Saturday, 5 March 2016

Lent 3. God, Repentance and Reconciliation: Common Errors

On this Third Sunday of Lent, I want to confront some false but popular beliefs. First, false belief in God as doling out in, this life, rewards for good behaviour and punishments for bad; then stemming from this false belief in God, false belief in repentance as an outward show of grovelling for His good favour; and last, false belief in Confession as a mechanical means of settling your account with Him.

Some years back, I remember, Hull was flooded - awful floods - and some barmy bishop, embarrassingly and frankly somewhat bizarrely, got into the media by blaming the floods not on inadequate flood barriers or freak weather conditions, but on gay people. It was God's punishment, he said.

Even supposing that Christian teaching is quite so clear cut on matters of human sexuality (which it is not!), Hull - as far as I'm aware - is not the gay Mecca of the North. So if God actually did wreak vengeance like that, you would have to suppose he's about as accurate as an American bomber pilot, or that He goes in for collective punishment. Then, you might start thinking of other natural disasters - Asian tsunami, earthquakes in Nepal and so on - and you'd have to ask, are these sorts of punishments really compatible with the Christian idea of just and loving God? Or then, what about the more obviously appalling people who get away scot-free?

Today's Gospel gives no support for the belief in God as this arbitrary punisher. Pilate was apparently prone to outbursts of bloodshed, and some Galileans were his latest victims. We heard too about the people in a construction accident at Siloam; and the general tenor of the people's gossip to Jesus is basically - "Just deserts. You know what they're like. They had it coming." And if you've never thought like that, you're a better person than I. But Jesus gives them short shrift, and us too, whenever we are tempted to speculate about God's judgment on other people. Jesus' response, in short, is that you're no better than they are. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. You are all subject to God's judgment - so look to the log in your own eye, not the splinter in your neighbour's. Your job is not to make assumptions about God's judgment on other people's sins : it is to repent of your own.

There's a danger here. There's a danger when we hear Jesus' call to repent, especially in Lent, of drawing the conclusion that God wants us to grovel; that God somehow gets a kick out of our breast-beating. There's a danger of thinking that repentance means showing God just how sorry you are in the hope that He will reward you, or at least not punish you. But then we're back to that rather childish view of God as a celestial headmaster who rewards us for our behaviour, and punishes us if we don't say we're sorry. The same sort of God, in fact, as the one that the northern Bishop seemed to believe in when he proclaimed the Condemnation of Hull.

This sort of God creeps in in more subtle ways, too: such as when things go wrong, and we plead, "why me?" - as though we believe we deserve better treatment than anyone else. I hear people say “why me” far more often than "why them." For a Christian, though, who truly believes in the sinless God who was nailed to a cross, the real question must be, "why not me?" We have to realise that the biblical God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike, and bad things happen to good people. But we also need to realise that even when He finds no fruit at all on the fig tree, He continues to fertilise and nurture it, giving it yet another year to bear fruit. God is patient with us even in our sins; and if with us, still more so with others.

If God is the patient and loving forgiver that Jesus says He is, and what happens to us in this life is not to do with how much we have tried to suck up to the headmaster in the sky, then where does repentance fit in? Well, the Greek word Jesus uses in the Gospel is "metanoia," which means a change or turning of mind or heart. When He says “repentance,” Jesus is calling for a change of heart, a turning from sin. Our spiritual disciplines, including the Veneration of the Cross in the Good Friday Liturgy, the Way of the Cross, fasting, and so on, are all given to us to this end: to give us the grace we need to change our hearts, or more accurately, to open our hearts to God and let Him change us.

And this brings us to Confession. I've taken the chance this Lent to talk about prayer: the need for inner silence, and the Anglican discipline of Mass, Office and private Prayer. So to finish off, let's add this one last core spiritual practice.

If you were brought up a Roman Catholic, you may be used to the Confessional; if an Anglican, maybe less so; but either way, it often conjures negative memories and associations. Let's try to clear some of those up. Confession done properly is about repentance in its proper sense: not a hollow routine to show willing to God or, worse still, your priest, but an aid to changing your heart and turning from sin. It's not about desperately finding something to put on your list, it doesn't have to be in a dark box, it doesn't even have to be in church; it can be done in the priest's study, sitting next to each other. You ask the priest for a blessing; unburden yourself in complete honesty of those sins which are holding you back from God; ask for pardon and, if you want, advice and penance; and lastly, by the power entrusted to the Church by Jesus Himself, the priest gives you God's absolute, unconditional forgiveness. If you have requested penance, that might be praying through a certain appropriate passage of the Bible: it won't be a nominal routine like the “ten Hail Marys” of popular myth. It is, of course, all in complete confidence, and it is often emotionally draining, but it doesn't have to be terrifying, and it almost always inspires great, cathartic spiritual relief.

In the Anglican liturgy, we make a Confession at the beginning of every Mass, so nobody absolutely has to go for private Confession. Personally, I find it essential to my spiritual life, and the most effective means of opening myself to God's love, changing my heart, turning from sin: truly repenting. If want to try it, there will be set periods in Passiontide and Holy Week, but you can arrange another convenient time with me or any of the clergy as suits.

We are all sinners, under God's judgment. The way to salvation is not to look to the sins of others (real or supposed), but to our own, and open our hearts to God's transforming grace. He has given us the fig tree's second chance. It is up to us to take it and to repent; and repenting, to receive from Him the nourishment that liberates us to eternal life.

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