1st Sunday of Lent:
Today in the gospel we hear the rallying cry of the whole season of Lent: repent and believe in the gospel. Today we hear the very first words from the mouth of Jesus. These are the first words he speaks as he begins his ministry in Mark's gospel. So I cannot help but believe that they must have formed the heart of his message. In a sense these words are the core of the Christian message. Repent and believe.
I don't think it is accidental that these two commands are given together: repent and believe. I don't think it is possible to do one without the other. First, repent is certainly on our minds during the season of Lent. While it is important to move away from sin all year long, Lent seems like a perfect opportunity to do some real soul-searching. I truly believe that God pours grace upon his church in the season of Lent like no other time of year. It is truly a season of conversion, of repentance. I find it inspiring that the whole church is doing the same thing. Right now all of us are supposed to be looking into our hearts and acknowledging our faults. This can be a painful and humbling thing to do, but I take comfort in the fact that we are all doing it together. And, what do we find when we search our hearts and examine our consciences? We find that we are all sinners. Sorry, but we are all weak and we are all fragile, we all commit sin, we all have need for repentance. If you searched your heart and conscience and found no sin you either need to look harder, or you are a canonizable saint. Although one thing the saints seem to have in common is that they all recognized themselves as sinners. For example, St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of priests, was renowned for his holiness and simplicity of life. He was also known to spend 14 hours per day hearing confessions. Another priest once asked him why he was so popular: why are you such a great confessor? St. John Vianney said if he was a great confessor it was only because he was a great sinner. We are all sinners. So, we recognize that we are sinners, now what? Repentance means that we need to turn away from our sins, but this is easier said than done. Haven't I just been saying that we are all sinners; we are all weak and frail. Don't you think if we could move away from sin on our own, we would do it?
This is where the second part of Jesus' message comes in. Repent, yes, but believe in the gospel. And what is the gospel: God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that all those who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. Or as our reading from St. Peter's letter today puts it: Christ suffered for sins so that he might lead you to God. Jesus came to help us, to heal us. He knows we are sinners, he knows we are weak and frail. But, Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, Jesus came to save the world. But, he never takes away our freedom. Salvation is certainly a free gift from Christ, but he gives it to those who look for it.
So, repentance and faith go hand in hand. By repentance we realize we need a savior. In faith, we recognize that Christ is that savior. By faith we realize that sin is an obstacle to our relationship with Christ, by repentance we identify these obstacles and seek their removal. Repentance without faith seems hopeless, but faith without repentance seems empty. The two must always go together in our lives because they came together from Christ. 2000 years ago Jesus preached the good news and today as we come forward to receive Christ in this Holy Eucharist on this first Sunday of Lent he tells us the same thing: repent and believe in the gospel.