Some of you know that before I became a priest, I spent many years at the University of Toronto. I was a doctoral student in theology—but that didn’t give me much of a pay cheque. So in the midst of it all, I ended up taking a day-job with campus mail services and became active in the union. After several years I was transferred to the trades department, getting my hands greasy with maintaining equipment for plumbers, electricians, carpenters and steamfitters.
Back when I was delivering mail around the U of T campus, I was chatting one day with a coworker friend about religion. (I’ve told this story before, so forgive me while I tell it again.) When I shared with him that I was in a discernment process about becoming an Anglican priest, he said to me, “Oh, that’s pretty cool. I’m an Anglican too—my mother used to be very active in the church.” A couple of weeks later I was out with this friend after work, and we walked by St. Stephen in-the-Fields near Kensington Market, the church where my wife Alison and I were married. It happened to be open, so I asked him if he wanted to step inside and take a quick look around. He seemed hesitant, but in we went. My friend looked lost and amazed and overwhelmed all at the same time. And then I figured out why. As we left the church, he turned to me and said, “Incredible. I’ve never been in a church before. That was my first time ever.”
The irony of that incident is that my friend had no memory of ever being in a church, and yet he considered himself an Anglican. He’s not the only one like that. I’ve encountered many other people who’ve told me they’re Roman Catholic, but they haven’t set foot inside a church for decades. My friend considered himself an Anglican because of his family pedigree. His mother was an Anglican, and presumably her ancestors as well, so on that basis he considered himself an Anglican too. His Anglicanism was nothing more than a small identity badge that had been more or less passed on to him. He hadn’t given any thought to what being an Anglican, and more importantly a Christian, actually means.
In Jesus’ day there was a similar thing going on. There were those who took pride in being part of Israel simply by virtue of the fact that Abraham was their original ancestor. Whatever the extent of their faith identity, it was derived from ancestral pedigree. But in today’s Gospel, we encounter some harsh words from the prophet John the Baptist about this approach to faith: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Ancestral pedigree is not enough. John’s critique is rather appropriate for our present time, especially for many who might conveniently describe themselves as Anglican, or even Christian, without giving much attention to what that actually entails. The challenge of today’s Gospel is to hear John speaking to us, insisting that each of us cannot rely on our family association with the church. Our faith must be more than that. We must “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In the history of early Christianity, repentance came to be associated with penitence and acts of contrition, and that is often how the term is understood today. But while repentance and penitence may sometimes be related, they’re not the same thing. In the New Testament, the Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which simply means changing one’s mind. But it’s not a casual, incidental changing of the mind, like deciding to go to the gym tomorrow instead of today. Repentance constitutes a life-altering shift that bears demonstrable fruit—action that is different, more loving and just. So, how should we understand repentance in our present time? Let me offer three points to consider.
First, repentance must mean that we take John’s critique with utmost seriousness. Each of us must be intentional about our faith. It’s one thing to be raised in the church or to have parents or grandparents who modeled how faith ought to be practiced. But for John that’s not good enough. At some point, each of us must leave the nest and learn to fly on our own. That’s what our baptism compels us to do. I recall many years ago being in a pub with a close friend of mine, Isaac, and a group of people from a large Anglican church in Toronto. As the evening wore on, the conversation took a more serious turn as we discussed matters of faith. Then Isaac asked everyone, “What does it mean for you to be a Christian?” The guy beside Isaac, who had been chatting up a storm, suddenly got quiet. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “I’ve never really thought about it before.” I think repentance in our day means that we must be prepared to give a clear answer to that question. We must take ownership of our Christian identity. It’s not about getting doctrine neatly organized; it’s about the character of our lives.
Second, in today’s Gospel we’re told that people were asking John to explain what “fruits of repentance” look like. And John gives a pretty clear answer: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To tax collectors he says, “Don’t add your own service charge in order to stuff your pockets.” And to soldiers he says, “Don’t engage in corruption by extorting money from people; be satisfied with your own pay cheque.” Would John say anything more to us in Toronto, at the end of 2021? I think he would reiterate that we must get rid of all our unnecessary things by giving them to people who are in need. John would tell us not to be motivated by profit and earning more money; he’d tell us to be content with having our basic needs fulfilled. I think he’d also tell us to examine the social structures that benefit some of us but oppress many more. He’d tell us to reflect on the historical forces that have generated inequality. Simply put, he’d tell us to decolonize our minds. At St. Aidan’s we have begun some of this work together, and I know there’s a hunger to continue it more intensively.
That leads me to a third point. It was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that one never steps in the same river twice. Time never stands still. We can only move forward, from the present into the future. Susan Blight is a local Anishinaabe artist and activist who teaches at OCAD University. Recently I heard her speak about decolonization. She said we cannot go back to some pre-colonial ideal. The work of decolonization, she says, means doing something that has never been done before. We are moving into unprecedented modes of being. I think that’s true of repentance. It’s not about attempting to turn back the clock and start over. There’s no going backwards, only forwards but in a new direction. And as we journey into repentance, when we look back over our shoulders and take notice of how far we’ve come, that should give us confidence, even joy. I want to end on that note because today is the third Sunday of Advent when the pink candle is lit, the candle of joy. The road of repentance might be arduous, but it ultimately generates joy. Bearing fruits worthy of repentance has that effect, on ourselves and on those around us.