Tuesday 24 May 2016

Repent! Of What?

In contemporary English the command 'Repent' is generally considered to have 'of your sins' as its object. This, however, is not necessarily so. That is, while the correct response when considering your sins is always repentance it does not follow that the correct response when thinking about repentance is an exclusive focus on sin. The two things are not invariably linked in Christian Scripture. St Mark reports the beginning of the mission of Jesus in this way-
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
(Mark 1:13-14)

The final clause might be interpreted as two separate commands-
1)Repent of your sins and also 2)believe in the gospel.
But it seems to me to be more likely that it is a single command-
Repent and therefore believe in the gospel.
If we consider that the word 'repent' has an existence apart from the word 'sin' then we need to know what it means. The Greek original of which it is a translation is metanoia which literally means change ones mind. Since, however, the ancient Greeks meant something much more by the concept of Mind than modern English speakers do the literal translation does not help us much. I think that we would have a clearer grasp of the command if we took it to mean something like 'completely reorient yourself and your direction of travel.'

The answer to the question 'repent of what?' then becomes 'of everything.' This is why our Lord would think that one who repents would therefore believe in the gospel because if we orient the focus of our being and activity away from the material realm of the senses then it can only be towards the spiritual realm which He names the kingdom of God. Of course the demand to repent of everything is the most radical of all possible demands and prompts the supplementary question why? It is easy enough to assess what we would lose from such a change of direction but it is less clear what it is that we would gain. Indeed the why question is one of the underlying assumptions of the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The assumption here being that enjoying life is the thing we would lose and worrying is the thing which we would gain if we respond to Jesus' invitation.

There is actually some truth in this if we accept the idea that the object of repentance is always 'of your sins' because then we would spend all our time worrying about how good or bad we are at adapting our external behaviour to a more or less rigid set of rules many of which seem arbitrary to ourselves and even more so to our neighbours. However if we go with the idea that it means a reorientation of everything then it knocks two of the slogans ideas on the head. Firstly, a life directed primarily to the things of the spirit enables us to affirm that actually, yes, there is a God. Secondly, we discover that worry is far less of a factor in the spirit filled life than it is in the materialist one and that if its characteristic isn't enjoyment that is only because its characteristic is joy. What I am doing here of course is making an assertion. The only way to find out if it is a true assertion is to try it for yourself. Repent and be made anew.

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The painting is Cristoforo by De Predis

Friday 13 May 2016

Pentecost & the Idiot

And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim
Acts 2:4

There is an ancient Chinese saying that when the sage points at the moon the idiot looks at his finger. This refers to the idea that religious actions, practices and rituals which are designed to point beyond themselves to a transcendent reality are often transformed into ends in themselves, and dead ends at that. The 'spiritual but not religious' crowd, enemies of organised religion and theological liberals emphasise this idea and suggest that the individual presenting themselves before the ultimate spiritual reality is the only show in town. In this view the function of the Church is, at best, merely an organising one, to carry out good social work and to gather believers in one place so that they can form suitable affinity groups.

The saying, however, has an important secondary meaning which is often overlooked. We can see the moon without the help of the sage but we cannot see it through his eyes without his help and guidance. That is, both the sage and his finger are necessary parts of the process which transform our understanding of the moon into something which we did not possess before. From a Christian point of view it is sometimes argued that since we receive the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself, then what need do we have for formalised actions, practices and rituals since we can be guided directly? What happened in the days immediately after this gift was first received? St Luke tells us-
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
Acts 2:42
So, although each believer had been touched by the Holy Spirit in order to grow in understanding, love and effective response they had recourse to the teachings brought to them by the companions of Jesus and to the spiritual strengthening offered by the sacrament of the Eucharist and by the liturgy. In that sense the Spirit is like the moon and the sage, we can each perceive its presence within us but to grow in response to its presence requires us to make an effort beginning with having the humility to recognise our own weakness and ignorance. The Apostolic Church is our sage and wise guide, the sacraments are the finger of God. Believers need them both if they are to both see and understand the true light which comes to us from the Father and the Son.

Blessed John Henry Newman, of course, expressed this idea with more elegance than I can hope to muster-
Our Prayers and Services, and Holy days, are only forms, dead forms, which can do us no good. Yes, they are dead forms to those who are dead, but they are living forms to those who are living. If you come here in a dead way, not in faith, not coming for a blessing, without your hearts being in the service, you will get no benefit from it. But if you come in a living way, in faith, and hope, and reverence, and with holy expectant hearts, then all that takes place will be a living service and full of heaven.
(Parochial Sermons Vol 7:13)


The painting is Pentecost by  Jan Joest van Kalkar