How do we live as followers of Jesus? Do we indeed follow Jesus? Do we follow him in whole or in only the parts that we are comfortable with? When we are called to repentance, what does that really mean? The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means literally to turn away from. When we are called to repentance, we are called to turn away from our sin. Of course we do our best to turn away from our sin (we certainly desire to become more like Christ), but how far do we have to go? And more specifically, what exactly does it mean to say "to turn away from our sin"?
To answer that last question (and it is that question that must first be answered), we need a working definition of "sin". What is "sin"? What does it mean "to sin"?
The word "sin", we learn in the Christian faith, is a Greek word literally translating "to miss the mark". It was an archery term used by soldiers. When practicing shooting arrows at a target, to miss the target or the mark was "to sin". It represented to the New Testament authors the human condition - of how we as human beings miss the mark of God's perfection. That, anyway, is the traditional evangelical understanding of the word. God is perfect; we are not. Our imperfection is due to the "fall" - a theological term describing our broken human situation in this world.
If we read back in Genesis - the very first book in the Hebrew bible - we can read the account of this human "fall" from grace. Humanity resided in the garden called Eden - the BDB Theological Dictionary and HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament claim the name Eden originated from the Akkadian word "edinu" and was based on the Sumarian word eden, meaning "plain" or "steppe". Regardless of what the author meant to say with the name Eden is unclear, but the ancient Hebrew audience well would have heard a meaning of "delight" or "luxury". That was why it was called a "garden" - when we (or the original hearers of that word) hear "garden" we think of a lush, abundant place. A place where there is water (very important to a desert people) and plenty of food. Our ancestors apparently originated out of the plains of Africa, where there was more than enough of everything.
The point of the Genesis account was when humanity first stepped onto the scene, they were in relationship with God and they functioned as they were originally created to function. They were set in the garden of Eden to work, to cultivate and replenish it. But not only that - they were to expand this garden. They were to take it to the ends of the earth. In the beginning, the garden of Eden was in a single place, but our ancestors were to extend it until it encompassed the entire planet (or at least known world of the original audience).
What this all meant was humanity wasn't a meaningless mistake. Humanity had purpose and significance. Not only were they to expand the garden (and this is quite important) they were made in the very image of God (most important of all). Of course this doesn't mean that God literally looks like us, with hair, legs, eyes etc. The scripture states that God is Spirit - and frankly, I have no idea what a "spirit" actually looks like - if a "spirit" looks like anything that any of us could even begin to describe. Rather, it means many of his characteristics are reflected in us. We share certain attributes with God like compassion, kindness, love, creativity, goodness, relationship, the will to choose, knowledge, spirituality, righteousness (or justice), and wisdom. This is not an exhaustive list of course but it is a great start.
Humanity had a great beginning. I do not know exactly what it all looked like. Did it all begin with two humans - a man and a woman? Genetics seem to suggest that yes, it did. What fruit did the first couple eat of when they disobeyed God (or YHWH, as the Hebrews referred to him?) Was it literally fruit or was the fruit a metaphorical picture of humankind's ultimate disobedience? Was the tempter a snake or a lizard (serpent could represent either) or was the serpent again, a word picture? Was this the author's attempt to show a people coming out of polytheism that snakes were created creatures, not gods? The ancient world was populated with gods and goddesses - and anything could be made to represent them. The ancient Sumarian goddess Tiamet is often described by modern authors as a dragon or serpent (sea serpent to be exact, as she was the goddess of chaos - and chaos to the ancients meant "sea"). In Genesis, the author puts the serpent in its proper place - a created being, not a god or goddess. In fact, the entire creation is put in its place. The sun, the stars, the moon, the seas and all the creatures populating the earth, all are created beings with nary a god to be located amongst them. YHWH, the author wants his audience of former slaves to understand, created all of everything. All things created are subject to YHWH.
But what was the "fall"? Simply put, it was humanity's decision, in space and time, to walk away from their communion, their oneness with God. I read once that humanity is nomadic; it is in our blood to move, to go, to travel the road, with dust on our feet and the wind at our backs. YHWH is found and in fact meets us in the travel and travails of the journey that lasts a lifetime. At some point in our long history our ancestors turned away from the journey that leads to our Creator, choosing instead the road of pride and autonomy from God, a road well traveled, yes, but full of violence and destruction - not only to ourselves but to the earth itself. We formed our civilizations, our empires, conquering the nations, the people groups living within those nations, and the land itself, but never our own sin-hardened hearts.
Sin became the virus that invaded our bodies and souls, passed down generation to generation, with but one cure. It was and is a cure that often galls and offends us. But it is indeed the only cure available.
Which leads to the original question: what does it mean to repent, to turn away from our sin? What does it mean to follow Jesus and how far do we actually take that?
