Since December (as well as, of course, a long time before that) The Mennonite Church has been in a state of some anxiety over actions taken concerning the homosexual community by a couple organizations under our umbrella. These same anxieties are bound to become stirred any time, and for any reason, the long-held views of a group of people are challenged. The conclusion of these challenges always leads to change, whether in shifting to incorporate the new views or in reaffirming our commitments and seeing not the policies but the faces in our churches change. In any debate, no matter which way things go, the fallout is painful and the struggles are deeply felt by many.
A recent document released by Lancaster Mennonite Conference called Healthy Sexuality Resources: A Toolkit of Resources for Leaders and Congregations includes a selection of websites containing a number of important documents that shed light on the teachings of the Mennonite Church. The documents while clearly defining a position, also take a strong stand on love and forgiveness as well as repentance. Equally important, they discuss some other issues that tend to be obscured by the issue close at hand. I am including links to a few of the more focused of these sites for anyone who would like to take a look. The leadership of Lancaster Mennonite Conference has made comments and sent out documents that reaffirm our commitment to these statements and call for a renewed focus not on controversy, but on the mission of the Church: growing disciples for Jesus.
Much of what we find in the Old Testament about repentance shows the LORD repenting of decisions He had made. This helps us a great deal in separating the idea of repentance from sin. It is a change of mind or a change of heart. One of the images is “to sigh” or “to breathe strongly”. It is an expression of regret, but in the case of the LORD it also communicates being moved to grief or pity on those who are experiencing trouble, because their trouble is directly caused by or at least allowed by the LORD himself. Modern translations have tended toward words like "relent" and "grieve" instead of repent, but following the thread in the King James Bible or the American Standard Version helps to show the strong usage of the concept in the Old Testament. Comparing them with these newer renderings we see nuances in the idea of repentance we might otherwise miss.
In those same early times, the concept has more to do with practical regret than with an intention of the mind. It is during the establishment of the Temple when the word becomes an expression of a human heart condition, when Solomon refers to people who have been carried away as captive because of their sin, and in their place of captivity repent and pray toward the Temple invoking God to hear and forgive. Also in the Wisdom Literature, which is associated with Solomon’s writings, Job speaks of personal repentance for sin. Later a few references to human repentance arise in the prophets. This human repentance, though, is in the definite minority of the Old Testament idea of repentance.
For the most part, when the LORD is spoken of as repenting, it has to do with decisions He made regarding human action. Most of the time people sinned and God judged them, then later He repented of His own harshness and followed up with mercy. Sometimes God expresses a definite reluctance or even a refusal to repent of His harshness.
In the New Testament the idea of human repentance takes full form. Here it is almost always a human change of mind. It sometimes carries the implication of a wish that something had never happened or never would be.
John the Baptist and Jesus draw a great deal of attention to the human concept of repentance speaking of it bearing fruit and of repentance causing a change in action. For example, Judas “repented” of what he had done and brought the silver back to the priests who gave it to him. As it moves into the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles, the idea of repentance is closely associated with baptism and with salvation. It is occasionally spoken of as something that is given to people, described almost as a grace from God.
As the idea is raised in Revelation we come again to God’s repentance, his regret that He had given grace to some who did not take advantage of it. At the same time a great many people are judged in Revelation because of their refusal to repent.
As humans then we should see repentance not only as a thought of distancing ourselves from sin, but of action. We should see it as something that spurs certain feelings in us:
We can think of repentance not just as a human action regarding sin, but as something we can learn from God Himself, using Him as our model for repentance. Even He, when He acted strongly in response to Holy righteous indignation, sometimes repented of His harshness and was moved to kindness.
Sometimes I could really use an epiphany. It is interesting to me how this third definition in the dictionary has become the primary meaning of the word in common useage. The way most people I've heard use the word "epiphany" it is anything that gives a sudden flash of insight. It is just one more example of how a holy and faith laden idea has been coopted by the world to be used for other, even pagan purposes.
This is not the primary meaning of the word. The word indicates a great day when the magi showed up on Jesus' doorstep and gave Him gifts. It was the coming of Messiah not just to the Jews (that was earlier through Jesus' family and through the shepherds), but to the Gentiles as well, maybe some pagan royal advisors of some kind from Persia. Suddenly, though, people from other parts of the world were aware of Jesus' coming and were taking the message of this amazing child to others in other lands.
Epiphany is also the day we observe today, celebrating that event. Of all the holidays, this may be the most missionary holiday we have. It is a clear indication of the gospel going to other lands, taken by believing people who were from those lands.
I try to imagine what was happening in the hearts and minds of these men as they presented their gifts. What did they see in the Christ Child as they worshiped? What transformative event could it have been? Did they come in doubt or in faith? Did faith happen suddenly on the spot as we would interpret the word "epiphany"?
May I come to Jesus in faith today, finding as I arrive a Divine human bringing me life and light. May those virtues engulf my spirit like a torrent and wash me anew with His goodness.
Pastor, Norma Mennonite Church.