He must increase but I must decrease
Last Friday the Church celebrated the Birth of John the Baptist – it purposely coincides with the decline in daylight hours after the summer solstice – to remind us of John’s words ‘He must increase but I must decrease.’ John’s clarion call of Repentance was taken up by Jesus and then handed on to both Peter and Paul. But do we really understand what Repentance means?
Repentance gets a bad press because we entangle it with sin (another word we often misunderstand). Repentance & Sin became synonymous partly due to preachers like our great 17th C Winslow Ancestor - Benjamin Keach. I love the ‘preaching oak’ in Little Horwood Lane and get a thrill each time I pass it whether it is authentic or not – public preaching was common. Unfortunately, the preaching of people like Benjamin became skewed creating a ‘fear’ based Gospel not unlike that of the many extremes encountered in protestant and catholic teaching.
Move a century on and a clearer understanding of repentance evolves, nurtured by people like John Wesley and the Methodist revival. It became known as the Great Awakening starting around the time of the conversion of George Whitfield in the 1730’s – and ending with William Wilberforce’s conversion in 1784 (both Anglicans incidentally). The Great Awakening is much more akin to the true meaning of Repentance, and I love this account of one Sampson Staniforth who had been inspired by the preaching of Wesley. He wrote the following words after the Battle of Dettingen in Austria around 1743:
From twelve at night till two it was my turn to stand sentinel at a dangerous post … As soon as I was alone, I kneeled down, and determined not to rise, but to continue crying and wrestling with God, till He had mercy on me. How long I was in that agony I cannot tell; but as I looked up to heaven I saw the clouds open exceeding bright, and I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. At the same moment these words were applied to my heart, “thy sins are forgiven thee.” My chains fell off; my heart was free. All guilt was gone, and my soul was filled with unutterable peace. I loved God and all mankind, and the fear of death and hell was vanished away. I was filled with wonder and astonishment.
He was quoting words from Wesley’s famous hymn ‘And Can It be’ which in turn was inspired by today’s reading in Acts. It parallels Wesley’s Conversion experience in the little Moravian chapel in Aldersgate Street in London. Conversion and the ‘Great Awakening’ are, therefore, much more akin to the original meaning of repentance. Richard Rohr says as much In one of his daily meditations from the Centre of Action and Contemplation:
salvation becomes not just something we believe, but something we begin to experience through the process of transformation through grace. Both Jesus and Paul were change agents. They were hated by their own groups precisely because they were constantly talking about change. The first thing Jesus said when he started preaching was,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The word usually translated as “repent” is the Greek word metanoia, which is surely best translated as “turn around your mind” or “change your thinking.” Most of us won’t move toward any new way of thinking or actual change until we’re forced to do so, which usually means some form of suffering or disturbance that upsets our habitual path.
‘Conversion’ is much closer to the gist of Metanoia! If we think of the word Metamorphosis, we get a better idea. Meta means transformation and Noia is from the Greek Nous meaning the mind. We might also look at the true origin of the word for sin which is Hamartia which simply means ‘missing the mark’ like me when I try to throw a treble 20. I’ve only ever scored two or maybe three 180’s – I suppose only Jesus gets treble 20 each time – which gives me heart 😊
My early days of faith were marked by reading C.S. Lewis and in relation to Metanoia – this well-known passage from Surprised by Joy comes to mind …
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles has become a metaphor for conversion and is central to John Wesley’s popular hymn ‘And Can It Be!’ Today’s Gospel, of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is also an example of the true meaning of Repentance – it was a ‘Change of Mind’ - a change of thinking, a turning around of his mind and Jesus is clearly overjoyed when he exclaims:
‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’
It doesn’t mean that Peter kept throwing treble 20’s from there on in – but without doubt this was a maximum score of 180. The marks of conversion is the fruit of the Spirit described by Paul in his first ever letter - Galatians:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.
The birth of John the Baptist, so close to the Summer Solstice, reminds us of John’s words: “He must increase but I must decrease.” This too relates to our theme – because as Christians our vocation is to increase our capacity for growth into Christ. We do this by Contemplation and Action – which is one reason why I am so passionate about our Julian Meeting. Like the wine skins of the parable of Jesus we are called to make our skin soft to allow more of the fizzing popping joy of the Gospel to fill us to capacity. A great coincidence is that on Monday week we meet at 7.30pm in Keech’s Chapel which I shall also try to Zoom.
Repentance is Metanoia – a turning around of your mind or a change of your thinking – it is an ongoing process of Conversion; an ongoing process of change – our very own ‘Great Awakening.’
It happens to us again and again more often than not in quiet unassuming ways. For instance my earliest memory of a ‘conversion experience’ or changing of mind happened whilst watching Franco Zefirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth – though it doesn’t have any such effect now when I watch it!
In the light of the persecution of the early Church in the reading from Acts and the persistent stories of imprisonment I must ask myself, “If being a Christian today was a criminal offence, would there be enough evidence to convict me?”
I want to change – I want to be found guilty of being a Christian – I want to be converted. I pray you do too.