This week and next week, we’re winding down our Lenten series on spiritual practices. These next two weeks will be closely related, as we talk through both repentance and forgiveness. They’re closely intertwined, as we’ll see in a moment when we hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans, and sometimes feel like an absolute paradox.
Since the very beginning of Christianity, there has existed this tension between grace and human behavior. Yes—because of Jesus, there is grace in abundance for us: grace enough to cover everything we have done and everything we ever will do. But does that abundance mean that nothing we do matters? That we’re covered, so we can go and do whatever we want, whatever feels good in the moment, with absolute abandon and no conscience or consequences?
I’m not sure if this makes me feel better or worse, but that’s the same question the Roman church was asking in the first Century. Apparently human nature hasn’t changed that much.
Scripture: Romans 6:1-11
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
So, here’s the thing about preaching on repentance: just the word “repent” elicits some really strong reactions. On one hand, you have the people who love talking about repenting a little too much—the people who will either turn any conversation into the Sin Olympics, in which they have always sinned more often and in worse ways than you, or will want to talk entirely about your repenting, and will be very concerned with your sins, but not their own.
On the other hand, you have the folks who’ve seen repentance wielded as a weapon against them—as a way to manipulate or coerce, to demand compliance or exert power over them.
So let me clarify: neither of these are what Jesus had in mind when he began preaching the good news, the very first iteration of the gospel: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
The word “repent,” in both Greek and in Hebrew, simply means “to turn around and go a different way.” So when we talk about repentance in a healthy way, that’s what we mean—to make a new decision and go a different way.
It sounds a whole lot easier when you put it that way, right?
Until it’s not.
I think about this a lot when I’m driving someplace that’s unfamiliar to me. It’s no secret that I get lost really, really easily, so I wind up relying on my GPS to get to new places. After a year of living in Hanover, I can so far navigate most of Hanover, Newark, and Heath—and I can even get to the Presbytery offices in Columbus without my GPS.
But if I have to go pretty much anywhere else, Google Maps is my best friend. Even then–with my GPS telling me exactly what to do–I still wind up missing an exit, or accidentally wind up in a turn lane when I shouldn’t be, and I get off track.
One of my favorite examples of repentant driving, though, actually comes from the days before I had GPS. I was in college in central Illinois, about an hour and a half from my hometown, and I had driven the exact same route home a thousand times. I knew it like the back of my hand.
The first half of the drive was heading northwest on the highway, all the way to the Mississippi River, then taking the last exit before the bridge to Iowa, and following the river north to my hometown.
Well, one Friday night, I was driving home for the weekend. It was late, and cold, and I was exhausted. Whether I was distracted by the radio or just not paying enough attention, I managed to miss that last exit on the highway—and wound up in Iowa.
For some reason, I thought “I don’t need to turn around and go all the way back over the bridge—I’ll just follow the river north on the Iowa side, then cross back over when I get to my hometown.”
Well, what I didn’t realize was that there is no one road that goes straight north on the Iowa side. I wound up driving aimlessly for about 45 minutes before I finally pulled over, called my mother on my flip phone, and asked her to get me home.
She was…unhappy. But she knew exactly where I was, and talked me through how to get back to Illinois and get home.
Had I just turned around and gone back the way I came, I could have saved myself about an hour of driving and a lot of my mother’s worry. But I didn’t. Because I’m stubborn like that.
And that, my friends, is why repentance—turning around—is a spiritual practice. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only stubborn person in this room. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like to admit that I’m wrong, that I might need help to get back on track.
And, quite honestly, turning a car around is a whole lot easier than turning our hearts and minds around.
That’s the sticking point with repenting: acknowledging that something is wrong, that something is off, is just the starting point. True repentance requires change.
