Pay Back Time!
Repentance and Penance Good for the Soul
Rodrigo makes it over the precipice to the top of the mountain. The natives, dressed in battle array to kill him when he arrives, are so impressed by his willingness to atone that they use their knives not to cut his throat (as we suppose they will) but to cut the burden from his back once and for all.
Every Believer should Study This Movie
DeNiro, Irons, Neeson
2 Corinthians 7:1, 11
2 Corinthians 7:1. Since these promises have been made to us, my dear friends, we should wash ourselves clean of everything that pollutes either body or spirit, bringing our sanctification to completion in the fear of Elohim. 11. Just look at this present case: at what the result has been of your being made to feel distress in the way that God approves, what concern, what defense, what indignation and what alarm; what yearning, and what enthusiasm, and what justice done. In every way you have cleared yourselves of blame in this matter.
The film The Mission, featuring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, is set in 16th century Peru. DeNiro plays Rodrigo, a despicable mercenary and slave trader. Rodrigo’s made his fortune in procuring slave labor from the local native tribes. Rodrigo returns from an expedition to find that his wife has fallen in love with his brother. Enraged, Rodrigo outmatches his brother at swords and kills him in the street before the whole town. Soon after, guilt over the loss of his brother and his own sinful life overcome him. He takes a cell in a monastery where he languishes for six months without speaking.
A missionary priest visits him and tries to convince him that he can be forgiven and through acts of penance he may even be able to forgive himself. After many fruitless visits, the priest finally convinces Rodrigo to at least try the prescribed acts of penance.
Rodrigo is to climb the daunting cliff up the shear mountainside to the village of the native tribe from which he has kidnapped for so long in order to seek their forgiveness. But on the climb he is to carry all his tools of sin -- his swords, his heavy armor, his shackles -- in a net suspended behind him by a heavy rope. The climb seems impossible with such a burden. He uses every ounce of his strength. His burden of sin is as heavy as his burden of metal. At last he is nearly to the top when a well-meaning missionary cuts the rope and his burden clangs down the mountainside to the ground.
Rodrigo's mission is not accomplished so he receives no absolution from his sin. He climbs back down the mountain face and reties the burden upon his shoulders, beginning again his arduous journey upward.
Finally, incredibly, Rodrigo makes it over the precipice to the top of the mountain. The natives, dressed in battle array to kill him when he arrives, are so impressed by his willingness to atone that they use their knives not to cut his throat (as we suppose they will) but to cut the burden from his back once and for all. As these little men and women care for their enemy in his weakness, Rodrigo, now bereft of the burdens of both armor and guilt, considers his mission of penance fulfilled. He is forgiven and redeemed. In the end, he gives his life to help save the village that forgave him.
A Strong Rebuke!
In Paul’s first letter to the people in the Corinthian assembly (First Corinthians), he roundly condemns every member of the congregation for their laxity, their excesses and their outright condoning of mortal sin. His letter is so terse, direct and to the point in regards to the dire spiritual condition of the assembly, and Paul was so well known as a leader of Gentile Christianity, that his words sting the Corinthians as though a nest of hornets had been set loose upon them.
Most of the time, when there’s a strong rebuke like this, the person corrected will turn away even farther, hating the correction and disdaining the one doing the correcting. Criticism, no matter how constructive, usually causes isolation and alienation. Such seems to be human nature. Man rebels against his maker and those who speak for Him, especially in the matter of shortcomings.
But in the case of the Corinthian assembly, Paul’s blunt letter of criticism and correction brought a spirit of utter grief upon the congregation – a grief that led to a godly kind of guilt – reflection then repentance – and finally acts of penance. Instead of turning away from Paul and the gospel he preached, the assembly at Corinth was serious enough about their faith to reassess their reason to be and put in place the necessary corrective actions.
In our reading from the second letter to the Corinthian assembly, Paul acknowledges their grief and, in his own way, apologizes for having been so blunt in pointing out their sins. He also speaks of his own grief in having hurt them, but his satisfaction in knowing that the congregation had taken the path to restoration rather than alienation. I believe that, at least in part, the reason the Corinthian assembly turned back was because they had a deep personal love and respect for the Apostle. I think the bond between congregation and minister was so deep that, rather than lose their relationship with the man of Yahweh, the leadership of the group acquiesced to his instructions and was, in the end, blessed for doing so. Usually the minister loses these kinds of battles. But not in this case.
We have no reason to believe that there was much space in time between First Corinthians and Second Corinthians, the letter of rebuke and the letter of reconciliation. We can only imagine what took place in the congregation in between. We do know that, however it happened, there was a total change in the course of the assembly and in the hearts of the congregation members. Before the change could come, there had to be an acknowledgement of their condoning and committing sin, a repentance from it, a turning back toward the ways of Yahweh, and then the making of changes. The works of change are what we call penance – pay back.
