Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.” When I read this verse, I’m reminded of a time in my life when I was trying to repent.
Years ago, during my first year in seminary, a friend invited me to attend a service at North Heights Lutheran Church, a Twin Cities congregation known for its charismatic ministry. Charismatics are similar to Pentecostal Christians. They believe in manifestations of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues, prophecy and miracles. Today one out four Christians worldwide are Charismatic or Pentecostal. Towards the end of that service, the pastor invited people to come up to the altar rail for prayer. And I went forward because at that time I was filled with depression and self-doubt related to my sexual orientation. I was hoping God would change me.
So, I shared all that with the lay minister who was praying for me. After hearing my disclosure, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that he had faced similar struggles. Then he laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would heal me of the devil’s power and lead me to a new path of life. He gave thanks that God rejoiced over my repentance.
Now, obviously, that prayer didn’t work. Because here I am today, an openly gay pastor. Yet, reflecting back, I wonder if God eventually found a way to answer that prayer. Just not the way originally intended. That same kind of prayer is still spoken by “ex-gay” ministers to LGBTQ Christians. However, today many of us see the spiritual and emotional harm caused by conversion therapy (which is still legal in 32 states, including North Dakota)—especially to our queer youth—affecting thousands of them each year.
The word “repent” is a loaded term for many of us. Repentance has been interpreted to mean that you must feel extreme remorse or regret. For centuries, this meaning governed Christian theology. Christians were taught that they had repent from their sins and do penance to be saved. Some us grew up feeling exaggerated guilt or shame because our pastors or priests told us we were condemned, because of what we had done or who we were. Because of personal failures and divorces. Because of struggles with chemical dependency.
But I don’t believe that’s what God intends for us. I believe there’s a better way to think about repentance.
The Greek word for repent is “metanoia,” which comes from two Greek words. “Meta” means to change, and “noia” means “mind.” So, metanoia means “to change your mind.” It’s similar to our word “metamorphosis,” which means to change one’s form. Like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Or a transgender person becoming in their bodies what they feel in their hearts and souls.
Unlike the word repentance, metanoia is not restricted to a narrow interpretation. It’s a change of mind in how we view God’s love and one another and ourselves. Today, I believe that kind change of mind is a central to understanding and living out the Gospel. Normally, repentance is something we humans do. But it can also apply to God. Just look at our first lesson from Exodus. This passage is part of the story of the golden calf.
After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel arrive at Mt. Sinai. Their leader Moses goes up the mountain and stays there for 40 days, talking with God, and receiving the Ten Commandments and other guidelines for their community.
When Moses comes down, he discovers the people have created a statue of a golden calf to worship. Which makes God angry. So angry, that God is ready to punish them. But Moses intervenes. Moses argues with God. And, as the story goes, Moses changes God’s mind. Now that’s a pretty amazing conversation! Most Christians think of God as all-powerful and almighty and all-knowing. We assume God has it all figured out.
But what if that just isn’t true? What if God, like us, doesn’t know how a specific individual’s story will turn out? What if God can’t look into a cosmic crystal ball that foretells each person’s choices and mistakes and faith journey? What if life is as much a surprise to God as it often is to us? What if God is willing even to appear foolish for the sake of love?
When I was in seminary, I first studied the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, who’s known for developing “process theology,” based on the concept that God changes and is responsive to what happens to us as humans.
As Whitehead puts it: “[God] saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of [God’s] own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved.”
That’s the kind of God that Jesus depicts in parables like those in today’s Gospel reading from Luke. Where God is like an impulsive shepherd who leaves behind a flock of 99 sheep to look for that single missing lamb.
Where God is like a poor woman who has nine coins, but still desperately searches for the one that’s lost. And when she finds it, celebrates by spending the money on an extravagant party with her friends.
A foolhardy, impetuous God. Guided not by condemnation, but by forgiveness and kindness and undeserved grace. A God who became one with us in Jesus, who was criticized for dining with sinners and outcasts.
A God who even changes her mind for our sake. A persistent God who still calls us to change our minds—and sometimes see others with new eyes.
A God who is filled with joy when we choose love over hate, acceptance over racism, peace over violence, mercy over judgment.
That’s the kind of metanoia that marks true repentance. And that’s the path Jesus calls us to follow every day of our lives. Amen.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 346.
+ + +
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
FIRST LESSON: Exodus 32:7-14
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.