In Matthew’s Greek the word is metanoeite (3:2). The traditional translation is “repent”. The GNB paraphrases: “Turn away from your sins.” Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message cuts to the chase: “Change your life” (today we might say, “Get a life!”).
But let’s pause for a moment and take a step back. The Greek means, literally, “change your mind” – and that’s where I want to start this morning, with where we are, with the fact that, actually, not only are we not very good at changing our minds, but indeed changing your mind is considered a weakness, and in public life a grave weakness, indeed a form of political suicide. There is even a new term for it, “flip-flopping”, though Margaret Thatcher put it best when she said, “The Lady is not for turning.” Isn’t that what politicians fear the most, the accusation of the U-turn?
Of course politicians do change their minds. But you never admit to changing your mind because, it is feared, to admit to it would make you look irresolute and weak. Which is immoral, because it is hypocritical, but even if it weren’t a deceit, it would still be an idiocy. Integrity is one thing, inflexibility quite another. Inflexibility is just plain dumb. Where would civilisation itself be without what are called “paradigm shifts”, radical, fundamental changes in the way that we think about the world? In a splendid editorial for the Independent, Boyd Tonkin once observed that “Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought. From Copernicus to Einstein, Leonardo to Picasso, James Joyce to Bob Dylan, lasting innovations rest on a rupture with the principles of the past… Ludwig Wittgenstein created one revolution in philosophy with his [first major work the] Tractatus. Later he decided it was fundamentally misconceived and created another [revolution] with the Philosophical Investigations. And if Alan Turing had never revised his view about the practicality of his highly abstract research on ‘computable numbers’, then the machine on which [I wrote this sermon] would not exist.”
Only a fool makes up his mind about something and, in principle, never changes it. The great British economist John Maynard Keynes was once accused of altering his views on monetary policy. He confronted the charge head-on: “When the facts change,” he declared, “I change my mind. What, sir, do you do?”
So that’s the first thing: repentance involves changing your mind, thinking differently about things. Why? Because you see something you hadn’t seen before. What did John the Baptist see? That the rupture of all ruptures – the kingdom of God! – is seismically shifting the plates of the universe.
This transformation of our imaginations – this seeing, by faith, the transformation of the world into the kingdom – is crucial, but because the Bible talks about repentance in connection with sin, we are talking about a moral transformation as well. Cue the classic conversion story: Once I was a thug, or a thief, or a drug-dealer – in short, I was a sinner – but now I’ve got religion, I’ve been born again, I’ve been saved, and I don’t do those terrible things anymore. Isn’t that the conventional understanding of “repentance”? And then, of course, most of us, very conveniently, are let off the hook, because most of us don’t do those terrible things, and indeed the people who did do those terrible things are also let off the hook too as long as they don't return to their wicked ways.
This is a big mistake. And the mistake is this: we presume that we know what sin is, what sins are, and that we can check our lives against the list and see how much, or how little, repenting we’ve got to do. My claim this morning, however, is this: we’ve got to re-think what sin is, sins are. To put it bluntly, we’ve got to change our minds about just what it is we need to change our minds about, we’ve got to repent about repenting.
I am referring to the mistaken idea that sin is basically about individual wrongdoing and guilt. It is not. At least it is not in the sense in which the Bible understands it. In biblical thought sin transcends the personal and includes the communal and the national, and it is fundamentally about injustice. This is quite clear from the fact that Jesus links repentance with the Jubilee, with Good News to the poor and oppressed, with human well-being and flourishing. And it is equally clear from the fact that it is precisely those who run the religious establishment, who live ostensibly righteous lives, who obey the law and keep the traditions, who thank God that they are not like the criminals and whores who are ruining the moral fabric of Israel – that it is precisely these good folk who reject the Lord’s call to repentance because, after all, what do they have to repent about?
Am I saying that Jesus calls people to accept responsibility not only for their own actions but also for the actions of others, for humanity’s acts, indeed for history’s acts? That is exactly what I am saying. On Question Time three years ago, at the time we were commemorating the ending of the slave trade in Britain, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey criticised the present Archbishop Rowan Williams for his public apology for the church’s complicity in the buying and selling of black human flesh. That was then, he said, and now is now, that was them and this is us. Er, no, Lord Carey. For not only do white people continue to benefit today from the evils of slavery, and not only are there a lot of racists about, stoking up fear and hatred over immigration, but racism remains socially systemic. And I – I myself – as Archbishop Rowan says, “I am, willy-nilly, involved in [this] ‘structural violence’, in economic, political, religious and private systems of relationship which diminish the other”; and, moreover, “My involvement in [this] violence is most destructive when least self-aware.”
“In each the sin of all, in all the sin of each” (Schleiermacher) – that is the fact of the matter. And to deny this fact, to fail to compute it, to change our mind about changing our mind, to repent about repenting – it is quite morally corrosive. For where will it end? If I do not take responsibility for the sins of humanity, will I not also refuse to take responsibility for the sins of my nation? And if I do not take responsibility for the sins of my nation, will I not also refuse to take responsibility for the sins of my church? And then of my community? And then of my family? And then, thus isolated from the entire social network, past and present, what is left of the “me” for whom I am responsible? Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer, offered a prestigious academic post in New York on the eve of World War II, declined it, to return to Germany, to face the coming catastrophe, for he knew that the price of acting responsibly as a Christian included solidarity with his fellow countrymen in their nation’s sin and guilt.
And what was Bonhoeffer doing – what are we all called to do – but to model ourselves on Jesus of Nazareth? At the very outset of his ministry, even before – indeed as a precondition of – his preaching repentance (Matthew 4:17), what does Jesus do but submit to John’s baptism of – what? – of repentance. And why? Why else but to show his solidarity with sinners by becoming (as Martin Luther powerfully put it) peccator pessimus, the chief of sinners.
And so, finally, paradoxically, this solidarity of sin is hopeful. For as Karl Barth said: “Precisely when we recognise that we are sinners do we perceive that we are brothers [and sisters].” For as I acknowledge my complicity in the world’s wrongs, I become part of what has been called the “solidarity of the shaken” (Jan Patocka), those who recognise the delusion of innocence, and those who refuse to scapegoat in order to maintain it; and, further, as I become sensitive to the suffering we inflict on each other, I open myself to a fellowship of compassion. Moreover, I find that I can make choices, saying Yes to this and No to that, and act in ways that make a difference: I can contribute to micro-transformations in personal relationships, and I can engage in public dissent and resistance, and thus in signs and parables of grace and goodness, I can bear witness to the coming of the kingdom of shalom.
In the very first of his revolutionary Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wrote: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent’, willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” Repenting about repenting too. Because – look! – the kingdom of God is breaking in, now.