22 January 2011

Repent. . .and do not empty out the Cross

3rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph's Church, Ponchatula

We who live in darkness, all of us who dwell in a land overshadowed by death—for us, a great light has arisen, a light that shines through our darkness to prove that death is not our end, that death is not undefeated, that death is nothing for us to fear. Anguish has taken wing and darkness is dispelled. The light brings us abundant joy and even greater rejoicing. No longer slaves to the master of sin—his yoke and rod are broken—we are free to flourish as the children of God, to await the coming of His reign, and the beginning of our lives beyond the death of this world. The light that lights our way back to God shines from the Cross of Christ, and it shines without condition or prejudice, without preference or exclusion. All are invited to rejoice in the freedom of God; all are invited to participate in His divine life; no one is left to stand unwillingly in darkness. Open your eyes to see Christ's light and the darkness of sin and death vanish. Close your eyes to his light and division, dissension, gloom, and distress will overwhelm you. Therefore, in order to open the eyes and the hearts of God's people, Jesus goes out and preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

We know that a heart turned away from the Cross of Christ empties both the heart and the cross. Paul warns the Corinthians that their factional divisions threaten more than just the social peace. The dissension among them tears at the foundation of their eternal peace—their lives in Christ as witnesses to God's mercy. Like all of us who have died and risen again with Christ in baptism, the Corinthians have vowed to serve in the world as living testimonies to the Father's love for His children. Once, the Corinthians saw the light of the Cross; they turned to the Lord, repenting of their sins, and flourished as a single witness to all that Christ's death and resurrection can do. Now, they are split into factions, each faction giving allegiance to one teacher or another. Appollos, Cephas, Christ, Paul. You can hear the distress in Paul's letter when he writes, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Our Corinthian brothers and sisters—once bright with the light of the Cross of Christ—live again in darkness. Having turned away from Christ, eagerly putting themselves back into the sin-master's yoke, and submitting themselves once again to the devil's whip, the Church in Corinth foolishly empties out the meaning of the Cross. Therefore, Paul preaches as Jesus himself preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Why must the Corinthians repent? Why do we have to repent? The kingdom of heaven is at hand. So what? Why is repentance such an urgent need? First, let's look at what “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” means? When something is “at hand,” it is close by, coming near. A tool “at hand” is easy to reach, easy to grasp. An “at hand” exam is coming up soon, probably tomorrow or sooner. When Jesus preaches that the kingdom of heaven is “at hand,” he means that his Father's kingdom is nearby; it is coming and will arrive soon. But what exactly is it that will soon arrive? In Mark's gospel, we usually see the phrase “kingdom of God.” Matthew tends to prefer “kingdom of heaven.” Both of these mean “God's sovereign rule.” So, Jesus is preaching the imminent arrival of his Father's reign over His people. What's left to figure out is who will be among His people.

Who will live in heaven's kingdom depends entirely on who turns away from disobedience and embraces the obedience of the Cross. Remember: the light of the Cross shines without condition or prejudice, without preference or exclusion. All are invited to rejoice in the freedom of God; all are invited to participate in His divine life; no one is left to stand unwillingly in darkness. If no one is excluded from the light, then why should anyone bother with repentance? Look at the Corinthians. Once, they lived and flourished in the light of Christ. But they fell into division and dissension, emptying their witness of all meaning. Paul calls them back to Christ—not with the wisdom of human eloquence—but by asking a simple question: “Is Christ divided?” He smacks them with an image of a Christ himself, undivided, one body. Come back to the unity of God's singular love and bear witness to His mercy. If the Corinthians can live in the light and turn away from it, then it must be the case that the light of Christ can be lost through sin. All are invited. No one is excluded. But to receive an invitation is not the same as accepting it and then showing up at the party. Even those who are intentionally included can choose to exclude themselves. The light of Christ shines on us all. But not all of us open our eyes to see, open our hearts to receive. Therefore, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

If the Lord's rule over His people is coming soon and repentance from sin includes us under His rule, what should a life of repentance look like while we wait for the kingdom to arrive? Ideally, the life we live day-to-day should look as much as possible like the life we will live in the kingdom. No division among us. No dissension. No factions claiming different teachers, alien teachings. As a body, we would honor and encourage the variety of gifts given to our members, each member perfecting the love of God by loving others in turn. There would be one heart and mind, the heart and mind of Christ; that is, a devotion to sacrificial service, giving up self so that holiness might thrive. True obedience—faithfully listening—to God's Word would be our first instinct. There would be no jealousy, no rivalry, no gossip or lying. We would eagerly serve the poor; all those oppressed by disease or disability; we would seek out and live in peace with one another. 

While we wait for the coming of the kingdom, we can live lives of repentance, lives lived constantly aware of both our gifts and our failures. Constantly aware of both what we have to give and what we need to receive. Most of all, a life of repentance is a life of humility, believing/feeling/acting fully aware that everything we have and everything we are is a gift, a freely given boon from God. We are wholly dependent on God. For this life here and now and for our lives to come. 

If we will serve in His kingdom, we must turn in obedience to the Cross. Open our eyes. Open our hearts. And receive the gifts He has given us. Therefore, repent. . .for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

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  1. This morning the priest used a different work than "repent." And I think it's more apropos. He said the translation is debated but instead of "repent," it may be better to use "convert." I think he's on to something. Everything you just said, Fr. Philip, means so much more if we turn toward God.
    Your thoughts?

  2. The greek word that is translated "to repent" in our Bibles was the word "metanoeo"
    This word has no one word translation in English, but means to "have a change of mind" (for the better) or to "have the after-mind"
    The Greek verb metanoeO, which is always mistranslated "repent," is made up of a combination of two simple, easily understood words. These are meta, which means "after," and noia which means "mind." Since this word is a verb, it would mean to a Greek of the first century "have the after-mind;" and the noun of course would name the result of such an action, which would be "after-mindedness."
    "To repent" or "to turn from" or "to regret" does not really convey the true meaning of the greek word. Other words that might be more appropriate would be "to subit" or "to yield"
    So we could have "Submit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" or "Submit and believe the Gospel"
    Submission to God is surely the first step before belief?

  3. Faith, convert works but I think repent is better. Repent literally means "turns around and go back." Convert connotes change, movement, but not necessarily going back the right way.

    I know some priests don't like to use repent b/c of the fundamentalist connotations it has. I try to stick with the language in the readings unless there is some really, really good reason not to.