This week marks one year since Joanne Landry first entered the life of our congregation. In her death last week we can truly say that what Yahweh gave he took back. When I was considering her life this week, the story from the movie The Mission (that I just told you about) came to mind. The last year of her life, especially within the context of the church and the community, was a lot like Rodrigo’s climb to the top of the mountain. She wanted to do penance, or pay back, for what she considered a less than exemplary life. This quality is very admirable, especially in a middle-aged person.
The ones of us who came to know her well this year learned just how much of a struggle her life had been and how difficult it was for her to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and return to church. Over the months, she had to be coaxed, counseled and prayed with. She remained in a state of self-doubt and unworthiness while she “made her climb” to become acceptable by Yahweh and, even more so, by this congregation. Some here made her climb very difficult, casting stones at her, cutting at the rope. But it was just in this last week she finally reached the top of the peak and came into a feeling of self-acceptance and acceptance in the congregation.
The climb was good for her for in its course, she studied her Bible until it fell apart. She worked hard to live the life of Yahshua and spread his love to church and community. She became a strong witness to her family and friends and a benefactor of this church to the community. She could always be counted on and she did many gracious acts of penance that we will remember. Joanne had just begun to minister in power. She had come into the full knowledge that, not only were the wonderful promises of lifelong blessings and resurrection to eternal life real, but that they were for her and were indeed hers. She had just begun to reclaim her vision for the future and for her family.
Last week she had a premonition that her life would be cut short. She put her affairs in order not knowing what to expect. All she knew for sure was that Yahweh had spoken to her in the still, small voice. Of course, we don’t understand how her death at this time could possibly happen. We’re grieving our loss, even though our loss is her gain. We’ll miss her terribly in this church. And personally, we wonder how we’ll go on without her.
How should we remember Joanne? If you don’t have your own memory, you might want to think of the impression that Marie Levins shared with me. She said, “I’m going to remember her in the pulpit reading the Bible.” Joanne would love to be remembered for that if for nothing else. If you remember her for that, as I will, she will always be a reflection of Yahweh’s goodness, holiness and blessing.
Observing a year of her life as her pastor seems now to be the “nutshell retelling” of the lives of all people of faith – the great effort exerted toward belief and self-acceptance, the struggle for recognition and reconciliation within the family and the family of faith, the quest for sanctification or personal holiness, to be a good person or a godly person, to feel justified before Yahweh and at peace. Hers was a triumph over sin, self-doubt and the doleful fruits of selfishness. We thank Yahweh for her life with us.
No Magic Bullet
In earlier passages of his second letter to the Corinthian assembly, Paul has again pointed out the great and precious promises that belong to those who hunger for righteousness. You all know the promises well. Paul rightly concludes that, since we have these promises from Yahweh, shouldn’t it become our life’s goal to live in accordance to them? He puts it this way,
1 Corinthians 7:1 “My dear friends, we should wash ourselves clean of everything that pollutes either body or spirit, bringing our sanctification to completion in the fear of Yahweh.”
This is no small order for we who have already acquired polluting habits or behaviors. Some of us have been struggling with spiritual pollutions for years and years – things in our lives we know don’t lead to personal holiness or godliness. Yet it seems the struggle we have with sin tends to drive us deeper into it than out of it. Indeed, we try to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. That’s because there’s really no easy path to personal holiness; there’s no magic bullet that destroys sin in our lives at the mere pull of a trigger.
Pop religion gives us formula after formula for holiness and blessing: do this and you’ll get that; give to me and g-d will give to you; get your holy life on my coattails, etc. etc. Others tell us that sin no longer exists at all, but some of us need psychological counseling to undo the damage of our religion or our parents. But we know that we’re saved from the wrath to come by faith in the grace of the Son of Yahweh, but some of us don’t just want to get in the doorway of eternity by the skin of our teeth. We long for “a better resurrection.” And we’re not going to get what’s “better” simply by naming it and claiming it. That’s why we struggle so; we know better than to think there’s an easy way, although we wish there were! At the risk of presenting yet another formula for holiness, I’d like us to consider some old Sunday School concepts – repentance and penance.
R & P
After a little lesson, a fourth-grade Sunday School teacher asked her class what was meant by the word "repentance." A smart boy put up his hand and said, "It’s being sorry for your sins." And he was right, but he was one-upped by a girl, who also raised her hand and said, "No, it’s being sorry enough to change.” Repentance is always the starting place for reformation and it means far more than simply being sorry. “Repentance” is a curious word.
