Week 2: The discipline of repentance
“Return and Rejoice”
Vicar Jessica Christy
Texts: Luke 15:1-7; Romans 12:1-3, 9-18
There’s this show I love called Adam Ruins Everything. In it, the host, Adam, delights in debunking popular misconceptions with the aim of helping viewers better understand their world. It’s well researched and immensely entertaining. But no show is perfect. Over the course of a few seasons, the writers got some facts wrong. They made some potentially misleading claims. At times, they failed to live up to their mission. So the show decided to run a corrections segment to address the errors. That doesn’t sound out of the ordinary, but here was the amazing part. The host seemed thrilled to accept the criticism. He didn’t push back, or try to defend himself, or lash out at his critics. He simply acknowledged his mistakes with a smile and thanked his critics for giving him a chance to improve. His cheerfulness was refreshing, almost astonishing. It felt like a revelation to see someone so openly admit their faults and promise to learn from them.
Why is that so hard for us? Why is it so difficult to face our missteps with honesty and grace? Why do we feel the need to keep up a brittle façade of perfection when we could instead be seeking the relief of confession and reconciliation? When we do wrong, we love to run away from our misdeeds. It’s deeply unpleasant to feel guilt twisting at our insides, so we push it down and try to deny it. We choose to live with our ugly, secret feelings of wrongdoing rather than exposing them to the light and moving on. Or, instead of hiding: when someone tells us that we’re not being our best selves, we fight back instead of listening to the truth of their words. We are so quick to become defensive when faced with the hard reality of our sin. We mistake critiques of our actions for attacks on our very selves, and so we can’t stand to hear that we’ve done wrong.
Sometimes, our transgressions feel so deep-rooted that we mistake them for an integral part of who we are. Sin worms its way into our hearts and tries to lay claim to our innermost being. We can’t imagine ourselves living lives that are truly whole, or peaceful, or equitable, so we cling to our failures and call them our identity. Individuals do this, when we become addicted to our vices – whether that vice be arrogance, or cruelty, or the misuse of our bodies. But we also do it as a society. We have trouble imagining our nation without inequality, without violence, without war, so we shrug our shoulders think that the way things are is the way they must be. We forget that we are our truest selves when we are living as the image of God, and so calls to repent feel like existential threats. We fear the pain of change more than the pain of the status quo, and so we turn away from the chance to repent and reconcile ourselves with God and one another. When we mistake our sin for our selves, the call to repentance sounds overwhelming. It feels us with terror and shame.
But Jesus tells us that repentance doesn’t have to cause us such pain. Our way back to the right path doesn’t need to pass through denial or anger or self-flagellation. For Christ, repentance is joy. That’s the word he uses. Joy. The shepherd carries the lost sheep home and throws a party for his neighbors. A sinner repents, and all of heaven rejoices. It is a purely joyous thing when any one of us turns from our mistakes and grows closer to God. When we refuse to repent, we are cutting ourselves off from the joy of our Triune God. But whenever we choose to turn towards God, heaven breaks into celebration and welcomes us home.
This joy is always within our reach. We always have a chance to see where we have gone astray and direct our steps back towards God. No matter who we are, or where we are in life, we can in faith renew our minds and discern what God finds good and acceptable and perfect. In Hebrew, the word for repentance quite simply means to turn, or to return. It’s not some single, wondrous transformation that replaces a wretched sinner with a perfect pillar of righteousness. It’s a rekindling of our relationship with God. It’s a rediscovery of who God intends for us to be. Some of us might have that road to Damascus moment, where God appears in a flash of light and forever changes our path. But even then, anyone who has read Paul’s letters knows that that encounter did not forever free him from sin. He still struggled to walk the way of the Cross. As do we all. As we always will.
For as long as we are on this earth, we will remain our fallen selves, and so we will always wander from the path of righteousness. That lost sheep that came home, its feet are probably going to walk away from the herd once more. But the shepherd still brings it home, and delights in its return. If we expect that one magical moment of rebirth will heal and save us forever, then we’re just setting ourselves up for failure. If we think that’s how repentance works, then we’ll fall prey to disappointment and despair when we inevitably stray again. We need to give ourselves the grace to fail, and fail again. We need to have the wisdom to know that we’re going to fall short, and the courage to acknowledge when it happens. Friends, this is hard work. It is uncomfortable, painful, to look at our failures head-on and to work to set them right. But we can do it because we know that God is rejoicing in every step that leads us back to Christ. Repentance is forever ongoing, in every step of our days. And that means that every step is an opening for joy.
The wilderness of sin is not our hearts’ home. We were not made to wander lost and alone. That’s why Jesus speaks of repentance as a return. It is the way back to our true selves, our true relationships, our true place with God. The discipline of repentance is to find joy in opportunities to return to God, even when sin and doubt tell us to replace that joy with denial and shame. It is to always be correcting our course, to constantly be finding the image of God anew in our hearts. Our weeping may last for a night, but God’s joy comes in the morning. The sun is rising, and God is waiting to welcome us home. Return and rejoice.