In the Gospel reading today, on this Sunday after Theophany, we hear the very first sermon that Christ ever gave in his public ministry: “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!”
With just these few short words, Christ begins His earthly ministry, and he summarizes all of the Gospel that is to come. Yet the first word He says is “repent.” “Repent” in the original Greek literally means to “change one’s mind – to change one’s heart” and to “turn God-ward.” In order to see Christ and to believe in Him, we must repent. In order to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, we must repent. In order to take even the first step, we must repent.
Repentance is not a one-time thing, or some grand, romantic gesture. We who sin almost continually – if not in our actions, then in our thoughts – must constantly turn back to God and repent. To repent, we must die to ourselves and live to God. And we must die daily. And many times daily. Maybe thousands of little deaths each and every day – but death to sin and death to death. Repentance is a death that brings life! This sense of paradox is captured quite wonderfully in a quote written on a wall in St. Paul’s Monastery on Mt. Athos which says: “If you die before you die, then when you die, you will not die.”
This is a constant battle from the moment we are born until our very last breath.
Repentance is not simply an emotional state. It isn’t simply feeling sorry, although this is part of it. Repentance is a turning from darkness to the light of Christ. It is about moving away from selfishness to selflessness, moving away from death to life. It is not some protracted, morose state of being. Instead, repentance brings true joy. When we truly repent and truly turn to God, then we receive the grace of God and we are joyful! When we turn to Christ in repentance, this turning brings life, light, joy and peace – the very fruits of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are new and different – full of joy. Full of life and vigor. This is what it means to repent. This is what Christ is saying when He says, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This Kingdom can be experienced here and now, if we repent and turn to God.
Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life – the Living Kingdom. Christ sets for us a banquet table, and He calls us together with Him and to dine with Him. He feeds us with His own self – His own sacrifice – the Body and Blood of our Lord.
And why are these two statements linked together: “Repent” and “the Kingdom of God is at hand”? It is this way because Christ is “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He has accomplished everything for us and for our salvation. He has reconciled us to God and has prepared and acquired for us the Heavenly Kingdom. All God requires of us is that we accept it. Our salvation is given to us by God free and complete, but we must accept it.
Fr. Thomas Hopko told a story about how he was once riding in a taxi when the taxi dreiver looked at him and asked, “So… are you a priest?” Fr. Hopko said, “Yes, I’m an Orthodox Christian priest.” The cabbie then asked him, “Well… Are you saved?” And Fr. Hopko thought about it and said, “Yes! I am saved! Christ became Incarnate for us. He suffered, died on the Cross, was buried and rose again, all for my salvation. He did it all for us and there’s nothing more that God could possibly do to save us. The only problem,” Fr. Hopko said, “Is that I reject it, everyday, by my own sins and actions.”
Indeed, Christ offers us salvation, if only we will turn to Him. The Kingdom of Heaven and Christ the King are ineffably close to us – much closer than we can imagine. Closer to us than the beating of our own heart. Closer to us than our next breath. “Behold I stand at the door” of your heart, and knock, says Christ. “If any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in with him, and will dine with him, and he with Me.” (Rev. 3:20) It is only through repentance that we can open wide the doors of our heart to our Saviour, the Heavenly King. On this first Sunday after Theophany, let us recall our own baptism, and our own baptismal promises. Let us turn from our sins and fix our gaze on Christ. Through a true repentance let us open wide the doors of our heart to Christ and to the Kingdom of Heaven as we look ahead towards Lent – that great season of repentance. “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Amen.