Third Sunday of Advent
The stark message of John the Baptist is “Repentance for the forgiveness of sin”. It is the same battle that St. Paul confesses “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want”. [Romans 7;17] This crucial teaching is widely misunderstood and the message lost because of these words “sin and repentance”. Like the prophets before him and Jesus after, these pronouncements are hard and fall on deaf ears. More so for John the Baptist who referred to Jewish leaders as “a brood of vipers”, enough to outrage most people. Fundamentally humans all have an internal switch and become hardened to anything that requires a change in behaviour. Moreover, in the context of today, the message not only meets resistance but ignorance about the Christian understanding of the dark power of evil that empowers sin and requires repentance if it is to be overcome. Everywhere we see evidence of the dark side, and turning a blind eye, for example, to the killing of the unborn, or the social problems in Britain when predictions show 100,000 children will be taken into care homes and so much more.
Jesus was not born in order to turn a blind eye on insensitivity and brutality or to bring a sentimental message of reassurance. He came with a hard message for every single one of us; namely rather than making excuses, blaming others, or retreating into popular ideas of entitlement which creates victims, he brings an opportunity to rebuild life. The word repent “metanoia” means a whole change of heart, mind and outlook which is the start because it recognises, however hard we try (and most don’t bother) we cannot put right all by ourselves the deep flaws that run like grain through us. Sins are these flaws that destroy the person requiring a healing power to overcome.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together discusses how the Christian fellowship should be the place in which the battle with sin through repentance can take place. The Christian community is not some philosophical or theological system, invented by behavioural scientists and therapists. It is God’s gift to reveal his divinity through Christ who operates within the fellowship to bring about change and wholeness.
Bonhoeffer believes man made communities will always encounter the problems that arise from the clash between assorted personality flaws that quickly descend into the darker selves of misunderstandings, divisions and battles of will. No one is perfect, not even the disciples of Jesus, who regularly get into conflicts and must learn the lesson of “metanoia”. The flaw that drove Judas to betrayal came because he was driven by a personal vision of what Jesus was supposed to be. The first Church in Jerusalem struggled with fixed ideas about the admission of gentile converts and St. Paul found many of his own converts never fully understood that the Christian Community rises beyond human fellowship into a spirit led fellowship whose essence is “truth and light” [1 John 1;15] and no longer a merely human community driven by “eros, ”human love and need, rather than “agape”, Christ’s love. “Metanoia” means that the Church struggles continually to be a divine reality whose fellowship must be absolutely different by regular renewal of heart mind and soul.
In different ways this overcoming of the dark side, the power that so easily destroys, is the heart of the Gospel, even when Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, he means “Metanoia” which is another way of repeating the message of John the herald of Jesus to repent and be willing to leave the old life that leads us all into darkness.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal