Genesis 9:8-15; 1Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
The first command of Jesus’ public ministry is not forgive, serve, or even love - it is: Repent.
Of all the words he could have chosen it was this word, this challenge, this command which he spoke – Repent! Without preamble it refers us to the reality of sin and our need to deal with it decisively in our lives.
This call is addressed to every human being in the world, even those not yet born, and so it is a universal call, predicated on the solid understanding that everyone is a sinner needing redemption.
What’s more, it is a timeless call; it will never be changed. It is not a suggestion or a negotiable ‘ambit claim’. ‘Okay, so you find repenting a bit difficult, let’s try making it pray or, preach the gospel, or join a service club and do good work in the community.’
No, it is, and always will be – Repent, turn away from sin!
It is a universal call but also deeply personal – addressed in the first place to me – and only then to others. It comes from the lips of the Master who stands before me, hands on my shoulders, gazing into my eyes saying – John, the time has come, the kingdom is close at hand, repent!
The second command is: Believe the Good News. The second makes the first desirable, necessary and possible. It calls for us to move from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
Repent and believe the Good News! It is a call from God to enter into communion with him, into the everlasting joy and peace of communion with the blessed Trinity itself.
To speak the words of repentance is easy enough; even to confess to a priest is not terribly difficult. It is the believing which, surprisingly, is the harder part. Jesus himself called believing ‘work’. When the people asked him: What must we do if we are to do the works that God wants? Jesus answered: This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.
Believing is hard work because it inescapably includes works, the works of faith. As St James tells us (2:17.26): Faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is quite dead; and again: A body dies when it is separated from the spirit, and in the same way faith is dead if it is separated from good deeds.
So when Jesus says we must believe he also means we must do the ‘works’ of believing. To put it into colloquial language: Walk the walk if you want to talk the talk! Live what you believe! Or yet again: Faith becomes real only when it is act-ualised!
Let me ask you – Is there some other way of getting from Melbourne to Darwin than by travelling? Can we believe ourselves there? No, of course not. The pilgrimage of faith is exactly like that – step by step, Mass by Mass, Confession by Confession, prayer by prayer, loving deed by loving deed.
God told Abram (Ex 12:1-2): Leave your country, your family and your father's house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. Abraham believed totally, but he still had to set out on the journey of belief; he still had to cover the distance; he still had to perform the ‘works’ which made his faith real. Abram put his faith in Yahweh, who counted this as making him justified (2:6).
Last Wednesday our Christian journey brought us once again to the edge of the desert, the wilderness. We have to cross it; we have no choice; the Spirit himself requires it of us as he required it of Jesus whom he ‘drove .. out into the wilderness’.
The journey will take forty days (not including Sundays). To make this journey we must pray, fast, and give alms – and again, we have to do this in a way that is real.
These three spiritual ‘exercises’ have the goal of setting us free from attachment to sin, fulfilling the first of Jesus' commands: Repent! They also have the effect, if done seriously, of strengthening our belief in God and in the Good News – Jesus’ second command.
We take pleasure in many things in our lives – coffee, sweets, TV watching, music, talking. These are legitimate pleasures. And it’s a funny thing how depriving ourselves of legitimate pleasures like these can impact on our attempts to be free from our illegitimate ones. We might call it a kind of earth-based Purgatory which we voluntarily enter; a time of ‘purging’ ourselves in order to accept a new freedom to love God and neighbour.
Jesus made his journey courageously, perseveringly, lovingly. Let us pray in our Mass today that we will be graced by God to do the same.