of the kingdom of God at work in the world and in your life.

You can share these stories to bear witness to the God who promised to make all things new.

You can tell these stories not to point to you, but to point to the one who called you, who chose you, who tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Follow me.”

You can do this to remind yourself and each other, that God has not given up on us or the world, but that God still creating and re-creating everything. Just as Paul tells us that the present world is passing away just as the new world is arriving in Jesus.

You can do this because you are a citizen of Kingdom of God, named and claimed as God’s own because Jesus has called you to new life. You are part of God’s salvation movement. You are changing the world’s direction.

And that’s what we’re going to do. Over here on the wall is a banner for you to write down your God sightings. Where you have seen God do something in your life and in the world. And next to it, under “Kingdom Accomplishments” you are invited to list those times in your life when you have been faithful. When you have impacted the world for Jesus. When you have touched another with God’s love. When you have used your gifts, skills, and talents, to further God’s Kingdom on earth.

This will be left up for the next few weeks. So over the course of your daily lives, keep your eyes open for what God is doing. And celebrate those moments when you have been faithful.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Now Go! Be the kingdom people that God made you to be!

May this be so among us. Amen!

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