I Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15
First Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
TEXT: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15).
At a large University graduation exercise, the University President rose to address the graduates and confer the degrees. He began by explaining the meaning of the traditional Latin phrases used ...
If a student graduates "Cum Laude," it means "With Honors." If a student graduates "Magna Cum Laude" it means "With High Honors." If a student graduates "Summa Cum Laude" it means "With Supreme Honors."
Then he said, "There's a new honor I plan to use in the future to be called "Magna Cum Pellidentium." It means, "By the skin of your teeth."
In the Lenten Season which has begun, the call to repentance is emphasized. It is a time to take stock of what we've been doing with our lives. It is a time to evaluate spiritual progress. And, in so doing, it becomes a time to acknowledge that, in terms of our life in the "Divinely Created School of Learning How To Love," we have yet to graduate with honors. The call to repentance means that we are not on the level of a Summa Cum Laude, or a Magna Cum Laude, or even a Cum Laude. For many of us, we fall into the Magna Cum Pellidentium category. We're living up to our Christian discipleship "by the skin of our teeth."
Repentance penetrates the crusts of piety we wrap around ourselves to keep us from taking it seriously.
Repentance reaches deep down in the soul and turns life upside-down for us and right-side-up for God.
Repentance reverses our priorities, upsets our accustomed sense of values, turns our pockets inside-out.
Repentance releases us from the shackles of our systems of security and hangs us on the thin thread we call the "Will of God."
For many of us, "repentance" is a word that belongs to yesterday. It's one of those slippery words. We hear the word and we speak the word without attaching any real meaning for our lives.
For some, there is a vague understanding of repentance as something that is done when one is caught. But repentance is far more than blurting out "I'm sorry" when one gets caught doing something deemed wrong by conventional society.
For some, there is a vague understanding of repentance as the act of turning back to God after having turned away from Him.
For some, there is a vague understanding of repentance as involving a change in attitude or a change of mind or turning over a new leaf. And there are elements of truth in all such notions.
The Gospel truth is that genuine repentance means much more than changing one's mind or feeling sorry for one's sins or telling God we are on His side again. Fruit-bearing is the sign of true repentance. The evidence of repentance is to be found in the fruit that is brought forth from our lives. Repentance is a positive action -- something that enhances our life and the lives of others.
According to an old story, two friends from boyhood were sitting together in a diner, drinking coffee. "Why is it that you never got married?" one friend asked the other. "Well," came the reply, "to tell you the truth I spent my entire youth looking for the perfect woman. In San Francisco, I met a beautiful and intelligent woman, with eyes like dark olives, but she was unkind. In Montreal, I met a woman who was a very kindly person but we had no common interests. Over the years, I met one woman after another who seemed just right, but there would always be something missing. Then one day I met her! She was intelligent. She was generous. She was kind. We had everything in common. In fact, she was perfect." The other man was puzzled. "What happened? Why didn't you marry her?" he asked. "Sad to say," the other replied, "it seems she was looking for the perfect man!"
Precisely because none of us is perfect, the Biblical call to repentance is consistent ... constant ... unrelenting. Nobody's perfect! Neither the perfect man nor the perfect woman has ever entered this Church. Neither the perfect friend nor the perfect neighbor has ever entered this Church. Neither the perfect pastor nor the perfect preacher has ever entered this Church. Neither you nor I fall into the category of persons who have no need to repent. And none of us can live up to our God-given potential to enrich our lives and the lives of others unless we are willing to change.
The Apostle Paul describes his personal spiritual journey -- from sickness to health, from weakness to strength, from anguish to joy -- in terms of changing from an old to a new context. He speaks of being spiritually crushed beyond endurance, of despairing of life, of feeling like a man "condemned to death." He speaks of affliction and doubt and persecution, of "trials, difficulties, distresses, beatings, imprisonment and riots." He speaks of "hard, sleepless nights, and fastings." He speaks of beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness. Yet, Paul, who remained steadfast in his missionary zeal despite these trials and tribulations, describes himself as weak. He acknowledges that he has nothing to boast about except his "weakness" (II Cor. 12:5).
By any standard, Paul was anything but a weak man. He was, in fact, an enormous tower of strength, as he himself well knew and often expressed. Is it false modesty that accounts for this seeming contradiction? Is Paul putting us on? Paul himself gives us the answer: it is a matter of context. In any context apart from Jesus, he is lifeless ... spiritless ... apathetic ... vulnerable -- in short, weak. In Jesus, he is alive ... spirited ... resolute ... impregnable -- in short, strong. Apart from Christ he can do nothing. In Christ he can do anything. Thus, Paul exhorts the people of the Church in Corinth to live their own lives in this context: "Mend your ways," he says. "Live in harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you ... The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ ... be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:11,12).
"The time has come," Jesus says in today's Gospel Lesson, "and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News" (Mk. 1:15). In Mark's Gospel, these are the first words spoken by Jesus. This statement represents the spirit of His entire ministry: a series of demands for rebirth and renewal.
In all of His preaching and teaching, Jesus consistently calls for a change of heart that reaches deep down, beneath the surface changes of fad and fashion. Jesus calls for a change so radical, so profound, as to convert His followers into loving witnesses to the coming of the "Kingdom of God" which He proclaimed.
To forgive those who hurt us; to pray for those who mistreat us; to bless those who hate us; to give aid and comfort to those who need us; to humble ourselves before the weak; to be most merciful and compassionate toward the outcasts and dregs of society -- to do all these things consistently means for us an entire lifetime of dedication to change. Never are we fully equal to the challenge. Always there is a need to reorder our lives.
The Kingdom of God lies within us. Jesus asks us to descend deep into ourselves to encounter the self He would have us become. He asks us to recognize His Sacred Presence deep within our hearts. He asks us to rise above the doubts and difficulties and fears that are the constant companions of deep-seated change.
The Apostle Peter has written of Christ: "He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit" (I Pt. 3:18). And that Spirit, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is the Spirit of God: the Spirit of Love!
To know this God of love is to experience His love for you and for all your sisters and brothers here, there and everywhere. To act accordingly is to love all your sisters and brothers here, there and everywhere, because God has loved them first.