As usual, Jesus loved addressing issues like this. In Matthew 5 and following, Jesus laid out what following him would look like. It was radically different from what the religious leaders thought it would or more specifically, should look like. Jesus turned everything upside down. The kingdom of God, that he came announcing and proclaiming, was an upside down kingdom, to our way of thinking anyway. His own disciples were completely baffled a lot of the time about what he was actually up too. No surprise here that we are too. He told them to "turn the other cheek" when they were slapped in the face and to go that second mile willingly for the despised Roman soldier forcing them to carry a backpack for the first mile. Forgive not just once, twice or even 7 times when you brother or sister sins against you but 70 times 7! Jesus defined adultery as an issue of the heart, not just of the body, commanding men (who were given every right by their culture to ditch their wives for burning the breakfast) to remain with the wives of their youth (crazy radical!), for what God has put together, let no one separate. Treating others with contempt was paramount to assassinating that person. Jesus ends chapter 5, talking about loving our enemies and he ends it with this:
"In a word, what I'm saying is, 'Grow up'. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives towards you." (Matthew 5, The Message)
Somehow, when we fail to live out who we really are because of our pride and willfulness, that is the very essence of sin.
Thomas Merton wrote, "To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not."
There is a passage in the gospels where Jesus talks about true and false disciples. The false disciples are shocked when they discover that they cannot enter into the kingdom of God. "What!?" they cry "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?" To which Jesus replies, "I never knew you." This speaks of relationship, does it not? We are made to become fully human, but how can we become that if we embrace all of our lives the mask we are born in? Jesus wants to crack open that mask; he wants to shine his light inside of us, cleaning out the cobwebs of deceit and despair. How can he know us if all we have ever cultivated are the false selves we hide so diligently behind?
Hence that false self must die. It is the clay pot that must be cracked open, each piece falling away only to reveal whom we were always meant to be.
What does this mean then? Another question: when someone asks you who you are, what do you say? Who are you really? Merton again:
"Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy."
So what does it mean to follow Jesus and how far do we actually take that?
To follow Jesus, means we first repent or turn away from our constant desire to go it ourselves. Repentance is surrendering our own agendas for our lives and taking the agenda that Jesus has. But before all of this, we must first understand that we are citizens of the kingdom of God. We must know who we are for real - because that is the person God knows. We must grasp the reality of our identity in this kingdom. We must seek to be known of God and to know him, this must become the priority of our lives. "Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice" Jesus said.
Our first question of each day must begin with, "What is on your heart and mind for today, Jesus? How can I be a part of that?" It sounds easy enough, but try doing it and see what rises up inside you. Are you offended? Is it easy or hard to hand over your own agenda to Jesus? What are your values? Your priorities? Your life plans? Is it easy or hard to lay down those values, priorities and plans, giving them to the Lord of Life? Because this is what following Jesus means. Jesus meant for us to do what he did - and he promised that "greater works than these" we would do, if we only will follow. His last words to his disciples and by extension, to us, were, "go therefore, making disciples...and teaching them to do all I commanded you". We are to do what our Master did during his brief sojourn in this world.
How far should we go with all this?
Naturally I’m thinking that we should go all the way. But what does all the way mean? And how do we go all the way without becoming the religious police, watching and waiting to catch anyone failing to do what we think ought they ought to do?
These are probably good questions to think about. Things begin to happen once we start to ask the necessary and frequently uncomfortable questions. Revolutions and movements occur in our hearts when people begin to wonder, “Why have we always done such and such this way? Why not do it another way? Or perhaps we ought not to do it at all!” These are holy questions. Holy questions are God questions, meaning God puts them in our hearts to ask. Jesus did not accept the status quo and nor should we. In his own unique way, he subverted the system - this is why he was put to death (and make no mistakes, it was the empire that killed him). It is a dangerous business subverting empire.
"The real trouble with 'the world' in the bad sense which the Gospel condemns", Merton writes, "is that it is a complete and systematic sham, and he who follows it ends not by living but by pretending he is alive, and justifying his pretense by an appeal to the general conspiracy of all the others to do the same. It is this pretense that must be vomited out in the desert."
The early church saw this and died for seeing and living lives that subverted it. Our ancestors in the faith refused to acknowledge the Roman Emperor called Caesar as anything other than a man; they elevated the status of slaves, women and children to equals, co-heirs of the kingdom of God. They cared for the poor - not just their poor but the poor outside of their religious communities as well (to the extent that one Roman pagan exclaimed that the Christians took better care of the pagan poor than did the pagans). During the plagues that would periodically grip the city of Rome, killing hundreds, thousands - it was the followers of Jesus who stayed in the city, while all others had fled, bringing the dying, who had been abandoned by even their families, into their homes to care for them. Many of those who did this paid with their lives. But see, they were living out their God-created identities.
How far did they go? They went all the way.
We don’t ask enough questions in our society. We accept pretty much our way of life without much thought period. We defend our ways of living - sometimes viciously and angrily. New technologies are created and we often embrace them never questioning where those technologies might lead, what the consequences of those technologies might be. We’ve been trained to not think because thinking is dangerous. We have been trained to be suspicious of those who do think and question. At best, these few people are regarded as idealists or at the worst, fools.
Somehow, we must grab onto, ingest and luxuriate in this idea of a grace-drenched life because that is what following Jesus is. We must shuck off those encumbering masks that blind us to the beauty of God and the very earth he created. We must embrace our identities as his sons and daughters, walking the light-filled path that leads us to our full humanity and back to the garden.
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