In the Bible, the word we read is metanoia, which literally means "afterthought" or "to change one's mind.” From the mouth of John the Baptist and Peter the Apostle, the word is used in its imperative form as a command: they say, “Repent!” Yahshua used it as a conditional many times, saying: “Unless you repent ….” There’s always a consequence for not changing one’s mind from unrighteousness to righteousness. We get our English word “repentance” from Latin, which means, "to pay back." It's more than merely saying, "I'm sorry" for the umpteenth time. It's ever so much greater and more efficacious to put actions behind your words. Action after repentance always leads to holiness and is always rewarded. Action leads to a better resurrection.
Pay Up and You’ll Feel Better
Methodist theologian William Willimon says it’s time to bring back the confessional to the Methodist Church, understanding the pastor as an intermediary between Yahweh and a man or woman. Willimon hopes that the pastor will arrange full repentance including penance. Guilt-ridden Christians could confess to someone real and receive a prescription for rehabilitation before being absolved of the sin. It certainly worked for Rodrigo in the film The Mission but I doubt I could handle the responsibility of dispensing penance.
Author Gordon MacDonald has written,
…Privatizing faith and relegating confession to a singular transaction between that person and God has meant a loss of accountability.... Anyone can breathe a silent prayer that amounts to little more than a 'Sorry, God' and presume to get on with life. How, if things are to be so private and 'under the table,' is the sinner and the sinned against to know if there has been genuine sorrow and change of heart?
Though it’s not an official policy (thank goodness), public and private confession constantly happen in church. We do “confess our sins one to another” often. But is confession to G-d or man enough? I really don’t think so because people confess the same thing over and over again and do the same wrong over and over again. This is because nothing has been paid back. No penance has been made.
I know grace for forgiveness is free but it wasn’t cheaply purchased for you. To accept free grace is like going to a free banquet where the “suggested donation” is $10 a plate. You don’t have to pay anything; but the conditions put on dining makes it obvious that something should be paid. If I were to attend in the first place, I wouldn’t feel OK accepting the meal free. I would feel just OK laying down a ten-dollar bill and I’d feel even better paying $12.
After all, the price for free grace continues to be paid for through the shedding of the blood of so many witnesses, including the blood of our departed friend of blessed memory (see below). We can afford to pay something back; it’s good for a soul to pay his/her own way. In fact, we can hardly hold our heads up before the judge if we simply go along for the free ride or the free grace. We’ll never feel good about ourselves unless we pay what is owed. That goes for both temporal and spiritual matters.
Pay Up For a Better Resurrection
For grateful Believers, penance, repayment, should be an attitude of life. The Holy Spirit has shown us who and what we owe. Every one of us knows what’s on the ledger. We squirm before Him when we consider our penitential debts. Paul’s says “we grieve” or “we feel distressed” before Yahweh because of our late payments, our lack of doing post-repentance penance. Unless we begin to organize our spiritual debts and start to repay them, the grief we feel is still unredeemed and ungodly. Here’s how Paul explains it, speaking in context again in his dealings with the sin of the Corinthian assembly. He says,
7:11. Just look at this present case: at what the result has been of your being made to feel distress in the way that God approves, what concern, what defense, what indignation and what alarm; what yearning, and what enthusiasm, and what justice done. In every way you have cleared yourselves of blame in this matter.
If you listened closely, there is a progression in the assembly: from outrage to repentance to penance to absolution. It started with distress at Paul’s previous rebuke. He was very hard on his congregation; perhaps too hard. The attitude of the assembly moved to concern to defensiveness to indignation to alarm. When the reaction of a church gets to the point of alarm (alarm over pointing out its sin), it could just split and usually does. But look where penance took the assembly from alarm: to yearning to enthusiasm to justice. When justice was done, the church members had not only paid up and cleared the spiritual debt, but they had also moved on to higher realms of holiness, self-assurance, forgiveness and that better resurrection.
Heavenly grief, then full, true repentance reestablishes credibility with the world, fellowship with the Spirit and, maybe most importantly for the individual, the feeling of Christian viability and sufficiency. If you feel like a worm, then you owe somebody something – you owe your god, your community, your family, your acquaintance, your enemy or yourself something. Pay up and you’ll feel better and do better. Don’t just say you’re sorry; act like it!
This was certainly happening in the life and death of Joanne Landry. She was fortunate to have died in a state of high spiritual awareness and of fellowship with Yahweh that was unhindered by sin. She was not only forgiven, but she was most assuredly in the process of pay back, or penance. I’m certain of this not only because of our discussions, but also because she was in touch enough to have received the word that she would soon be leaving. In this way, Joanne has become a model for our own quest for wholeness that will live on in our minds and help in our direction until we meet her again in the great reunion of the resurrection.
Who would have ever thought that that woman would one day become our example? Amein. Jackson Snyder September 6, 2002