On October 31, in the year of our Lord 1517, Dr. Martin Luther, a priest, monk, and professor of theology walked up to Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed a parchment to the doors on which were written 95 theses which he wanted to his fellow academics at the University to debate. Little did he know what the consequences were to be. This October 31st marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
At issue was the practice of the Church regarding the sale of indulgences, in which somebody like you, would come to me the priest for confession, And after confessing your sins, and perhaps shedding a few tears, I would speak the absolution over you.
So far so good. “Confess your sins to one another.” wrote St.. James, “and pray for one another that you may be healed.” (James 15. 13)
Back then, though, you and I would still have some business to conduct. Sorry isn’t good enough. It’s like when you get a parking ticket, you have to pay the fine. Or when you when you hurt someone you need to make it up to them. By your sins you had upset the moral balance of the universe, and that balance need to be restored. Happily the Church had a means of dealing with this, whereby for a small donation, the Pope would issue a certificate, called an indulgence, declaring that you made paid the fine, made restitution to God for the damage you had done.
It is not my intention this morning to walk you through all 95 theses that Luther issued in objection to this practice. I do however want to draw your attention to Thesis #1. Ifyou get this one, you can forget about the other 94. What Luther wrote here is of timeless and universal significance.
Here is what he wrote. And I quote,
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life ofbelievers to be one of repentance.”
lf this was a Pentecostal church, l would now say, “Can i get an Amen?” and you would rise to your feet, and shout out “Amen!” But since we are Anglicans, you can just quietly nod your approval…
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Now Luther, of course was not the first to say this. St. Isaac the Syrian in the 81h century wrote, “Your life has been given you for repentance, do not waste it on vain pursuits.”
Where did Luther and St. lsaac get this from?
They obviously got it from Jesus, who in turn got it from John the Baptist, who in turn got it from the long line of the prophets of lsrael. The message of the Bible is a consistent one: God has given you your life for repentence, do not waste it on other things…
So what Is this thing called repentance?
in the past you may have heard the preacher talk about the Greek word “metanoia”, which was mistranslated in the Latin Bible as “do penance”, and correctly translated into English as “repentance.” “Metanioa”, which literally means, to turn around to a change of heart or a change of mind.
In the parable which Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, the father directed his two sons to go and work in the vineyard, One son said, “I will not” but later changed his mind, and went. This is repentance. The other son, who said, “Yeah, Dad, anything you say” later also changed his mind but did not go. He also repented. But this is not the repentance Jesus has in mind. In repentance, we stop walking down the path of self- preoccupation, and self will, “it’s my life and nobody is going to me what to do,” leading us away from God, and turn around, and start walking towards God in faith and obedience.
My life belongs to God, and will do as He says.
In repentance we turn away from the darkness of sin, and turn towards the Light. It’s why at St. Mary’s we turn to face East when we pray, so that the light might shine upon our faces!
Anglicans have a particular interest in Martin Luther, because it was his insight into the nature of repentance, which informed the writing of the Book of Common Prayer. We see this in the beginning of the Communion service in the summary of the Law where we hear and take to heart the command to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s an invitation to repentance, to reconsider our aim and goal in life: the perfection of love of God and neighbor.
Has any of us arrived at that place of the perfection of love? No, we haven’t. We have others aims and goals. It’s why we begin by asking God to write His laws on our hearts.
The Church has been often compared to a boat which has embarked on a voyage across a tempestuous sea. The part of the church where you sitting is called the “nave.” from the Latin word meaning ship. As we make our way across the ocean of the world, we have rough seas and a strong headwinds to contend with would capsize our little boat. All oars need to be in the water. We need to be paddling together. At times it feels like we aren’t making any headway. The wind and the waves are pushing us back. But we are moving forward, and heading to wards safe harbor of the perfect love of God and neighbor.
ln repentance we renew the power of love. Think about what this means for your relationships… “We were once so love with each, now we don’t even want to talk to each other…” What happened? Did you fall out of love? No. You fell out of repentance.
After graduating from University, I joined an Anglican Lay Community called the Company of the Cross. I was required by our Rule of Life to come to the chapel for Morning Prayer at 6.30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and 7:00 Monday, Wednesday and Friday. As I stumbled into the chapel still bleary eyed from sleep, the first prayer coming out of my mouth were from the General Confession , “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and so on.
