Monday, January 03, 2011

Repentance

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

In the year 1949, British author George Orwell imagined a totalitarian regime in the near future of 1984 which controlled the populace largely through the manipulation of words. In Orwell’s novel, the government had successfully imposed a heavily-altered version of the English language called “Newspeak” in which the original meanings of any words which might prove troubling to the goals of the regime were stripped and replaced with new definitions that encouraged conformity with those goals. Orwell wisely grasped that any political power that can somehow control what words mean will gain complete control over the thoughts and actions of those who use them.

In our culture, we needn’t look long to find words that have been redefined to bring power to the groups behind the changes. One victim of this trend is the word “discrimination”. Younger people, trained to regard discrimination negatively, may not realize that it was once considered a very good thing to be a discriminating person. It implied that one had cultivated a higher level of wisdom and discernment, as well as the ability to distinguish between the good and the bad in life. In more recent times the word has been altered for use as an accusation of bigotry, racism, or homophobia against any who oppose certain political agendas. The word has been stripped of its original meaning and redefined to become a nasty label used to coerce and intimidate all so-called enemies of “Progress”.

What is interesting about this is that by losing the traditional meaning of the word discrimination, our society seems close to losing the actual practice of it as well. We are becoming a people who no longer prize true wisdom and godly discernment, and we increasingly struggle to distinguish between good and bad or even basic right and wrong in life. (Is it wrong for men to marry other men? No, we mustn’t ask that. We mustn’t discriminate!) By losing an important word from our vocabulary, is it possible we’ve nearly lost the very essence of what that word describes in the human experience?

If you’re wondering where I’m headed with this, there is another word--commonly used by Christians and featured prominently in our gospel lesson this morning--that is also in danger of being lost, both in meaning and in practice. That word is repentance.

From Mark’s gospel we heard that the Forerunner came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Acts 2, Peter also exclaimed to the multitude, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins”. Throughout the scriptures, baptism, repentance, and the forgiveness of sins are linked inseparably together. This is because, at least in the traditional understanding of things, baptism is the new birth of water and the Spirit which both washes and renews and begins a new life, the goal of which is to allow the spiritual healing of the believer through the gradual formation of Christ in him, who is Himself the image of perfect humanity, united and filled with God. It is the Holy Spirit who forms Christ in us, but we must cooperate with the Spirit’s work on a daily basis. This cooperation is what we call repentance, which is the the chief action and characteristic of the Christian life. Repentance is our daily, God-given opportunity to participate in all that He has made available in this new life for our transformation and spiritual healing.

We should note that baptism without an ongoing repentance, does very little good. It is like being born, but never growing up. From the moment of our new birth in Christ we are expected to enter into this life of repentance, a life of continuous movement toward God, that allows us to mature into the fullness of the stature of Christ. Repentance therefore is a very positive action, being the daily movement of the believer toward God, with God Himself helping us every step of the way.

But there are many Christians today who see repentance in a different way. For some, repentance is the rather negative, guilt-riddled action of constantly apologizing to God for the sins they endlessly commit. To add to this, many are taught that they have something called a sin nature which compels them to sin, meaning they can never truly stop sinning or find change. This is a false teaching, but one so ingrained in the thinking of many believers that they simply give up on resisting sin to claim that Christ forgives all.

It is not true that we have a sin nature. We have a human nature that is fallen. There’s a big difference between the two! Because our nature is fallen, we have acquired an unnatural propensity or inclination toward sin that is quite strong. But this propensity is contrary to our human nature and not integral to it. The holy fathers even taught that it is entirely against our nature to sin, and this is why sin brings such disastrous consequences to us. People are confusing propensity with nature and thus are being led to believe that they have no choice but to sin, when this is simply not true.

There is a popular Christian radio program called People to People that even goes so far as to insist that since we have a sin nature that compels us to sin, it is foolish for Christians to continually tell God they’re sorry or ask for His forgiveness. Their contention is that the Christian has already received forgiveness for all sins past, present, and future, so he should just forget about sin and repentance and enjoy the love and acceptance of Christ. It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Besides the fact that our not having a sin nature negates that whole premise and makes us once against responsible for our actions, the other major flaw in that teaching is the idea that sin is nothing more than a legal infraction already paid for, rather than a terribly destructive force that breaks our communion with God and ruins human lives. If sin is ignored because of some doctrinal gimmick designed to us feel better, the results can only be disastrous.

There are many strange ideas about repentance, as the word seems to mean different things to different people. But there is only one true meaning to the word, and we must not lose that, lest we also lose the practice and the power of repentance itself. There is no avoiding the fact that repentance is difficult. True repentance allows for no shortcuts or clever gimmicks. It requires that we cooperate with God to wrestle violently against our strong propensity to sin in order that Christ might be formed in us by the power and operation of the Holy Spirit. Repentance is long, hard, and often discouraging work, but it is never our work alone. God is with us to help us every step of the way. Let us not shrink back from the work God calls us--even graciously allows us--to do. Let us embrace continual repentance as the core of our Orthodox Christian life, and by it, draw ever nearer to our God.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

3 Comments:

At 4/05/2011 7:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

..im wrestling with this..and have been for some time now...i began exploring the Orthodox church teachings a little over a year ago..i've pretty much abandoned the various protestant views that i held for most of my lifetime..i visited a Catholic Mass for the first time last year(actually several Mass's)but i did'nt persist for various reasons..at around the same time i also sought-out and attended a greek and then russian orthodox church both of which i did'nt feel suited (im not greek or russian)..i lastly found a antiochian church where i felt at ease so to speak and now am attending for the past several months..as i process this new experience and 'view' of God i find something within myself resisting with great ferocity the submissive aspects of Orthodox teaching/procedure which as of yet it remains unresolved..Your posting on the subject has helped me Immensely in understanding my dilemna.....Thank you

 
At 4/05/2011 6:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

..my comment was in response to the sunday january 9th post..im not sure how it ended up here :)

 
At 4/12/2011 9:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this message. Especially the distinction between a fallen state and a sinful nature. Thanks Father!

 

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