Repent! For the end is near! In fact, it’s already here. Remember a couple of weeks ago when the world ended, as it always does? Now is the time of the after-thought, the metanoia, the thinking in the after. The world is chaos, welter and waste, and the Spirit of God hovers over the top of it, coaxing it back to the good. It’s hard to find peace in that.
This past Sunday’s Advent theme was peace. My hope in our Advent services is always to enact the theme, to have people emerge with a feeling of hope or peace. But I have to admit that peace is hard to come by these days. What emerged in our conversation was a lot of fragmentation, a wide range of attempts to navigate the chaos we are living. We hear the call to the good, but the path is still cloaked in shadow. There is still some time before the lights come on, before the sun rises on a new day. Even though our conversation was all over the place, it seems an appropriate response to things falling apart, so that we can start to put it back together.
In the Jewish imagination, peace is not merely the absence of war or violence, but wholeness. Rome promised peace, but it fulfilled that promise through conquering and conversion. God’s peace is different. It is a sense of completeness, that all things are as they should be. As it tells us in Psalm 85, justice and peace embrace with a kiss. Perhaps justice and peace are that adorable couple that does everything together, wears matching t-shirts; you don’t get one without the other. Repentance, then, is the restoration or the creation of wholeness, of peace, through justice. Instead, we see a world broken by sin.
I don’t mean that as you might expect – that Eve ate the apple and we all have to live with the consequences. Despite the criticisms often lobbed at the Christian Left, I do take sin seriously. But sin is not just a narrow category of behavior, of personal piety. That is one form of sin – and we should certainly take care in our behavior – but there are two other ways of talking about sin that get more to the heart of the problem.
In addition to personal piety, there is the condition of sin. As I see it (as we talked about a few weeks ago) the condition of sin is brought about in response to a finite world. The stresses of that world produce fears that manifest as delusions, doubts, and desires until we lose sight of the image of God that we are. This is what drives behavior, so until we learn to deal with the condition of sin, our behavior probably won’t change.
And finally, there is systemic or structural sin. This is, in some ways, the condition of sin writ large, our fears calling us to construct a world that will protect us from finitude and mortality. But because that kind of control is an illusion, it reinforces those fears, which produces the kinds of behaviors that would rightly be called sin.
If we are to find peace, we must repent on all levels. We must examine the ways our world is constructed that produce injustice. That’s a big job that can feel hopeless. The Good News is that can actually begin with our own behavior. For example, we can enact reparations on our own without legislation or organization or coercion. That doesn’t mean we stop working for structural change; it just means we don’t have to wait for structural change to do the right thing, to bring about some measure of justice, to take one step toward wholeness. But ultimately, it’s that middle layer that needs work.
It is difficult to sustain right action or to fight for justice if we are divided within ourselves. So when we talk about repentance, it is not about guilt, but about freedom. Living without fear means seeing the world clearly. It means having hope. Rather than living in anxiety about the future or regret for the past, we live in the peace of who we are as the image of God. Holiness is wholeness.
But we also live as the Body of Christ. It is not always so easy to see clearly in the mess of common life. We have to look honestly at who we have been as Church and Nation. It is a tricky thing to both value the places we come from and recognize that some of it – perhaps a lot of it – was toxic. Worse, the toxic bits are not so easily disentangled from the good bits. It’s hard to find peace as we do that work.
The end has come, but the dawn will soon comet, too. As we prepare ourselves in the in-between time, as we repent, as we undergo the thinking after, I hope that we can see the image of God in one another. I hope that it is not just our thoughts that turn, but our hearts, our whole being toward the other. I hope that, while we seek peace for ourselves, we remember that our wholeness depends on the wholeness of others, that peace cannot be gained on the backs of others. True and lasting peace is the wholeness of the whole.