Sermon for Epiphany 3 High Mass Sunday 22 January 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
How many times have we heard that message from Jesus, and not known what to do about it? This is when Jesus goes public with what he knows about God. He gathers a group around him. From now on, the story isn’t just about Jesus. It’s about Jesus and his disciples, Jesus and us. They hear his message. We hear his message. Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
You don’t have to be Christian to repent. Anyone can do repentance. Repentance is when reason kicks in, our capacity to reason things out, reason given by God. This is what separates us from animals, reason, conscience. It’s what happens when you think, How did I come to be like this? Repentance is the moment the Prodigal Son comes to his senses, at rock bottom, in a far country. How do I come to be so far away from home, I’m not where I should be, that’s repentance. So repentance is the moment of truth, the truth about who I am, not who I want to be, not who I pretend to be, but who I am. This isn’t necessarily a moral thing, being bad and becoming good, at least I don’t think Jesus and his disciples saw it that way. Nor is repentance a sudden moment, like St Paul on the road to Damascus; it can, it will, take a lifetime to repent, a slow turning towards the truth about oneself. What Jesus is describing is the slow shift of vision, a deep seated change of mind, call it being “born again”, call it being “born from above”, it is looking beyond our familiar self, where we are now, including all this, to a different level of existence, which the Scriptures call the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven.
So Christian repentance is not really about being sorry. When we are ready, over and over again, to wish for a change of heart, an awakening to the truth, then we can enter the kingdom. The default position, safety first, coming to church each week, trying to be virtuous, just isn’t enough, and we know that, because the kingdom of God always seems so far away. But when we join that little group of disciples, discovering over time how the words and deeds and death and resurrection of Jesus help us to shift our vision of our lives and our surroundings, then one day we shall awake to find we are living a different life, life in the kingdom.
We are the ones who make God complicated and unapproachable; no wonder He’s hard to find. No wonder His kingdom sometimes looks like a closed shop, only accessible to those with special powers, with decades of deep prayer behind them. Thomas Merton, one of the greatest of modern spiritual guides, explains Jesus’s core message when he says that “the gate of heaven is everywhere”. We don’t have to work out a complicated programme for opening that gate. Everybody can find the gate of heaven, the way is given to us, the path is clear for us. I said something earlier about discovering truth within ourselves, the truth about ourselves. The truth within us is God’s presence, a point of pure truth, call this the Holy Spirit, call this the soul, call it whatever, it is God’s name written in each of us, God accessible to each of us, because he has given himself to us, “You are my beloved” and that is what the ministry of Jesus is about, God with us, God everywhere, the truth of God and his kingdom on offer to everyone. I love complications, theological problems, the deep riches of our Anglican tradition, Anglo-Catholic oddities, lengthy services, but to anyone who listened with half an ear to today’s Gospel, it’s clear that Jesus’s public ministry begins with four unlettered fishermen, human and fallible, with real jobs to go to. Somehow they able to commit themselves to a change of lifestyle, which then becomes the template of the shift of vision which we call repentance. They were given all they needed to do this. Merton described what we discover as “pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven”. That diamond is not something we have to earn by coming here. It is God’s gift of Himself, and it comes with our life.
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. These are words which in St Matthew’s Gospel define Jesus’s ministry. The Kingdom is near. We have to put up with being human, not knowing it all. For the Kingdom is also our final stop, the revelation of eternal truth; that’s in another realm, when time is no more. Much of what we do in this life is in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom; this is a tension we have to live with and enjoy. If we can manage just a little of the shift of vision I have described, away from self towards God, then we will see signs of the coming of that kingdom, as the disciples began to see around them in Galilee when Jesus walked the earth: the healing of minds and bodies, the freedom of eternal life, the victory of love over death. We are part of that; we in our turn are also signs of the coming of God’s kingdom, discovering each in his or her own way, the freedom to follow, the power to heal, and the gateway to heaven.