The Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Fayetteville

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Lk. 13:5).

“Repent”: definitely a Lenten word. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminded us that all Christians are “continually” in need of repentance: that is, we never get over the need to repent. It’s work that needs to be renewed, over and over again. You’re never going to get to the point where you check off the box, where the task is done, because the check mark will disappear. This understanding finds voice in the liturgies of Baptism and Confirmation, every time they’re celebrated. The congregation is asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Built into this question is the idea that it’s not a matter of whether we will fall into sin and need to repent but rather a matter of when.

This question also fleshes out what repentance is. It’s a turning from sin and a turning to God, a returning (as the question says) to the One from whom we’ve wandered. The root idea of repentance is that it involves turning around from the road we’ve taken, in order to back up and find the right path. Sin, of course, breaks our relationship with God, so the best thing to do is to find the way back, as quickly as possible.

“Repent” is definitely a Lenten word. Never mind that the need is continual: the time to begin is now. The Ash Wednesday liturgy says as much when it calls the assembled congregation “to make a right beginning of repentance.” In other words, our need for repentance is ongoing, but the way to repent is right now, this season, this moment. Repentance must be begun. It cannot be filed under a general disposition of the heart, an approach to life, a stance taken up. It has to be particular, concrete, and timely, in the sense that it comes in time. It has to have a beginning. This is why we devote this season of the year, this particular time, to repentance. Time’s a wasting, as they say.

Jesus, in our Gospel today, underscores the need for repentance, on the part of everyone, with no exceptions. The massacre of eighteen people from Galilee, murdered by Pilate the Governor while they were at worship, mixing their blood with their sacrifices, is the talk of the town in his day. Everybody knows about it, and also about the people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. These events, these acts of God and of men, were all the buzz, as much so in that little world as the tragedy of Cyclone Idai or the mass shooting in New Zealand is present in people’s minds this past week or so. Don’t imagine, Jesus tells the people, that those whose lives were cut off somehow had it coming. Don’t imagine that they were any different from the rest of us, all of us, who stand in need of repentance.

Jesus’ words in our Gospel also come with a note of urgency. The people killed at worship and in the fall of the tower did not know what was coming. If we all stand in need of repentance, then now is the time to act. We do not know what’s ahead, and we cannot count on the time that lies ahead. It comes back to repentance being timely, an action that has a beginning in time. There’s no better moment than now for the turning back to God that is required for all of us.

Our Gospel ends with a parable, about a fig tree planted in a vineyard; a fig tree that for three years fails to bring forth any fruit. The owner complains to the gardener about the unfruitful tree, and tells him to cut it down! The gardener in the story thinks that’s a bit rash, and tells the owner that he should wait a year, apply fertilizer, and see what happens. There will be time enough to get rid of it in a year if it still bears no fruit.

That’s the time we live in now: the time of bearing fruit. Remember John the Baptist’s call, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8)? “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9). God has given us a broad margin, time enough in which to repent. Time enough because this moment is given to us, a chance to respond now to God with repentance and the fruits of a life lived in relationship with God.

Every Sunday we have the opportunity to turn to God in repentance and faith, to turn back to God and to receive forgiveness and restoration. We confess our sins and ask God for the grace to amend our lives. We receive forgiveness and more grace to live. As we celebrate Confirmation today we all have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to this way of life. Our confirmands are showing us the way! Our need for repentance will continue, but now is the time to repent, to turn around and return to God.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee