Here’s the dictionary definition of “repent”: to “feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” I imagine most people would give a similar definition. I think that deserves a Princess Bride response. “You keep using that word,” Diego Montoya says, “but I do not think you know what it means.”
When a preacher digs into the Greek dictionary, that can be a way merely to demonstrate some scholarly superiority (and personal inferiority). That may be the case now as well, but it’s worth the risk.
The Greek word used in Mark 1:15 is “metanoia.” It doesn’t have anything to do with feeling regret or remorse. It doesn’t have much to do with feelings at all. The word really means to change one’s mind. It means to think in a new way.
These days, changing one’s mind is out of fashion. It’s regarded as waffling or pandering or shifting with wind of public opinion. Too often, changing one’s mind is exactly that. But the price we pay for this perspective is that growth is penalized. Learning is laughed out of court. Open mindedness is regarded as a fault rather than a strength.
The reign of God has come upon us, Jesus says. Change the way you look at things. To begin, change your mind about changing your mind!
But metanoia is more. I mean, literally, it’s more. The prefix on the word is “meta.” That means bigger than, greater than, in a larger framework than the current situation. It means more comprehensive or even transcendent.
We use that prefix in English, almost without knowing its power. We can talk about metanarratives as the big stories behind our smaller stories. We can talk about metacognition as the way we think about thinking.
So, metanoia – the word translated as “repent” – means to get a bigger mind, a larger perspective, a more inclusive framework. It really means to see the world in a whole new way.
Jesus doesn’t think that this new thinking is good just for laughs. God has changed everything. That’s what it means to say that “the kingdom of God has come near.” Something has happened that forces us to see reality in a whole new way. If we don’t expand our minds, we won’t see clearly.
Think about an event that changed your world. I’m just of the age where I can remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not only can we of that vintage remember the event. We can remember precisely where we were when we heard the news. I was, by the way, in my first-grade classroom at Franklin Elementary School in LeMars, Iowa. Not only is that memory seared into our brains, but we all knew that the world had changed in ways that no one could take back.
For an earlier generation, the event was the invasion of Poland or the attack on Pearl Harbor. For a later generation it was the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. For black and brown people, it was the passage of the Voting Rights Act or the assassination of Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the murder of Trayvon Martin.
For a few of us, it was the Cubs winning the World Series or the Cavaliers winning the NBA finals in 2016.
These events were “mind-blowing” in their impact on our awareness and consciousness. After these things, we could never see the world the same way again. That’s metanoia.
We are impacted in similar ways by personal events. Life looks completely different after falling in love or getting married or having a baby. Life can never be the same after a cancer diagnosis or a house fire or a bankruptcy.
It takes a whole new perspective to survive the death of a parent or a child or a spouse. No matter how we try, we can’t get our brains back to “before.” After a mind-blowing event, there’s only “after.”
Metanoia means getting a new mind, a larger perspective, an expanded view of the world, my community and myself. Jesus announces the change bigger than all other changes – the kingdom of God has drawn near! Nothing can stay the same!
Immediately, as Mark’s gospel likes to say, Jesus begins the work of that new Reality. He heals sick people. He frees those in bondage to evil. He challenges the powerful, the positioned, and the privileged. He embraces the least, the lost, and the lonely. He announces that self-giving service is the mark of true greatness. Any other greatness is a cheap imitation. He begins his journey toward the cross and resurrection, when death is trampled by death and Life is the order of the day.
It is, as the great philosophers at Disney would say, “a whole new world.” Nothing less than a whole new mind can take that in without blowing a gasket, popping a breaker, collapsing under the weight of the new reality.
In Mark’s gospel, we will discover that getting a whole new mind for a whole new world is no easy thing. Spoiler alert for next week – Peter, the disciple, has a gasket-blowing, breaker-popping encounter with Jesus after being with him for months, or perhaps even years. Metanoia is not for amateurs.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus announces, “repent, and believe in the good news.” In the same way that we get “repent” wrong, we struggle with “believe.” We live in a time when believing is about information and judgment. Believing, for most people – and certainly for many Christians – is, in the words of my generation, a “head trip.”
I’m a happy head person most of the time. But that won’t work here. “Believing” is much more about trusting than it is about knowing. It’s about relationship more than information. It’s about relying on the messenger more than on the message.
Believing is more like falling love than like reading the newspaper. The new input comes at me almost without my consent. I can push it away or I can take it in. If I take it in, everything changes – beginning with me! That’s why it’s most helpful to think about the capacity to believe as God’s first gift to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Metanoia is more something that’s done to me than it is something I do.
We’ll get to this several times in Mark’s gospel in the coming months. In particular, there’s the desperate father seeking healing for his little girl. He’s not sure if Jesus is up to the task, and that’s a problem. He cries out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” That’s the real experience of believing that leads to metanoia.
We Lutherans have this perspective in our basic faith documents. In his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes this. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” That’s shocking to many “belief as intellectual assent Christians,” but there it is.
Luther doesn’t leave us hanging. He continues, “but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with [the Spirit’s] gifts, and made me holy and kept me in the true faith…” Jesus proclaims the coming of God’s reign among us. That’s the Good News, the gospel, that changes everything. Jesus offers us a whole new mind to embrace a whole new world.
Someone faces a wild new reality and says, “Boom! Mind blown!” It has the cliché status of a meme at this point in history, but that’s what we’re talking about here. God’s reign has come near and is at work. Boom! Mind blown! Trust what you see and hear. And begin to live into that new reality.
Where is Jesus blowing our minds and blowing up our realities in the here and now? For me, learning about and living into a world where the perverse power, privilege, and position of white, male, cisgender, heterosexual supremacy is getting clearer – Boom! Mind blown!
Learning about and living into a world where Christianity is a declining reality, even as pseudo-Christian movements try to resist change – Boom! Mind blown!
Learning about and living into a world where love of neighbor is regarded more and more as a game for suckers and knowing that I will be in the minority for being such a “sucker” – Boom! Mind blown!
What are the ways Jesus is blowing your mind and blowing up your reality?
A few final thoughts here. Refusing to change my mind requires violence to keep things the way I want them to stay. We’re seeing that fearful violence play out in our society in myriad ways. But life insists on continuing. And when life continues, change happens.
My current view of things protects and promotes my interests. So I shouldn’t be surprised when metanoia feels like loss in the short-term. Part of faith is trusting that this is for my long-term good and for the good of my neighbor.
I won’t ever get to the end of this metanoia project – not in this life or in eternity. I can’t ever get to the end or the bottom of God’s grace, mercy, and love. So, there’s always more to learn, to grow, to change, to explore. Once I adjust to that reality, I find that it’s all good news.
Welcome to Lent, my friends. Boom! Mind blown!