I remember thinking, “I have only been up 5 minutes! I am already confessing my sins? What gives?”
What i did not understand then but have come to understand now is that sin is not a moral problem. Sin is breaking of communion. Repentance therefore is not a matter ofclearing up debts. Repentance is the state of the heart that is in communion with God. (Stephen Freeman) In Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm, we pray, “Create in me a clean heart 0 God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (v.10) “A broken and contrite heart 0 God you will not despise. [ v.17) And so today when all is said and done, at the end ofour service, what is there left for us to do?
Repent. This probably drives some of you crazy.
ln repentance we don’t simply say sorry, and move on to other things. In repentance we humble ourselves before God acknowledge that we are as nothing without Him. This is what Job did, when, after a lifetime of suffering, he demanded of God an explanation. But when God finally showed up, no explanation was forthcoming. God put forward some questions of His own, which Job was not able to answer. All Job can say now is ,”I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (lob 42. 5,6)
lf you are going to live a life of repentance there are three things you need to have in place.
The first is Someone in authority to whom you can submit. We live in a culture which teaches us to believe that every person is their own authority. “You are not the boss me! No one is going to tell me what I can and cannot do…”
In today‘s Gospel lesson the religious authorities, the chief priests and the elders, wanted to know by what authority Jesus was saying and doing these things. it was Palm Sunday, and Jesus has just marched into the Temple, the seat of Divine authority, and proceeded to throw out the money changers, heal the lame and the blind, teach the people, provide for the poor, and start a children’s choir!
“Jesus, who do you think you are?”
Jesus did not answer their question. This is because the only way to know with any certainty that Jesus is the Son of God, to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, is by taking up your cross and following Him. (Hauerwas) That is something that the priests and the elders were unwilling to do.
in repentance we acknowledge the authority Jesus Christ has over our lives. It is the authority of the one who laid down his life for you on the Cross, who loves you and has promised never to leave you.
The second thing you need to have in your life is consciousness of sin, which is not about feeling guilty, or had about yourself. it is the spiritual recognition of the gap between who you are and who God has made you to be, and that God is not finished with you just yet.
As you enter old age and look back over your life, you become powerfully aware ofall the wrong attitudes, wrong thoughts, wrong words, wrong actions that have characterized your life. Your time on this earth is drawing short, and the time when you will appear before the judgment seat of God is drawing near. Old age is a time for repentance. Don’t waste it on other things.
But for the young people, whose lives stretch out before them to a seemingly infinite horizon? There is so much potential. If they are to realize their God given potential, they will need to give themselves of to a life of repentance. The young person who does not repent is already an old man, or an old woman. Your youth has been given to you for repentance. Don‘t waste it on other things…
The danger in repentance is that we become discouraged and overwhelmed by our failures and give up in despair. What’s the point? Repentance is the opposite of discouragement. ln repentance we do not look down at our faults and wallow in our failures, but look up to God. lt is God who takes our downcast shamed filled faces, in his hands, and turns our faces up towards Him, and see Him looking at His through His loving eyes.
And so the third thing you need to have installed in your life, and that is a healthy and lively sense of the forgiveness of God.
In our Gospel lesson today Jesus draws our attention the prostitutes and the tax collectors, who for all their immoral, corrupt and irreligious lives through the preaching ministry ofJohn the Baptist entered into the way of righteousness, which is the way of repentance of sin and faith for the forgiveness of sins. When the forgiveness of sins showed up, they dropped everything and followed Him. Jesus said to the religious authorities, “They are going to enter into the kingdom of heaven before you!”
It is the burden of the Communion Service in our Prayer Book to not only establish Jesus Christ as the primary authority in our lives, and awaken within us deep sense of sin, but also, awaken within us an even deeper sense of the forgiveness of God. We see this don’t we in the Comfortable words that follow the absolution. After Communion we thank God for his favour and goodness towards us, in not pushing us away…
So what we find and experience in repentance is two-fold. There is the sense of sin, and of God’s mercy for sinners. You really can’t have one without the other. They belong together.
The spirituality of repentance which is our inheritance as Prayer Book Anglicans is a powerful thing.
Here is how a man who went to live in a monastery on the Greek island of Mount Athos described it:
“There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy. And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that had taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happening to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.
“Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Yes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart; Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…” ( Elder Sophrony)