Repent doesn’t mean what you think it does…

            “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Such simple words, yet so hard to do.

            To repent means to “change your thinking”, but not just our thinking, it also requires that we change our behavior, otherwise there’s no point. So, when Jesus says “REPENT!” he is telling us that we need to stop what we’re doing, think about it and then do something different. This is, of course, a never-ending process, that we very much struggle with, which is why we confess our shortcomings to God every week.

            The meaning of the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” is debatable. Some believe the Kingdom of heaven is the spiritual realm where God resides; some believe that it is embodied in Jesus; some believe that we are already there, we just don’t experience it because it’s hidden from view; some believe it is where we will reside after we are resurrected. We don’t really know what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven, it is very possible that all of these interpretations are true or that none of them are true. Regardless, the one thing we know for sure is that “the kingdom of heaven” is ruled by God, not us, which means that it could simply be a way for us to refer to the rule of God in our lives; but we don’t like that nomenclature do we? The modern person doesn’t like the idea that God or anyone else might tell them what to do. Frankly, this outdated and non-inclusive language goes against everything the modern world stands for, right?

            I get that people want to feel like they are in control of themselves, but the idea that God wants to control every aspect of our lives is ridiculous. We have the gift of free will and we are in complete control of ourselves. When Jesus says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”, he is extending an invitation and we have the choice to accept the invitation or not. Accepting the invitation requires that we think and act differently; it requires that we place something besides ourselves at the center of the universe; and it requires a commitment to a continuous cycle of repentance and forgiveness.

            In one of the commentaries I read for today the author points out that when Peter, Andrew, James, and John choose to follow Jesus they are in fact choosing God’s rule over Rome’s. Rome sought power through oppression and then used its power to extract resources for the betterment of the ruling class. God seeks to rule with mercy, justice, and plenty, but to do so needs us to stop giving our allegiance to Rome.

            As a historian I am mindful of the countless times people have put Rome first, for example the institution of slavery, southern planters and northerners alike chose to believe that black people were better off being slaves because they were seen as stupid and lazy and obviously incapable of taking care of themselves, so slavery was the Christian thing to do in their minds. The unspoken truth behind this rationale is that the United States economy was driven by slavery, and they feared that if slavery was abolished then the economy would collapse and not only the planters would lose their livelihoods, but so would northern industrialists and their workers. So, in the end the reasoning for slavery was nothing more than the rationalization of fear. Our country was afraid of what it might look like if we freed the slaves, so we created reasons to keep it.

            Somewhat ironically the Rome of the 20th and 21st centuries is freedom. Everyone wants it, everyone wants to believe that they are entirely in control of their lives and their destinies, that the only thing it takes in this world to be successful is hard work. For over 140 years our country has beat the drums of freedom around the world as we have conquered nations physically, politically and economically; forcing them to accept forms of government and economic systems that align with our nation’s interests, not necessarily what is best for them. Our culture is the new Rome, we have a history of using oppression, disguised as the promotion of democracy, to maintain our power and influence and anyone who speaks out against it has traditional been called a communist or unpatriotic; I have certainly been called a communist, I’m not sure about unpatriotic, but I suspect so.

            Accepting the invitation to enter the kingdom of God means that we must view the world through the lens of mercy, justice, and plenty. In the kingdom of God all receive mercy, without exception; all receive justice, without exception; and all receive what they need to live a fruitful and meaningful life and here’s the thing with that, we all need something different and sometimes it is going to look like someone else is getting more than their fair share and we have to let it go because we don’t know what God knows; which is why we need to be merciful, and gentle, and kind; instead of labeling someone with pointless names we should instead greet them with a kind word, help them if we can, and then go on our merry way because we’re not harmed in any way when a person is given food stamps, or reduced rent, or free healthcare at tax payer expense; but we are harmed when we get so riled up about what other people do and think that we forget the oppressive power of Rome and the part we play in sustaining it.

            “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” is an invitation to leave every version of Rome behind, both the tangible, represented by the power of nations, and the intangible Rome, such as the power of the concepts and ideas that make the tangible possible. When Peter, Andrew, James, and John chose to follow Jesus they did not entirely understand what they were in for, but ultimately what they did, by giving themselves to God, was walk away from outdated thinking, thinking that perpetuated oppression, and they walked towards a new way of thinking, a way of thinking that promotes mercy, forgiveness, and love. They entered the kingdom of God, they experienced God’s love and mercy because they allowed God to express love and mercy through their words and actions. It was their choice to drop their nets and follow Jesus, it was their choice to dedicate their lives to God; so the idea that allowing God to rule us takes way our freedom is non-sense. God does not force us to do anything, even thought they could, because the use of force to get what you want is what we do, God is merciful in their justice, God provides all we need to live happy, healthy, and joyful lives; the only reason so many people don’t experience that life is because they choose to stick with Rome. So “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As we enter the Holy Silence I invite you to reflect on what is keeping you from experiencing the kingdom of God.