This week, National Geographic introduced one of its first issues dealing explicitly with discussions of race and racism in the modern world, and they did something that, for a world-renowned American publication, is largely unprecedented: they hired Dr. John Edwin Mason, a scholar who studies the history of photography and the history of Africa, to evaluate their own archives and investigate the ways that National Geographic, as an institution, has portrayed race and engaged with people of color throughout its history.
What he found, and what National Geographic published in their own magazine, is that despite their skill at drawing attention to indigenous cultures outside of the United States, that attention was often filled with caricatures, ignored racial tension and conflict altogether, and focused on making these ‘others’ seem as exotic as possible. Sometimes, their portrayals were just blatantly racist: the article quotes a 1916 story on Australia: “underneath photos of two Aboriginal people, the caption reads: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
But—this article also mentions a 2015 story from Haiti, in which the publishers gave cameras away to young Haitians and asked them to document their own daily lives. This shift in perspective literally changed the lens through which the magazine’s readers would see Haiti, and it told a story that no outsider, no journalist, could have. That same story, along with many of National Geographic’s recent projects, would have been unthinkable 100 years earlier.
No one was required to explore this history. No one was required to dig up the most racist parts of National Geographic’s past and broadcast them again. In fact, it would’ve been easier to just leave those issues in the archives and say “we’re just going to pretend that didn’t happen and hope no one else goes through those old issues.”
But they did—because these editors and journalists can see the questions we’re still dealing with, the problems we still have with portraying and talking about race, and they wanted to know what part their institution and their work has played. More than that, they want to be agents of change.
Susan Goldberg, the Editor In Chief, ends her introductory article for the issue on race with these words: “For us this issue also provided an important opportunity to look at our own efforts to illuminate the human journey, a core part of our mission for 130 years. I want a future editor of National Geographic to look back at our coverage with pride—not only about the stories we decided to tell and how we told them but about the diverse group of writers, editors, and photographers behind the work.”
This is repentance—to not only say “I was wrong, and now I know better,” but also to say “now, I’ll do better.”
The interesting thing about Paul’s description of repentance, even though he doesn’t explicitly use that word, is that he roots this repentance in our baptism.
He reminds us that just as Jesus died, and was really dead—so, in baptism, we are dead to sin. Just as Christ was raised to new life in the freedom and hope and love of God, so we are raised to this same new life. Repentance is, fundamentally, dying and rising on the smallest levels. The waters of baptism are a built-in u-turn, available to us even on the narrowest and most winding roads, wherever we find ourselves.
In order to change direction, you have to know where you are and where you’re going. If we can’t be honest about who and where we are in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships, then we’ll just keep travelling the same roads over and over again, wondering why we haven’t found that life we’re looking for.
Sometimes, that means walking back into our deepest pain instead of avoiding it. Sometimes, that means admitting something we wish weren’t true.
Sometimes, that means getting out the phone and asking for help to figure out what on earth is going on.
Admitting to ourselves that we’re lost, that we’ve gone the wrong way–that’s the dying part.
But at the risk of Easter spoilers, Paul also reminds us: death is never the end. There is always new life, new hope, new love waiting for us as we follow Jesus on the path of redemption.
To repent boldly, then, is to admit our failings, to ask for forgiveness and expect to receive it–and at the same time, to listen for Jesus’ invitation to live in a new and different way. It might take a few tries to get it, but there is grace enough for failed repenting, too.
The season of Lent is a sort of testing ground for our repentance. When we give up something, or we take on something new, we begin to see what our life could be like if we lived it differently.
So as we wind down this season of dying, of letting go of what keeps us from following Jesus all the way to the cross, what is it that you need to turn away from? What path are you on that won’t get you to Jesus? What stubbornness prevents you from turning around?
Friends, we are redeemed by Christ’s dying and rising. In baptism, we are united with Christ in all things. And in receiving the Holy Spirit, we are always invited anew to follow Jesus in all things, in all times, and in all places.
The best part?
The Holy Spirit is a quite reliable spiritual GPS, and she doesn’t generally shout “RECALCULATING” in your ear.