February 18, 2024
Year B, First Sunday in Lent
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time to recognize, confess, and repent for one’s sins. But if we’re honest, increasingly in our culture, the language of sin and repentance is losing meaning. Someone can stand on a street corner with a “repent or perish” sign, and tell people that they’ve gotta “turn or burn” but what does that even mean? What significance does that communicate to anyone who isn’t an insider?
When words lose their cultural resonance, our task is not simply to double down on the use of traditional terminology. Instead, we can take the opportunity to reflect afresh on what these words mean, what concepts these words point to in the Scriptures, and how we, with our many repetitions of these words, may have drifted from our Scriptural anchoring. We may find our concepts are indeed too small, an impoverished shadow of that to which the Scriptures point. We may discover that though we repeat these words believing them to be important, they have lost meaning to us as well.
Language of sin in American culture often centers around certain hot-button issues. In a 2015 Pew Research survey, up to 4-5 times as many Americans believed terminating a pregnancy or engaging in homosexual behavior was a sin, than people who believed acquiring many more possessions than you need or living without regard for environmental destruction was a sin. But what would make any of these behaviors a “sin?” Is “sin” simply a list of things god doesn’t like? Is repentance simply stopping the activities on god’s “bad list” and doing the items on the “good list?” The central message of the gospel reading from Ash Wednesday is that activities which are top candidates for gods “good list,” prayer, fasting, and charitable giving can be done in a way that misses the central good for which these practices aim. Jesus’s point is not that we should do prayer, fasting, and giving, but that they can be done wrongly. So there is a deeper logic to Jesus’s ethic.
To understand Jesus's logic of sin and repentance, we turn to today's Gospel and will attempt to tease out four enigmatic phrases. Take out your service leaflet so you can see the words with your eyes. We will focus on the final sentence of our Gospel reading. Mark recounts Jesus’s ministry of preaching as him saying only one sentence: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Obviously when Jesus preached, he said more than one sentence. Maybe some of you wished my sermon was only one sentence. But this one sentence appears to encapsulate the core of Jesus’s message. As we look at these phrases we should reflect on whether these are at the core of our message, whether they are at the core of our understanding and articulation of the gospel.
First Jesus says, “the time is fulfilled.” The time is fulfilled, or perhaps better translated “the period of time has been fulfilled,” or completed. The phrase is so short, it’s easy to move on to the next one. Jesus seems to assume his audience knows to what he is referring. In some of Israel’s prophets, there is a concept of dividing time into two eras. The present age, is one in which evil prevails. This is the age when injustice is rampant, when war and violence destroy human and animal life, when hatred assaults human dignity, and poverty undermines human well-being.
The prophets however spoke of a time when humans would practice war no more. They would beat their swords into plow-shears and their spears into pruning hooks. They would take their weapons and melt them down into instruments of agriculture. That which riddles the world with death and destruction would give way to that which cultivates life and fosters flourishing. People would decisively and definitively turn from their drive to destroy life and their indifference to suffering. The injustice, hatred, division, poverty, and despair that characterizes the world would experience God’s redemption and be transfigured. A new age would emerge, characterized by justice, wholeness, dignity, equality, and joy.
When Jesus says “the time is fulfilled,” he is saying something very, very radical: The old age has ended. What the prophets have spoken of is now here. The time of hatred, violence, war, injustice, poverty, and despair has come to an end.
The next phrase is “The Kingdom of God has come near.” The Kingdom of God has come near. This phrase is often misunderstood. The Kingdom of God is not up in heaven and neither is it the church. Also contrary to a popular misunderstanding, the “Kingdom of God” is not “within you,” or within any other individual. It may be better to translate the term “Reign” instead of “Kingdom,” as it does not refer to a place, but rather to a time period in which God reigns. By analogy, I could say “the reign of Elizabeth is completed. The Reign of Charles has come near.” The reign of Charles is the period of time when Charles is the ruler of the British Commonwealth. Likewise the “kingdom or reign of god” is the period of time when God is the ruler.
As Christians we may be accustomed to jargon like “god is in control” or “God’s will always happens,” but these ideas would be very strange and very foreign to many of the bibles characters and authors. God’s will is for all living creatures, including humans, to flourish. God’s will is for the experience of peace, wholeness, happiness, and security to fill planet earth. When this occurs, we say that God’s will has happened. This contrasts with struggling to find some mysterious divine will when all sorts of terrible events happen.
God’s will is that wars, violence, hatred, enmities, divisions, and injustices cease and are replaced by peace, love, wholeness, justice, and joy in every area of society. When biblical authors speak of “God’s kingdom” or “God’s reign,” they mean the period of time in which this happens. And when Jesus says the reign of God is at hand, he means this era of peace, love, wholeness, justice, and joy is beginning even now in his life and ministry, and eventually through his death and resurrection.
