Sunday, January 09, 2011

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

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

Thirty-five years ago, when I read this morning’s excerpt from Matthew [4:12-17] for the very first time, I distinctly remember feeling a bit let down by it. In the previous chapter, I had encountered the exciting character of John the Baptist, who dressed like a wild caveman and went about exhorting and rebuking the people and preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Now, as I read about the Lord Jesus Christ poised to begin His public ministry, I knew things were really going to ramp up. Here was the greatest preacher in history about to take the world stage, and His very first message to that waiting world was going to be: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”


I expected Him to open with something a little more original than that. But my major disappointment with His preaching debut was that He didn’t say so much as a single word about our need to accept Him as personal Lord and Savior and to start reading the bible. I couldn’t see any value in His talking about heaven if He wasn’t going to tell people what it would take to get there! In short, I felt that He had stumbled out of the gate and muffed His first opportunity to make a clear presentation of the message of salvation.

It took a few more years for me to comprehend that Jesus preached the gospel just fine, thank you very much. It was yours truly who had a few wires loose.

First off, I had failed to notice in this passage that Jesus wasn’t talking about heaven, He was talking about the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Jesus never really spoke of heaven in an abstract way as people often do today. He most often referred to heaven as a kingdom, implying that it was a realm where the rule and order and life of God was experienced, rather than the rebellion, confusion, and death common to this fallen world. I did know that one day Jesus would reign as king from heaven, but quite honestly, I never gave it that much thought. To me, heaven was the pleasant if somewhat airy-fairy promise of eternal bliss awaiting all true believers in the life to come. Beyond that, heaven didn’t seem to have much to do with this life except to serve as an incentive to get people to accept Christ, and frankly, the fear of hell worked better in that regard. For some reason, more people seem attuned to the idea of receiving eternal punishment from God than eternal reward.

But when it came to this idea of the kingdom of heaven being truly at hand, as if it were just moments away from being established upon the earth, I could not grasp this at all. Where was this kingdom of heaven if that were true? Some people taught that the reign of Christ was to be experienced in the here-and-now by the application of biblical principles to our lives. This sounded good but I was always painfully aware that we all read and interpreted our bibles differently. I couldn’t see how Jesus could be an effectual king if we were the ones making all the rules. Later I also realized that if the bible was to represent the reign of Christ in this world, He would have to wait an additional 1400 years for the printing press to be invented to really kickstart His kingdom. This was stretching the meaning of the words “at hand” pretty thin!

One final thought that occurred to me--the most disturbing one of all--was that whenever Christ was to be enthroned as absolute monarch of His kingdom, what if we didn’t like it? Even as an Evangelical Christian myself, I was ashamed of all the pride and egotism prevalent in our movement. We claimed to be a people obedient to the bible, but in practice we made the bible obedient to ourselves. While staunchly defending the inerrancy and supremacy of the bible, we twisted and abused the scriptures to support our pet doctrines and beliefs. I began to suspect that our strident insistence on the authority of the bible was nothing more than a thinly-disguised defense of our own authority and independence. Clearly, we were a people who liked to be in charge.

How would we fare in the kingdom of heaven where our opinions no longer mattered and the rules were not ours to make up? How would we handle it when we were no longer calling the shots, because a King was made to rule over us with absolute authority? We all imagined that we would enjoy it of course, but how could we possibly know that when there was nothing in the evangelical Christian experience to help prepare us for this? We were learning how to be rulers, not the ruled. We thought our souls were prepared for heaven, but there was no way to know if they were being properly prepared for the kingdom of heaven.

When Christ said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” He was speaking the literal truth. Ten days after His ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, He sent the Holy Spirit to establish His Church, the outpost of the kingdom of heaven on earth, and the beginning of His eternal reign over the new creation.

As an Evangelical, “church” was one more thing that meant very little to me, because here again was something we had reinvented to support our independence. To an Evangelical, church is not the intersection of heaven and earth, the place where a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven is experienced that men might wrestle with the rule and authority of Christ, hopefully to submit. No, church is portrayed as “the great, invisible body of all true believers, regardless of denomination,” a most unbiblical definition, to say the least. We had stripped “church” of all authority and tradition, because these posed a threat to our own authority and traditions. Like the bible, like heaven, and perhaps even like God Himself, we had reinvented church to support our experiences and preferences.

It may seem that I have painted a fairly bleak picture of my Evangelical past, but in truth I am speaking of humanity itself. Mankind is fallen and broken and spiritually darkened and rebellious. For this reason no one accepts the reign of Christ easily. It is the same for Orthodox Christians as everyone else. This is why Jesus graciously established His Church upon the earth. The Church is man’s first encounter with the kingdom of heaven, the place where we can wrestle with God’s claim of absolute authority over us and learn to put to death our rebellious traits. Besides introducing me to Christ, which was a very good thing, the other benefit I derived from my Evangelical years was the lesson that we simply can’t be trusted to make our own rules. When we are in charge of deciding what is truth, we inevitably reduce it to fit what we want.

This is a lesson we must not forget as Orthodox Christian believers. The Holy Tradition of faith and life we have inherited in the Church is not ours to lay aside as we please. It is not up to us to make the rules, if we want to prepare ourselves for the kingdom of heaven. We do like to have our own way and do tend to feel that Orthodoxy is awfully demanding. I think we should see that the very thing we are struggling with is our acceptance of the reign of Christ in our lives. This is normal for a fallen and broken people, but Christ must win this struggle if His Church is to be of any eternal value to us. Now is the time for us to bring ourselves under the reign of Jesus Christ, lest we discover too late that we want nothing to do with it.

Our gracious Lord told us what to do and why we should do it when He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The Church is revealed as the beginning of the kingdom of heaven on earth, mankind’s introduction to the reign of Christ, given that we might find peace with God and eternal life when His kingdom comes in fullness at Christ’s second appearing. What a great gift His Church is to our fallen race! Let us not excuse ourselves from the struggle or make things too easy on ourselves in a time that is meant for us to submit to our King, Jesus Christ.

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

Monday, January 03, 2011


+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.