At the beginning of Lent, I told you I was on a pilgrimage to rediscover the practice of confession because I was afraid it had gone missing. I confessed to you, there was a lack of confession in my life, and I am afraid there is a lack of confession in the church. That sermon was the beginning of a Lenten pilgrimage and now, here we are, on the other side of the Cross, celebrating the glories of Eastertide and an empty tomb, and our lectionary texts today are filled with talk of repentance.
While I was geared up and ready to talk about confessing and repenting during Lent, it seems a bit too sad for Eastertide, don’t you think? In the Acts chapter 3 passage, Peter’s sermon returns us to the pain and shame of the cross before we are ready. “It’s only been two weeks since Easter,” I want to protest, and Peter takes us right back to Good Friday, reminding us it was our voices shouting, “Crucify him.” Peters says this to the crowd, “You handed him over to be killed. You disowned him before Pilate. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. You killed the author of life.”
Whew. I don’t know about you, but this is not the memory I want to go to on the third Sunday of Eastertide. It’s a harsh opener: “You killed the author of life.” This is not, by the way, how they teach you to start a sermon in seminary, but it is surprisingly effective for Peter, who sees five thousand people come to Christ. Of course, the point of Peter’s sermon is not the judgment, but the repentance of the people. He concludes by saying, “God raised him from the dead . . . and now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance. So repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that time of refreshing may come from the Lord.” 1 John 3 echoes, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins,” as if to say, the resurrection would be in vain if it didn’t in turn raise people up out of their sins and into a new way of life. Peter isn’t interested in whether the people feel bad for what happened at the crucifixion. What Peter wants is to see Easter brought to completion in their very hearts. His sermon is less about the sadness of Good Friday, and more about the joy of repentance. This can be hard for us to get our minds around since we’ve often been taught to associate repentance with sorrow.
Once upon a time, a priest was walking through the woods when he came upon a small green caterpillar. The caterpillar was weeping profusely, and was dressed in sackcloth and ashes. “My dear caterpillar,” said the priest, “whatever is the matter?”
“Oh Father, I want so badly to be a good and righteous caterpillar, but I have sinned.”
“I see,” said the priest gently. “Would you like me to hear your confession?”
“Yes, please,” sniffed the caterpillar, wiping the tears from his eyes and trying to be brave for the priest. “The thing is . . .” he choked back a sudden sob, “the thing is, I have failed to fly. I have not sprouted my wings like the other caterpillars. I have missed the very thing I was made for!”
“God loves you, my child,” answered the priest. “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more. And between you and me, your “sin” isn’t so bad. You’ve still got time. Nothing’s been lost.”
“Really?” said the caterpillar. “Oh thank you, Father. I feel much better.” Immediately the little green caterpillar shed his sackcloth and ashes and inched his way happily along.
A few weeks later, the priest was walking the same trail and he kept his eyes peeled, looking for the cocoon of his little friend. He saw no cocoon, but he heard some sniffling. He got down on his knees, and there was his friend—hiding behind a leaf, again dressed in the sackcloth. “My dear caterpillar, whatever is the matter?”
“Oh, Father, I do want to be a righteous caterpillar, but I have sinned.”
“Shall I hear your confession?”
“Yes, please. The thing is . . . I have failed to sprout my wings.”
“Oh child, your sins are forgiven.”
“Thank you Father! I feel better now.” And Caterpillar crawled happily off.
A few weeks later, the priest was walking, and though he kept his eyes peeled, he had to really hunt as Caterpillar was hiding in shame beneath lots of brush.
“Oh Father, I have sinned!” he wailed.
“Shall I hear you confession?”
“Yes, please. The thing is . . . I have failed to sprout my wings!”
“Can I ask you something, Caterpillar?”
“Oh yes, Father, anything!”
“Have you actually tried to spin a cocoon yet?”
Caterpillar looked startled. “Well no. I haven’t gotten that far yet, but that is something to think on. Thanks Father! I feel better now. Good-bye.”
The next week, the priest took another path altogether as it seemed to him his services to the caterpillar were not really helping.
The Hebrew word for repent is shub, and shub means to turn around, thus repentance is about the direction you are headed, not how sorry you feel over your mistakes. For Peter, repenting isn’t about feeling sad that Jesus died. To repent is literally to change your mind about Jesus Christ. Peter says, “You acted in ignorance,” which is an invitation for the people to embrace new understanding. The Greek word for repentance is metanioa, which means a transformation of the mind. In our 1 John 3 passage, repentance is about accepting what you already are in Christ—a child of God—and trusting that one day you will be like Christ. And this knowledge, this hope, this changing your mind about yourself, is what enables you to start the process of purification.
Both shub and metanioa are quite different from the guilt-laden, sorrow-ridden, depressing notion of confession and repentance with which the caterpillar and most of us are all too familiar. In biblical terms repentance is a remembrance of God, and a remembrance of who we are in God, and neither of those memories are unpleasant thoughts. They are bright sparks of insight, designed to spur us back home. This whole business of treating confession like a mandate to wear sackcloth and ashes is silly. When you’re released from prison, you go buy a spiffy suit or a party dress. When the shackles fall off your feet, you dance, and when the blinders fall from your eyes, you blink and then you sparkle.
I am not saying that you never weep, that you shouldn’t cry. Sometimes you disappoint someone you love or you disappoint yourself, and you have to grieve. But your grief is not repentance. Repentance hasn’t happened yet. Confession is when you point and say, “Oh, that’s the way I meant to go,” and repentance is when you take the first step back in the right direction.
