A Second Try
Text: Mark 1:9-15
It was nearing Christmas and time was at a premium. She dashed into my study and assured me that she would not need much of my time. I was the first research stop for her religion paper that was due two days later. She was interviewing a group of Christian leaders. She wanted to know: “Who is God for Presbyterians?” and “How do you understand the person of Jesus?” and “What difference does it make if you follow Jesus or not?” Though she asked for little of my time, I soon realized she was asking questions that few of us ever answer in a lifetime.
Then, she asked the toughest question by far: “What is the central message of your faith?” By the time that question arrived, I was getting anxious about time. I was also feeling a bit overwhelmed by my own Christmas list of things to do. I gave her an adequate answer, one that would get me a passing grade on an ordination exam, but it was at best an incomplete answer.
In the course of the interview, I learned, not to my surprise, that the church had been largely “missing-in-action” in her life. She saw herself as “spiritual” but not in a “religious” way, and most certainly, not in a churchgoing way. The church in her mind’s eye was a group of people who acted one way on the inside and acted another way altogether on the streets. Mostly though, for this young woman, the church was an uninteresting, archaic institution, way out of touch with things that really matter.
I never saw this young student again and never read her account of our interview. I have often wished for a second try at her last question: “What is the central message of your faith?” If our paths were ever to cross again, I would invite her to listen to the first words Jesus speaks when he begins his public ministry. Already baptized and tempted for forty days by the greatest form of evil, Jesus’ first sermon is short, but unforgettable. He preaches, “Repent, believing the good news of the gospel.”
“Repent” is the English rendering of the Greek – Metanoiete, a verb that is plural in number, present in tense, active in voice, and imperative in mood. Metanoiete is not a quiet whisper from a timid preacher; it is a booming bullhorn directed to anyone within earshot. Unfortunately, “repent” in English is a crippled word, limping around the church, impaired by misuse and overuse. In the church’s past, “Repent!” evoked scary images of wild-eyed preachers thumping their Bibles and haranguing all sinners in sight to “change your evil ways!” Today, “repent” sounds anachronistic and petty; it sounds blunt and dull.
That is not the Metanoiete we meet in Mark. Metanoiete has an almost irresistible charm to it. Jesus arrives in Galilee to announce that Gods’ reign is within breathing distance so “Metanoiete, believing the gospel!” (1:15).
Without question, Metanoiete carries with it the notion that you and I have some changing to do, but it also carries with it the notion of kyrie eleison, that by God’s great mercy, we can. We are not stuck forever living in ways that knock the breath out of us. With God on the loose in the person of Jesus, we can find a new way to live that is literally a breath of fresh air.
Jesus shouts: “Metanoiete!” because, in Jesus, God makes it possible for us to repent, to turn around and start again. Our sinfulness, our brokenness does not finally blot out the future God has in store for us. Things do not have to stay the way they are right now.
In fact, to follow Jesus means that things cannot stay the way they are. Just ask Peter, James, Andrew, Levi, and John--the first five disciples--none of whom had completed a job application or ever written a resume. Just ask the leper whom Jesus met whose life was no longer defined by his disease. Just ask the man whose withered hand caught more of Jesus’ attention than obeying 4,352 Sabbath regulations! In the presence of Jesus, things change; they cannot and will not stay the same. That is the gospel, the good news, the glad tidings toward which Jesus invites us to stop, turn, and hold onto for dear life.
Obviously, not everyone hears Metanoiete as good news. Some insist that too much is changing already, especially in the church. They insist that things need to stay the way they are, so they expend enormous energy making sure that things do not change.
In Mark, the ones who try to keep things the same are the religious leaders. They are not interested in “turning around” but making sure that nothing gets turned around. The religious leaders are dead set on maintaining the religious status quo, so much so that they lose sight of the One for whom life is maintained.
Metanoiete is such a potent verb because it means every worn way is going to change, every wall of resistance to God’s future is going to fall, including the most formidable wall of sin. That is why Jesus not only tells the paralytic to pick up his bed and walk, but: “Your sins are forgiven.” In these four words, Jesus announces what every human being, including the most strident religious leader, needs to know: Sin is real. Sin too often gets the best of us and makes us less than what God intends for our lives and for the church. Jesus asks his followers to believe that when a paralytic stood upright in Capernaum, the wall of sin started to crumble. And on the third day, when God’s grace overcame even the sinful tyranny of death, the wall of sin collapsed.
Metanoiete is in the present tense in the Greek, a tense that carries with it the idea of a continuous action. You do not repent once and are done with it. I wish all our fresh starts would result in totally changed people. You and I know better. No sooner are New Year’s resolutions made than they are broken. No sooner are Lenten promises to give up something made than we do not give it up at all. No sooner do we paint the church as a place of high moral virtue than another minister or priest is arrested for an immoral act.
The pragmatist in me asks, “If you and I repent, only to need to repent again, why bother repenting in the first place?” “Why keep trying to head in a direction toward which our feet just do not want to go?” One day a belligerent young man stormed up to Mahatma Gandhi. “You have no integrity,” he charged, Ghandi. “Last week I heard you say one thing, today you are saying something entirely different. How can you justify such vacillation?” With his characteristic quietness, Gandhi paused and said, “It is quite simple. I have learned something since last week.” Part of the good news announced by Jesus is that repentance is a continuous action; we always have more to learn.
Metanoiete is a plural verb in the Greek, a verb that has been downsized in English into a strictly singular affair. Yes, a person’s decision to follow Jesus is intensely personal, but Metanoiete is a plural, imperative invitation that extends beyond a personal decision. Mark refuses to reduce Metanoiete to a privatized response to the invitation of Jesus – “Yes, just you and me, Jesus.” Mark will have none of that. “Believing the gospel” is a group effort. The Christian life is not a solitary experience, but one lived in community.
Remarkably, Mark’s Gospel ends when the messenger at the empty tomb says to the women: “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he goes ahead of you to Galilee.” The last time we saw Peter in Mark’s Gospel, he had crumpled into a pile of his own sin, while the rest of the disciples, at least the male disciples, had taken the express train out of Jerusalem (14:50, 66-72). So, incredibly, Mark’s Gospel ends with an invitation from the risen Jesus to the community of disciples, an invitation to those who had betrayed, denied, and fled him in his greatest need to start again in Galilee. The Gospel ends where it began, with an invitation for them to Metanoiete!
As you and I enter another season of Lent and prepare ourselves to come to this holy feast one more time, I find myself wishing the young student would come dashing into my office again and ask me: “What is the central message of your faith?” The central message, I would tell her, is a gift. The gift is the ability to Metanoiete, which, simply put, means the freedom to change and to embrace God’s future, because God is on the loose and, in Jesus, God gives every last one of us the chance to begin again.
Thanks be to God.