This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Mark 6:1-13.
When I worked at the Cathedral, there was a young man who used to come and stand on the pavement just outside our doors, and engage in some public open-air preaching. (Actually, there were quite a few people like that, but I’m thinking of one in particular). And his message always struck me as a bit confusing, because he would yell at passers-by that they were all going to hell… but he’d punctuate that with random cries of “hallelujah!”
If you really thought everyone you could see was going to hell, that wouldn’t prompt most people to break out into spontaneous praise, but it seemed to make sense in his head. I didn’t see him get much in the way of a sympathetic audience, though.
I was reminded of that this week when I looked at today’s gospel reading, because in it, Jesus sends out the apostles, on a kind of exorcism-and-teaching mission trip. And Mark tells us that they went out and proclaimed, specifically, that all should repent. (And they cast out demons and anointed the sick, but for the moment let’s focus on the message of repentance).
So often in the gospel we hear that the message being proclaimed was good news, or was that the kingdom was at hand, and so forth; it struck me as interesting that here, apparently, it was just a call to repent.
And it seems to me that the call to repent can cut in two very different directions.
The first is the one taken by my old acquaintance the street preacher; you need to repent because you are bad. You are sinful, your life will be fruitless, and God might love you – because that’s who God is – but he probably doesn’t like you very much right now.
This is the kind of classic approach to trying to convert people. First you convince them how bad they are, then you convince them that Jesus is the answer, and before you know it you have a thriving church full of ex-sinners (in theory). And some people have really found a relationship with God that way.
It’s not a message without problems, though. And any approach to sharing the good news, which starts by trying to convince other people that they’re bad, well… here’s the thing. God created every human being in God’s own image. And God said that creation was good. The question we have to wrestle with is what sin has done to that good creation. Is all the goodness totally destroyed? Or is the goodness still there, but with some other mucky stuff going on around it?
If we think the goodness is still there – and Calvinists aside, pretty much every Christian tradition agrees that it is – then trying to start to share our faith with people by telling them how bad they are, moves away from truth, and more into the realm of effective emotional manipulation.
Not that I’m denying that sin is real; but it’s a question of where we put the emphasis. Do we want someone to hear that they are God’s good creation, a beloved child, for whom God longs, and for whom there is a hope and a future? Or do we want them to hear that they are worthless and without hope? Especially when we bear in mind that often in these discussions any intellectual nuance gets lost in emotional responses.
So. If we don’t want the call to repentance to end up being a message of our condemnation of others, what is its more positive side?
How about, you’re invited to be part of something better?
People know that the world is stuffed. You only have to open a newspaper to see it; fathers shooting their children, teachers being charged with child porn offences, politicians completely failing to inspire us with their vision and integrity. I could go on, but that was just a quick glance down the headlines as I was writing this.
People also know that their own personal lives are far from tidy. We struggle as parents, struggle as spouses, struggle in the workplace. Living up to our ideals and hopes and dreams seems impossible and unachievable.
And in the midst of all the world’s mess and brokenness, God opens a door and says, there’s a better way. There’s a way to be who you were created to be, before all the mess and the brokenness got in the way. There’s a way to be part of the solution, not the problem, in all the corruption of our world. There’s a way to be part of a community that, although it isn’t perfect, is committed to living in this other way, this way of justice and peace and reconciliation.
And you’re invited to be part of it. Just turn around, and take that step.
Every time we pray “we repent…” we’re saying yes to that invitation. We’re turning around and stepping through that door. We’re committing ourselves to relationships with God and others in which our love and our joy are stronger than our sin.
So often we’ve internalised the message that we are pretty worthless, as human beings; but the call to repent, instead of kind of hitting us over the head again with our worthlessness, can be an invitation to rediscover our true worth; or sometimes, even, to discover it for the first time.
That’s why, so often, Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s near! It’s not so far that you can’t be part of it; it’s only as far away as your choice to be part of it. Or John the Baptist’s words, “Repent and believe in the good news.” It’s good news! Something better than what we have now is possible.
This was the mistake the street preacher outside the cathedral made; he told people they were going to hell, but he gave them no sense of any hope. He didn’t show them what the alternative was like. He didn’t invite them to anything better.
But we can. Our job is to be absolutely crystal clear on what God invites us to; to respond to that invitation wholeheartedly, and then to hold out that invitation to others; to be part of a community which does its utmost to make real and concrete, the better way God offers us. To show people, by the way that we are church together, that the kingdom of heaven has substance.
That’s how the call to repent becomes truly good news. The disciples did it with exorcisms and healings; our experiences may be less spectacular, but they must be no less real.