Sunday, September 9, 2012

Repenting/believing; Doing/hearing

In The Gospel According to St. Mark, Jesus speaks His very first words after emerging from forty days spent in the desert, where He went immediately after being baptized by the Baptist in the river Jordan. Upon emerging from the desert, these words kick-off His public ministry: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15).

Last February, as I was preparing to preach on the First Sunday of Lent, I was struck by the order of the words "repent" and "believe" in Jesus' proclamation. It is seemingly a minor thing. After all, don't you have to believe in order to repent? The first problem, one that is easy to dispatch, is that "repent" does not (as we often take it) mean simply and only to express sorrow for sin. I suppose it includes that, but the Greek word we translate into English as "repent" is metanoia. In this verse from the first chapter of St. Mark's Gospel the word issuing from Jesus’ mouth is metanoeite, a form of metanoia that indicates repentance is on-going.

This is how all of this came out in February homily
Metanoeite, translated literally, means "be repenting," just as the word that follows it, pisteuete, literally rendered, means "be believing." All of this just means that repenting and believing the good news are not one-time events, but are on-going, that is, together they constitute a way of life. Again, the ordering is important; Jesus does not say, "believe and repent." Rather, He says, "Be repenting and be believing in the Gospel," indicating that the two are inextricably bound together, the one, believing, flowing from the other, repenting
Just this week I started to read Jana Riess' book Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor. In the first chapter she notes an insight from Lauren Winner concerning the seventh verse of Exodus 24, in which, after been given the Ten Commandments, the children of Israel vow, "All that the LORD has said, we will hear and do."

On reading this, Riess writes, "Wait a minute... Shouldn't that be the other way around? How can we do what God commands until we've heard it first? Riess, along with Winner, wisely prefers the rabbinic explanations to the highly rationalized ones of Bible scholars: "some rabbis have taught that we can't really hear what God is saying, or let it sink into our souls and beings until we have tried to do what God is saying. The practice precedes the belief."

She moves from Winner to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (making recourse to him is never a bad move):
A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the hereness of God
Just the other day I publicly called what Christians commonly refer to as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. I do this because I am not a supercessionist (i.e., believing that the covenant God entered into with Israel has somehow been revoked, rather than extended to all through Christ). This prompted a friend to assert the Hebraic nature of our uniquely Christian Scriptures, the New Testament. I agree with him wholeheartedly. After all, there is something rather deep to the assertion of Pope Pius XI's assertion that "spiritually," Christians "are all Semites."

The logical place to take my pondering is 1 Corinthians 13, which begins with, "If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal," but I'll leave that to you.

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