This coming Sunday we will observe Reformation Day. This year’s calendar draws our attention to this day already on the 25th – the actual day is, of course, October 31st (spoiler alert for all Trick-or-Treaters!)
Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses, hammered against a church on that day in 1517, started out with where he saw the basic flaw and misunderstanding of his time – repentance and the ability to be reconciled to God. Therefore, Luther uses his first Thesis to state the following: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This passage comes just after Jesus baptism by John the Baptist and His temptation in the wilderness by the Devil. Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been put in prison and he moves to Galilee and begins to preach using the words above. This happened to be the same message that John the Baptist was proclaiming: repent because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Luther’s point was that both Jesus and John were calling people to “a life of repentance” not just an “act of repentance”. Humanity has turned their collective backs on God and broke the relationship that He had created and envisioned for us. This broken relationship we call “sin”. Not a single act, but a life that always keeps God at bay and us in the center – in hubris (pride) we are curved in on ourselves. As Luther saw it, over the years the church had reduced the call to repent to mean to repent of one individual sin at a time. So it was “I am sorry that I did that bad thing” rather than “I am sorry that I have been living my life apart from God”.
“Repent” cannot be understood as referring to the Sacrament of Penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy at the time of the Reformation. “Penance” had come to be the word that described the act of a person confessing to a priest and the priest prescribing a “good work” to be done as an act of “Penance” and then the priest would pronounce forgiveness for the sin that the person had committed. Luther said that repentance needed to go much deeper than simple actions done at the request of a priest. There needed to be a heart change. The dictionary says that the word “repent” means to “turn around” – a U-Turn, as I like to call it. In a very real sense that is what we do when we repent, turn around and go the other way! Luther was saying to the church that repentance is not simply a Rite of the Church, it is an inner change that comes from the work of the Spirit so that we desire to live the life that Jesus is calling us to, a life lived in the Kingdom of God!
Obviously, is such is true, repentance is worthless unless it produces fruit. Martin Luther was sure that true repentance would show itself in action. There is a fine line that we walk in repentance. We need to act like repentant people, if we keep doing the same sin, it would seem that we are not really repentant. The change of heart is what leads to a life lived in repentance. To be very blunt and practical: most of us are not interested in people blowing smoke in our faces with words of apologies that have no change of behavior behind them. True repentance is never insincere or superficial, it always shows the changed heart in a changed life. This is hard! Perhaps many of us feel like we need to repent for our lack of true repentance – well, we wouldn’t be the first or the last to struggle with that; so, take heart! Yet, true repentance maost surely is life-giving and faith-restoring. In God and in one another. Luther was indeed on to something.
Happy Reformation Day. The task of reforming never ends, just like the task of repenting. I am practicing with you. Amen