Next Jesus says “repent.” This is a key word for the Lenten season. What is critical is that Jesus’ message of repentance is not set within a framework of so-called “morality.” Repentance for Jesus is not simply about “stopping being bad and starting being good.” Jesus’ message of repentance centers on the reign of God – the period of time when the rule of evil, violence, war, injustice, and poverty is overturned, and peace, love, wholeness, justice, and joy prevails. Repentance is a total reorientation of convictions, values, practices, and social affiliations that reflect this coming Kingdom.
Jesus’s message was not “repent so you can get to heaven,” “repent so you can be in relationship with god,” “repent so you can be a good person.” It was “repent because god is renewing and restoring the world.” Are you going to clamp down and preserve the old world or are you going to be part of bringing about the new world? Are we struggling to maintain the old world of death and destruction, of violence, hatred, and self-preservation, the old world where fantasies of ethnic superiority turn neighbor into enemy, where indifference to human and creaturely suffering perpetuates the endless string of misery? Are your convictions, values, practices, and social affiliations oriented toward and shaped by the new world which has no place for hatred, war, violence, injustice, and poverty? This is the repentance to which Jesus calls us. Not get better so you can go to heaven. Rather, join me in creating heaven on earth. We then can understand sin, not simply as the items on God’s bad list, but rather, those convictions, values, practices, and social affiliations that remain indifferent to the suffering, violence, and injustice of the old order, or worse, actively work to ensure their dominion.
Finally, we return to when Jesus says to “believe the good news.” Believe the good news that God is reshaping earthly existence, bringing earth’s history into an era of transformation and change, where the old order of things passes away and God makes all things new. But if we’re honest, believing this can be very, very hard. Perhaps this is more pointedly so in the days following a mass shooting in our very own city, just blocks from this building. 22 people were injured, more than half of them children. Two people remain in critical condition. One person, who by all accounts was a beautiful soul, had their life cut short in their prime. We pray for the repose of the soul of Lisa Lopez-Galvan and for the recovery of all those suffering injuries, trauma, and loss. How can we believe God is renewing and restoring the world when the reign of violence and death seems alive and well—when indifference to human suffering is palpably present?
In the Eucharist we encounter the body of Christ who has experienced the fullness of the world’s evil, hatred, violence, and death itself. Yet this same body rose from the dead. Jesus Christ passed over from death to life and in himself began the Exodus from the reign of evil, hatred, and death to the reign of justice, love, and life. The risen body of Christ we receive in the Eucharist is a token, a real true piece of the new world God is creating. This token of the new world we receive in the Holy Eucharist cries out for more. It cries out for us to become a constant disturbance, a constant annoyance to those who refuse to repent of their allegiance to the status quo. It creates a resolute insistence that sets us against the grain of this world. We refuse to accept circumstances as they are. We refuse to accept the permanence of gun violence. We refuse to afford senseless terror and violence a position of normality. We set the vision of a renewed and restored world before our eyes and refuse anything to the contrary.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The reign of death, violence, and hatred is coming to an end. God’s reign of life, justice, and love is beginning. Forsake your allegiance to the old world, believe this new world is beginning, and follow Christ in making it happen.
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles sets the stage for today’s entire service, and indeed for the next six weeks: St. Peter exclaims: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” While Easter Day past us seven days ago, the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ continues for 50 days, seven full weeks, all the way until Pentecost. God has raised up Jesus who had been killed. There has been a great reversal, a great overturning, a great undoing. Death is the most certain and stable fixture of natural human existence, the great enemy of insatiable appetite, who ultimately devours all life, from whose jaws no one escapes. Death steals from us everything we love, being a constant source of sorrow and grief. This great enemy has now been shown to be vulnerable, conquerable, and indeed their destruction reversible. Jesus has burst his three-day prison of death, re-entering the realm of life, light, love, and joy.
Surprisingly, the announcement of this great reversal of life over death in Christ was not popular with the political and religious leaders. The religious leaders shouted, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Why the great objection to this message of hope, rebirth, and renewal? One reason is because death, the great and invariable constant of human experience, has suddenly become vulnerable, movable, and even removable. Therefore certain structures of human experience less certain than death, such as political, religious, and social hierarchies, have that much more become destabilized. And that unsettles the people perched at the the top of those hierarchies.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 118, continues this theme of reversal, though having become a part of Jewish worship well before Jesus walked on the earth. There is a surge of triumphant joy at the beginning of the portion we heard: “There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous,” because God “has become my salvation.” In the preceding section, the Psalmist describes their situation of distress: enemies “hem me in, they hem me in on every side…They swarm about me like bees; they blaze like a fire of thorns…I was pressed so hard that I almost fell, but the LORD came to my help.” Though it looked like all hope was lost, the Psalmist makes a defiant declaration: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” They experienced such a profound and great deliverance, it was almost like being brought back from the dead.
