Jesus begins his Galilean ministry, with the words
This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.
Repent is not a word that sits well with me, and many others I suspect. I don’t like to think that I need to change my ways – I figure I’m good enough, “Aren’t I?” Maybe a lot of us here this morning feel this way – maybe we like to think of ourselves as above average.
Just this past Sunday in the church sacristy a long time, and very involved parishioner, remarked that this would be his last Sunday at St. Andrew’s. I was shocked, because he is a likable fellow and we have often shared our common beliefs in regards to social justice, and frankly I did not want to see him leave. When I asked him why he was leaving he said he was tired of being told he was a sinner. When I asked what led him to believe he was being treated poorly. He said, “The prayer added at the end of Mass to St. Michael the Archangel was the last straw.” I was shocked that the addition of this prayer would be the tipping point for someone to choose to leave our parish. I wish I could have changed his mind. So this leads me to ask, “What are we to make of today’s message regarding repentance and sin?” and “What does our Church teach?”
Today in our Prayers of the Faithful we will pray for inspired leadership from our Church leaders. In regard to sin I believe that Pope Francis has provided truly inspired leadership. Early on in his pontificate when asked by a reporter, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Francis responded, “I am a sinner.” Francis’ humility, however, is not a formal show of being humble, but instead, he is expressing a central conviction of the Christian faith. True enough, we are not disgusting worms, mere “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” We are in fact, “very good,” created in the “image and likeness of God.” (Genesis 1:26) So how could I have encouraged the poor fellow in the sacristy last Sunday, not to lose heart, while at the same time face the challenge of sin in an honest and helpful way?
I believe that if we are honest we can admit that we all struggle with sin and repentance. The crux of the dilemma is that we can set ourselves up with a false choice between two extremes. Faced with the challenge of living moral lives we can either deny our sin or lose heart by surrendering to sin. Pope Francis gave us a good example of admitting that we are sinners, while at the same time surrendering to God’s grace. When Cardinal Bergoglio accepted his election to the papacy with the words: “I am a sinner…” he further said, “…but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.” More poetically Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote that my sins are my best friends, because that can remind me how much I need God.” We have a God who loves us, a God who is always with us, a God who sends his own Son, to save us… yes, to save us from ourselves.
The challenge of sin and repentance is the very struggle of Jonah in today’s story from the Jewish scriptures. Remember how Jonah at first did not go to Nineveh as God had commanded. Jonah first went in the opposite direction – sound familiar? Don’t we often think we know a better way? I know I have done this and it always leads to the belly of the whale. When I sin I become miserable, feeling estranged and separated from God and others. This is suffering in the belly of the whale. Like Jonah, this is when we need to pray for the forgiveness that God is always ready to extend. This is about the acceptance that we sin, but also to accept the forgiveness that comes from God.
St. Paul shows that he understands this dilemma when he writes, “…I am a slave to sin. What I do, I do not understand. I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Even though I take delight in the law of God, another principle is at war in my mind. Miserable one that I am!” (cf Romans 7:14-25) Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Clearly repentance is a form of sorrow, sorrow for one’s sins. The resolution is found in the belly of the whale when we finally turn to God in our sorrow, in prayer. The resolution to our dilemma is to turn from our sins (literally repent) and to learn from them.
Recognizing our sins is about being honest with ourselves, accepting who we are, and embracing who we hope to be, because that is who God has intended us to be. And we should never pretend to be otherwise. God has intended nothing less than for us to reflect his image and likeness. The good news is that when we can discover the image and likeness of God in ourselves, we will more readily discover the image and likeness of God in our brothers and sisters. This will be especially true in the least and the littlest, even those who have lost heart as my friend in the sacristy last Sunday. If you can hear me, don’t lose heart, remember, “This is the time of fulfillment, the kingdom of God is at hand.”