We live in a world where we are used to hearing shocking and barbaric stories; the recent events in Christchurch, New Zealand, being a poignant and heart rending example. We also live in a world where so called leaders do appalling things to their own people and trample all over their God-given dignity and rights; just think of Syria. We live in a world that is in many ways characterised by injustice and violence. And we deceive ourselves if we think that barbarism and atrocity are solely features of life in other countries. Extremism, hatred and cruelty permeate, sadly, in our society; think of the rise in knife crime. We also live in a world where many, many, people are discriminated against, sometimes explicitly, sometimes because we fail to speak out, simply on the basis of who they are. We live in a world where power and authority are frequently used for the worst of reasons. As a church we need to face up to this and be honest.
Horror, atrocity and the refusal to let people simply be who they are has always been a feature of life. Sadly it’s often, as we know, a distinct feature of life for those who profess a religious faith. Again think of the Muslim community in Christchurch, or the Coptic Church in Egypt. Being a Christian in middle England, is, it has to be said, somewhat easier. But against this we do need to acknowledge the fact that the church has, and continues to be, a place not of affirmation, but fear, for many, many people. Sadly, not all feel welcome in church. Sadly we know that people have been abused and sidelined by the Church.
In this church we strive to provide an unconditional welcome. We may not always succeed, but real and true hospitality is one of our three aspirations. I long for a church where all may flourish and none need fear. In Isaiah’s terms I long for a church where ‘all may come without price,’ (where price means the sacrifice of their very souls) and where all may ‘eat what is good and delight in rich food.’ I long for a church and a world where all will truly know, as St. Paul puts it, that ‘God is faithful.’ Will you join me in these aspirations and longings? I have never been more convinced than I am now that what the world needs is a good, virtuous and healthy church; a model community that is manifestly and obviously the body of Christ on earth, showing to the world a better way, a deeply relational way, that says to all ‘you are welcomed, you are valued.’ If we commit to this way of being, and offer this way of belonging, the good news is that we – the church - will discover for ourselves that God is indeed both faithful and merciful. We will discover that God hasn’t given up on us, and that God is both with us and for us. We will know for ourselves what it really means to ‘delight’ in our faith.
Committing to this way of being, and offering this way of belonging is, for me, the heart of repentance. Repentance isn’t a trivial word, it doesn’t just mean saying sorry for minor misdoings, although it might include this. It means instead a complete turning away from the abuse of power as personified by the likes of Pilate and a commitment to grow in holiness. It means adopting the very characteristics of the Christ who refused to give way to the vicious, humanity-denying, antics of Pilate and instead aligned himself with the weak, marginalised and down trodden. Repentance means keeping our eyes fixed on God and allowing ourselves, through our spiritual nutrients: prayer, reading the bible and sharing in the sacraments (the rich food Isaiah talks about) to be truly transformed, so that we become more Christ-like. Repentance, as the Prayer of Preparation so beautifully puts it, is all about allowing the ‘thoughts of our hearts,’ to be ‘cleansed,’ through the ‘inspiration of the the Holy Spirit.’ If we don’t take these practices seriously, if we don’t live by the ‘inspiration’ or in-spriting, ‘of the Holy Spirit’, we the Church, will be of no earthly use whatsoever. These are the practices, the daily practices, that build up our resilience. They are both the antibodies and the ‘rich food’ that allow us to keep going when all seems futile, when we feel that we are being tested ‘beyond strength,’ so that we can be of earthly use; so that we can bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ into the here and now.
As I have said before, Jesus established the church to be the 5th Gospel, the living testimony to the all encompassing love of God. The way we get there, the way we become the 5th Gospel, is by taking the notion of repentance to heart. The good news is that if we do this we will testify ‘to the glorious, loving, life-giving freedom of God, known in Christ, full of the Spirit – generous, open and accepting of all comers?’ We will be of real and enduring earthly use.
So, let’s do it. Let’s repent.