Our third reading is from the book of Revelation, a wild, kaleidoscopic, apocalyptic narrative describing the spiritual conflict between Christ’s rulership and kingdoms of this world. And the message to the world’s empires is this: your peace is rooted in violence and bloodshed, your prosperity is grounded on exploitation, your justice is a perversion, your freedom is an authoritarian deception. The kingdoms of this world are a counterfeit and farce in the light of Christ’s reign of liberating and life-giving love—where suffering is alleviated, nations are reconciled, every person is endowed with sacred worth, and tears are wiped away from all faces.
In verse five of chapter one we are told Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” To be first implies a sequence. To be firstborn from among the dead means to be the first of many siblings who will experience the resurrection to eternal aliveness. St. Paul uses a similar expression when he calls Christ the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Christ’s rising from the dead is the first fruits in a sequence of actions that comprise a single harvest. Jewish expectation around the time of Jesus, as described for example in the Book of Daniel, did not conceive of isolated and individual resurrections. Rather the resurrection was part of a single complex event where the regeneration of life, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of all creation was experienced by the faithful all together at the end of time. At Easter we announce Christ is the firstborn in that resurrection event that has already begun. Christ is the firstfruits of a single harvest that has already begun— “the first-fruits of the holy harvest field, which will all its full abundance at his second coming yield.” But the radical, radical proclamation in this verse is that this complex event of regeneration, restoration and renewal has already begun in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is not only for some time in the distant future. It begins now.
There is a line in the prayer book funeral service: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” This captures the truth that even while we are still alive before we die, we experience within us and around us the ravages of sin and death. During Easter we celebrate the inversion: “In the midst of death we are in life.” In the midst of a world marred by death, while living among the kingdoms and empires of the world marked by violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression—in the midst of death, we are in life, through our union with the Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life. Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the whole creation cries, “I shall not die, but live!” With Easter faith we boldly confess that the entire world will be renewed, and that renewal has already begun in Christ’s resurrection. And it continues through the Church who is the body of the resurrected Christ.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann describes it this way: “those who believe that in Christ the redeemer is already present, and those who sense in themselves the first signs of the life of God's Spirit, know that in fact true life does already exist in the midst of the life that is false. The future has already begun. The conflict between the rising sun and the departing shadows of the night is already being fought out. There is already a struggle for justice against injustice, and a protest of life against the forces of death.”
In our Gospel reading we find the disciples the evening after Jesus rose from the dead. Yet they are experiencing nothing of the renewed and restored life of resurrection. In their minds Jesus is still dead and we see them exhibiting three features:
1) Negative emotions
3) Loss of meaning
1) Negative emotions—they are full of despair, fear and anxiety, despairing the loss of Jesus, anxious for their future, fearful of their lives, hiding from the same powers of injustice that killed Jesus.
2) Disengagement—they are detached in their own enclosure, cut off from the outside world behind locked doors, engaged in no tasks other than self-preservation
3) Loss of meaning—before Jesus died, the disciples believed they were part of something bigger than themselves. They experienced solidarity in serving a larger purpose, in contributing to a larger cause. Now there was nothing. Just themselves and the walls around them.
And while the disciples were huddled behind locked doors, experiencing negative emotions, disengagement, and loss of meaning, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Having believed Jesus was still dead, the resurrected Christ appears bodily before them. People often marvel that Jesus here apparently either walked through the wall, or teleported into the room. But what happens next is much more significant: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed into them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As God sent Jesus to effect a great reversal, to inaugurate the resurrection, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of the whole creation, in the same way Jesus now sends us. In the midst of death, we experience life—and are sent to bring life. In a world of violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression, we are sent to bring peace, equity, justice, and liberation. And in doing so, we experience our own liberation. We awaken to the positive emotions of love and joy that come from whole-hearted engagement in tasks that enrich the lives of others. And when we engage in these tasks together—in partnership with one another, we find both the relationships and sense of purpose that give life meaning.
In this endeavour we are not sent empty-handed. Jesus breathes into the disciples the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that hovered over the waters when God brought forth creation in Genesis 1, the same Spirit that God breathed into the first humans in Genesis 2 to make them alive, and the same Spirit that God sent to raise Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 8:9-11) is sent to live in and through us. When we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and are renewed by the Spirit in Confirmation we receive into ourselves the very power that reanimates life, that reinvigorates hope, that renews this suffering world. And when we come to the Altar at Holy Communion, we receive into ourselves and become united with Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead and inaugurates in himself the renewal of all creation. We begin to experience liberation from the dominating grip of negative emotions, the paralysing disengagement, and the loss of meaning that so plague our age. We find courage to have hope and joy in the face of life’s challenges. We find courage to emerge from behind self-preservation to engage in significant tasks and risky endeavours. We find courage to discover meaning beyond the narrow confines of our own self-interest—to give ourselves to a larger purpose—to join with God in the renewal and restoration of life that began in Christ and continues in and through us, the Body of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).
 Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012)
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.