Repenting Death

The video is here.

During the congregational bible study, we explored the popular understandings of some of the words in the  reading set for this week. One of my friends said, "Repentance means to say sorry and grovel!" We looked at other meanings, which have led to the sermon notes below.


I have a friend who grew up in the desert. There was always food, she said. Honey Ants, Witchetty Grubs, Bush Tomato, Pigeon, Kangaroo … Whitefellas perish and starve in this country. But with eyes to see, it is brimming with life.

Our western culture is consumed by the notion of scarcity. We can scarcely see this; it is drummed into us from birth, and we have shaped the way we live with such thoroughness, that we have created scarcity. But live out bush with the Pitjantjatjaras, and you begin to wonder if it's all a fiction we have made up. You might even see that there is nothing particularly superior about our life with its Toyotas and mortgages and mobile phones, compared to the old life which carries 3 spears and a water bucket made of wood, and is content. Yet, down in Adelaide we can't imagine this. It seems ridiculous. It seems self-evident that our way of life is superior.

To say to another person from Adelaide that we are not superior to the original peoples of the land is often to be met with absolute incomprehension. I've chosen this example deliberately; after all, how could it not be better to have the hospital just down the street… and to have air conditioning… and running water. These things are the mark of a civilised and advanced society.

Yet in the last century the civilised and advanced societies killed 50 million people in the two major wars alone— who were the savages of the world?

Well I'm saying all this to invite you to be open to the idea that we just might be uncomprehending in our view of the world. We just might be blind to some things…

                       … and now I want to quote the biblical scholar Walter Wink:

… God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink Just Jesus, My Struggle to Become Human pp 102)

This is not a word game. This is at the heart of Christianity; it's real. When Jesus calls us to repent, he is calling us to the eye-opening, wholesale, utter change of understanding that realises we have misunderstood the world. We are not superior; we are fragmented, partial, uncomprehending, lost, broken, and in danger of perishing. We have described the world—and treated it— as though we understood it and owned it, but Christianity confesses that we barely glimpse what it means to be human.

Now this is what repentance is: in the way that you might pause to wonder if maybe—just maybe— there is something in what Andrew says about there being nothing inherently better or superior about our way of life than that of the old Pitjantjatjaras…

               … so you might also wonder if we have life completely upside down, and if God is the Human One, not us.

Now, I'll be blunt: If we dismiss out of hand the idea that we are not superior to the Pitjantjatjaras— only different— then we are uncomprehending of the shallowness and the arbitrariness of our culture, not to mention its savagery and other shortcomings. We are blind to who we are.

And in the same way… if we dismiss the metaphor that God is the Human One, and that we have not yet arrived at true human likeness, we are blind to who we are. We are uncomprehending of the shallowness and the arbitrariness of our humanity, not to mention its savagery and other shortcomings.

Repentance is not about getting to heaven.
Repentance is not about saying sorry.
Repentance is not even about changing the way we act! True repentance will certainly mean we live differently, but our changed actions will be the result of repentance.

Repentance means to be changed. It is a wholesale change in how we understand something. That's the meaning of the word. One scholar says it implies "an utter reconfiguration of [our] perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of [ourselves] toward God."

And repentance is to be healed of our blindness about death, and our fear that death will separate us from God. Repentance is to be able to see ourselves differently.

There is a savagery in the reading from Luke. We might see it in the line Jesus repeats: unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. But the savagery which stops me is this:

“See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

If we do not bear fruit we are a waste of space. Why should we be wasting the soil?

And along with that savagery is an image of a God who is incredibly graceful: give the waste of space tree more time! Jesus has been three years ministering, says some of the Tradition, and yet there is no fruit; instead they kill him. But even then, God says, give them more time.

(Read this literally ethically, and it is wrong; no one is a waste of space. But poetically, if we cannot see how we can waste our space, we may not grasp just how precious it is.)

We worry, some of us, about the notion that we might perish, and ask what sort of God would do that. And, I think, that alive among us today, Jesus might not use language which implies that some folk will be finally outside the love of God…

            … but repentance implies understanding— beginning to see— that there is something so profoundly precious and important about becoming human, that to refuse the gift of humanity— we call it salvation— almost makes us a waste of space!

Can you see how when he calls us to repent and believe in his first words in Mark's gospel, he is calling us to a fundamental re-comprehension of who we are, and of  who we might become? (Luke makes the same fundamental redefinition of culture and what it means to be human in his quoting of Isaiah in Luke 4:16ff. cf Mark 1:15 )

I've Mark's first words of Jesus because they capture an essential aspect of repentance, which is that it is a duet, a dance between the Divine and us.  God asks us to dance: there is something passive about repentance. God seeks us out. That's implied in the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin. This is the good news for those of us who meet the faith and feel we understand nothing;  I remember the feeling that the penny would not drop; I just couldn't see what was going on.

In the newssheet at Pilgrim this week, I have written,

There is something in this process [of repentance] which can't be hurried, a mystery which, 40 years ago, led me to say, "I will come back." Which led me to read, and to try to pray, and to seek understanding of what was happening in me, first in this place, and then at Scots Church. I often wondered if I was simply refusing to face facts when I stayed in church, but now suspect there was more being done to me than I knew; certainly, I cannot account for what has led to the wholesale change in how I understand life.

God changes us. We find, suddenly, unbidden, that we know and understand more than we thought we did. Be at peace— you are here! Something has called you. Repentance has begun. You have been found.

But we are also called to believe— the other part of the duet.  The very inadequate translation of the Greek word pisteuete (Mark 1:15) as believe, implies intellectual assent and understanding that we often don't possess. But it also means— most accurately means, I think, to trust.

Trust the hint of God in your life. Live accordingly. My question—still!—is often simply, "If all this is true, how should I act?" And the acting seems to open me up to understanding more, and to seeing with new eyes.

So, after 40 years, I am still "fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human…" But there is a change. Life is infinitely more precious, and so much more glorious. And death?

Well, death has changed. The amygdaline, primitive, biological part of me is just as quick to swerve out of the way of a bus as it ever was, and I don't expect that to change. That's the animal we are.

But there is something else. Our funeral liturgy begins with the words,

But we are here to affirm the Christian conviction that while death is the end of human life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. (UIW 1)

And I have begun to think it is true. Not all the golf course in heaven rubbish…

… but a sense that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. A very solid suspicion that we are more than just biological machines, and that it would be quite odd if we just stopped being… when the machine stops.

Sometimes we translate the Son of Man as the Human One. We are saying Jesus showed us something about what it means to be truly human… which is why we also use the title Son of God. In Wink's metaphor, he is the son of the truly human.

There's a verse in John 10— the chapter where he says he has come to make life full (10:10)— where Jesus says, "I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…." (10:17) It's not just flowery incomprehensible verbiage. It's saying that to be human is to be able to lay our life down of our own accord, instead of having it ripped away from us.

And while I'd rather not die next week— I like it where I am more than ever before— there are days when I get this. There are moments, even long moments, when I can contemplate laying my life down as… ok, as… what I will do. It will be all right. It's how I am meant to be. This is the change repentance works in us.

So Isaiah this week says

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price. 
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.

Repent. Seek God out. Pray. Ask God to open your eyes. For life is richer than we have ever imagined.

Andrew Prior. Written for Hare St. UCA and also posted at the Pilgrim Church Blog

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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