I drove my son to school this morning. Near his school is a church with a sign that they update frequently. You know how I am about church signs. 🙂 So I took a picture of it.
The message on the sign triggered something inside of me.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Matt 4:17
I’ve been a pastor for nearly 15 years. I’ve preached sermons on repentance that deconstruct the way the word repentance is usually used. And I have reconstructed what I think is a healthy understanding of repentance.
But I still get a nervous knot in my stomach whenever I see the word repentance. The word repent has so much religious baggage. When I read it on that sign, I noticed that despite my deconstruction and reconstruction process, feelings of guilt and shame continue to emerge inside of me whenever I see these types of religious words.
I sometimes think we should just give up on these traditional words, but if we do that we cede them to other Christians. And I’m not prepared to do that.
After all, Jesus did preach a Gospel of repentance. But what does repentance actually mean?
Repentance comes from the Greek word “metanoia.” It is formed by combining two Greek words – meta, which means “beyond” and noia, which refers to the mind. To “metanoia” or to “repent” means to change or go beyond one’s mind.
We need to change our minds about repentance. In other words, we need to repent of repentance.
Repentance is not about feeling guilt or shame over something we have done.
First and foremost, repentance is about changing our mind.
“Change your mind, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” is a better translation of the original Greek of the New Testament. And it feels much better to me.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus invites us to change our minds about God. For example, God is not a distant entity somewhere out there, looking over your shoulder, counting up your sins, so you better repent before it’s too late or God will be out to get you!
That’s not what God is like. Rather, God is here present with us like a parent is with a child.
Jesus has a sense of urgency when he tells people to repent. That’s because he knew that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. It’s here and now. And we need to prepare ourselves for it.
Repentance is so important for Jesus because we need to change our minds. I constantly need to change my mind. I forget the radical love of God that Jesus revealed. This radical love has implications for our understanding of God and for our ethics.
The Gospel of Luke put it like this, “But love you enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (6:35-36).
Another early Christian put it like this, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconcilitation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
I don’t know about you, but those two passages bring about a massive change in my mind about God.
God doesn’t count our trespasses against us? But I grew up thinking that was God’s job.
God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”? Sometimes that is hard to believe. And sometimes it is downright offensive.
I mean, isn’t God supposed to love the good guys (like me!) and hate the bad guys (you know, the people I don’t like)?
Maybe the person who lived this best in our modern times was Martin Luther King, Jr. As King fought for racial, economic, and political justice, he refused to demonize his enemies. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” King proclaimed. “Only love can do that.”
King knew that Jesus calls us to work for social justice. And he also knew that God’s love reached into our broken and damaged hearts that often act out in harmful ways.
King knew that God is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked.
That’s what Jesus meant by the word “repentance.” It wasn’t, “Feel guilty and ashamed of yourself because you are evil.”
Repentance is much more like changing our minds so that we can prepare ourselves for the Kingdom of Heaven, where we work for justice in the spirit of love that seeks to change unjust political systems as we love everyone, including our enemies.
So let us change our minds. God is not out to get you. God is love.