I’ve heard some preachers say that to repent is to turn around 180 degrees and go the other way, but I don’t think that is quite right. Rarely, if ever, in my life have I been walking in the opposite direction of Christ. But I am nearly always 30 degrees to the right of Christ or 20 degrees to the left. I don’t say that to make light of my sin, because even if you start out only five degrees to the right, if you keeping walking that angle, you’ll end up yards, eventually miles, to the right of Christ. No matter how slight you’re off, if you set your own path, you end up with a triangle where you had hoped for the straight line of discipleship.
Once I realize I’ve quit following Christ, and struck out on my own angle instead, repentance does not mean I instantaneously transport myself back onto the right trail, as if I could magically teleport to a new location on the journey. To repent means I angle back towards Christ, with the knowledge that all is forgiven, with the hope that I can make it back, with the trust that God will help me get there, with the patience to know that forging my way back will take time and effort and very small steps. But even still, I am moving forward, towards Christ and not away from him, and the direction I am going is all that has ever mattered—not the speed, not the apparent success, not how manicured of an appearance I can maintain as I hack my way through the brush. If I am growing more loving as I struggle my way, inch by inch, then I am indeed moving towards Christ. If I am a little less afraid, a little less selfish, a little more giving and forgiving, then I am indeed moving towards Christ.
To repent is neither to bemoan my failures nor to spin around in panic. To repent is to celebrate new understanding and gently correct. Life itself is a series of gentle corrections.
To repent is not a one time act. Repentance is a life-style of patient zig-zagging. Often we head off presumptuously, and somewhere along the way we realize that we’ve taken off at the wrong angle and completely lost sight of our trail guide, who is Christ. There are several possible reactions to this realization. 1) We can fall to our knees, cry our sorrow, and plead for the forgiveness that is already ours. Feeling a bit better after the shedding of tears, we then get up and plod on, right down the same angle we were walking before. This is not repentance. It is a desire to follow Christ, crippled by a shriveled imagination and a dried up sense of adventure. We have not the creativity or the audacity to envision a new trail that will lead us back to Christ. 2) We realize we are headed the wrong way, and in terror dart off in some new direction, desperate for change. But very quickly our new surroundings are even scarier than the old ones and we’ve no idea if we’re really headed anywhere worthwhile so we return to the comfort of the familiar trail. This is not repentance. It is short-lived enthusiasm, choked out by our need for the familiar and for instant transformation. 3) We realize we are headed the wrong way, and we rejoice with relief to see this bit of truth. We stop, we pause, we pray, we think. In the words of the Psalmist, we ponder on our beds and be silent. What we are really doing in the silence, of course, is looking for Christ. We spot him in the distance. He was waiting patiently all this time for us to look his way—all those days, years we were cutting our own angle. He waves, to let us know all is forgiven. And we say to ourselves with a sigh, “God, he’s a long ways off,” and then with a smile, “Here it goes again,” and then we take one step. Within minutes we are one step closer, which is a heck of a lot better than being one step farther away. A few steps later, we may veer to the right or veer to the left, so as soon as possible, we repeat the process: finding Christ, adjusting our steps. And that, my friends, is repentance. It is also called discipleship, faith, Christianity. It’s all we’ve got to work with, but if we can believe it, there’s hope enough for every last one of us.
We tend to think that repentance is what we do after we have rebelled, but I think just the opposite. Repentance is what we do after we’ve finally worn out the same old path that just isn’t working. The problem is rarely rebellion; most of us are too chicken to do any real rebelling. The problem is insistently repeating a harmful pattern. Repentance is realizing that the trail we’re on has been at the wrong angle all this time, and it is time to head off in a new direction. Thus repentance is rebellion put to good use. We dare to do things differently. We dare to try something new—in our marriage or in our parenting or in our work relationships. We dare to see things differently—concerning our environment, concerning the people we encounter, concerning our perceptions of our self. We believe a different voice than the depressing track repeating itself inside ours heads, telling us there’s no way out of the mess we’re in.
It is a real risk to repent, you know. You have to leave familiar territory and comfortable paths to blaze a new trail that might turn out to be harder than the one you’re currently on. You may know you are on the wrong path, but you choose to stay on it because what if you just exchange one wrong path for an even worse one? At least this path with its potholes and dangers is a familiar one, and you know how to walk it. You have to get in touch with your rebel’s heart if you’re going to repent, because taking a new path, when it might turn out to be just as crooked and frustrating as the last one, takes real spunk. You can see Christ up ahead, but you can never know for sure if that first step will take you where you want to go or if you’ll just end up sidetracked yet again, lost in unfamiliar territory.
But if you grow just a little more loving as you take those brave, belabored steps, then you know, yes, you are moving towards Christ, no matter how slowly. If you grow a little less afraid, a little less selfish, a little more giving and forgiving, then you are headed where you want to go, even if it’s hard, even if the way is clouded, even if you misstep here and there.
Discovering the right path can, at first, be joyous. Repentance is more disheartening in the long run, as you discover all the obstacles blocking your way back to Christ. But the struggle itself is part of the journey. A few weeks ago, I read this story:
“A silkworm was struggling out of the cocoon and an ignorant man saw it battling as if in pain, so he went and helped it get free, but very soon after it fluttered and died. The other silkworms that struggled out without help suffered, but they came out into full life and beauty, with wings made strong for flight by their battle for fresh existence.”*
My friends, may we continue our battle for fresh existence, ever angling back towards Christ. May God make us the sort of rebels that will dare to walk a different way. Amen.
* Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, 198.