A good and wise friend recently suggested that repentance/metanoia/transformation are at the heart of the Kingdom of God. The key is confession and reconciliation, but confession, an ancient and holy practice, is one we tend to avoid, or even reject. Are we reluctant to face our sins? Turn to God? Where else is there to turn? Maybe it is the word “sin” that scares us. Maybe we haven’t stolen anything. We haven’t done anything nasty to our neighbor’s spouse, or dog, or cat, or rose garden. We tell ourselves God will accept us where we are. God will love us where we are. Are not all souls God’s? And if our Father will forgive us in the end by invoking Jesus Christ’s name as promised, why should we bother? Where is the line where we need to concern ourselves about sin? But sin is about submitting to harmful thoughts, hurtful acts, and to evil, and we need to concern ourselves.
We are called to follow Jesus, to put on the mind of Christ, to humbly walk before our God in obedience and purity of spirit, as best we can. It is the “as best we can” part that gets hard. Because when we proclaim that we are all sinners when we pray with Psalm 19:12, “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults,” we are telling the truth, the whole truth, so help us God. Dare we look inside and find those things, little things, annoying things, which keep us from the presence of the Holy One? And how about the big things that separate us from God and our neighbor?
Metanoia (μετάνοια) means change, conversion, especially spiritual conversion. In Benedictine spirituality it is a gift of the Spirit, but one that can be made more available by a life of obedience (both respectful listening, and Holy Obedience to God and to one’s religious superior), and stability. Metanoia is amendment of life. And it is an ongoing and lifetime project. For every insight, moment of grace, there will be another which is not so graceful, and so back to obedience, and repentance, confession, recognition of our sin. Back to facing God. And every time we change for the good, we are furthering the Kingdom of God,
What is the Kingdom of God? Scripture is full of references to it. It is coming (Mt. 3:17), here now (Lk 17:20-21), not of this world (Jn. 18:36), and it is only available to the righteous (1 Cor. 6:9), to the humble and childlike in innocence (Mt. 18:3). In essence those who are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit (and any others whom God chooses) and who recognize and embrace the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Jesus are the body of that kingdom, one of peace, mutual respect, devotion, compassion, and love.
The Lord’s Prayer begins “Your Kingdom come,” and ends with the doxology, “For yours is the Kingdom.” All is God’s, including us. The goal to be perfect in the sight of our heavenly Father/Mother may never be met, but it is our job, our way of following Jesus, to keep trying. Or rather, not trying so much as opening our hearts to God and asking, humbly, expecting nothing, but trusting in Our Father’s love. Remember, Jesus had to chide one apostle or another every time they didn’t quite get the message. Don’t worry. God is patient.
But the antecedent to finding the Kingdom is repentance of sin. The most famous, and useful, category of sins was developed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, especially Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 CE). Called deadly, mortal, or Cardinal Sins, they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Of these, pride is considered the first and most dangerous of all, and from pride come the others. It is well to take this list seriously, especially in a world so rich in material culture and instant gratification. Preparation for a true confession might uncover some of these hiding deep within our mostly uninspected secular lives. These sins drive us into committing acts of killing, coveting, lying, cheating, and all the other “thou shalt not” commandments. And these sins don’t need to be carried out in the real world. In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, virtual sins are considered as real as if they had been acted out (anger for murder, lust for adultery).
We can really only confess our own sins, reconcile our own relationship with God. There is group sin, for example Jewish genocide in World War II or the treatment of the indigenous populations of North America, Australia, and many more, but that is a different issue. Individual sin is insidious, viral, and can lead to group sin. In the parish of St. Enurchus by the Sea, Sally is full of pride and vainglory. She is forever trotting out her wealth and influence. Jill works with her on the vestry. Jill is struggling financially and still trying to find her place in parish life. Sally’s pride brings Jill to the sin of envy, jealousy, and finally wrath. To get even, Jill flirts with Sally’s husband Joe, who now lusts. The Kingdom of God at St. Enurchus grows toxic. The chain could have been broken or never formed if Sally had recognized and confessed her pride and reached out to Jill to help her, and the Kingdom could have grown.
Metanoia is not always found in sorrowful repentance, although that is the way most often we come to it. Desiring change, metanoia, we can offer our sins to God and receive absolution corporately in church. We can seek the Rite of Reconciliation and receive spiritual guidance (BCP 447-452). We can pray alone, speaking directly to and listening to God. Or transformation may come to us as a sudden revelation, as a vision, as a burning bush. We may be struck by the Spirit in the silent, almost quivering, air in the presence of the Holy One. And the change happens, gently or violently, slowly or quickly, with such abundant love, gratitude, that we are overwhelmed. And, yes, a certain feeling of contrition may follow as we realize what glory we have been given, and how unfulfilled we were without it.
Lent is over, but Easter is a season, one of glory. God’s glory awaits us if we are called, or ask, to turn to a devout and holy life lived in an intimacy with our God. We are sustained in that divine love even in a messy and dangerous world. As in the Parable of the True Vine, if we wish to be cured, we will be pruned. It is worth rereading John 15:1-17. Growth isn’t always easy, and focus and discipline can be hard and often painful. But if we are willing to turn again and again to God, we will be better servants of the Gospel, friends in Christ, children of our loving Abba, building the Kingdom, one of compassion, mercy, love, and peace.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.