Sunday, February 26, 2012

Repentance and Belief: Two Sides of the Same Coin

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 26, 2012, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2012]

Let me begin today by asking you to use your imagination.

Imagine a coin—a coin that has two words written on it.  On one side, you find the word “Repent;” on the other side you find the word “Believe.”

I begin with that image this morning, because it will help you to remember the message of my homily today, which is that repentance and belief are two sides of the same coin.

That is to say, these two ideas—belief and repentance—go together.  Or at least they should go together in our minds and in the minds of all Christians, because we know from today’s gospel reading that they definitely went together in the mind of Jesus!

In this text from Mark 1, we heard about the opening days of our Lord’s earthly ministry.  St. Mark doesn’t tell us everything Jesus preached on those occasions (to do that would have taken him several chapters, at least); but he does give us a clear and concise summary of Jesus’ message.  He tells us, in other words, the most important ideas contained in the early preaching of our Lord.  These are ideas that Jesus would share in one way or another with almost everyone he ministered to during the next three years.

The summary is recorded for us in three short sentences and two key commands: “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”

The two key commands, of course, are there in the very last sentence: repent and believe.  For Jesus, these two realities were inseparable.  And that’s also the way it is for the Church today, especially during the season of Lent.  This explains why the priest or deacon or extraordinary minister who gave you ashes a few days ago probably put them on your forehead while saying these very words: “Repent and believe in the gospel.”  You’ll remember that we used to say, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel,” but now we use the exact words of Jesus as recorded in  Sacred Scripture—which is really the way it should be.

I mention all this because many people in the modern world—including, sad to say, many Catholics—treat repentance and belief as if they were two separate and distinct coins (to use the image of this homily) rather than two sides of the same one.  This is something that Pope John Paul II alluded to in the encyclical he wrote back in 1993, Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth) when he talked about “the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality,” and the tendency many people have to separate those two things. 

Notice that St. Peter implicitly connects belief and repentance in today’s second reading.  There he says, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”  The fact that Jesus suffered and died for our sins is something we believe; but the only way to be saved by the death of Jesus (or, as Peter puts it here, the only way for a person to be led to God by Jesus) is through repentance.  So, in that one sentence, we see both sides of the coin implied. 

Let me share with you now one real life example to make clear how important it is to keep these two ideas—belief and repentance—together ALWAYS.

The difference between treating belief and repentance as two separate coins and treating them as two sides of the same coin, is the difference between Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter.

Judas despaired and hung himself precisely because of the fact that he separated his repentance from his faith in Jesus (which, unfortunately, was pretty weak to begin with).  You know, it’s clear from Scripture that Judas did repent after he betrayed our Lord on Holy Thursday night.  Here’s how St. Matthew puts it in chapter 27 of his gospel: “Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done.  [Sounds like repentance to me.]  He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.’  They said, ‘What is that to us?  Look to it yourself.’  Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.”

Judas repented, in the sense that he deeply regretted his actions, but he definitely did not believe!  His “coin” had “Repent” written on one side, but absolutely nothing written on the other.  He didn’t believe that Jesus still loved him; he didn’t believe that Jesus would forgive him.  And he certainly didn’t believe that Jesus was dying for him and wanted to save him from his sins.  He probably didn’t even believe that he could be saved—or that he was worth saving.

And that lack of belief made all the difference in how he responded to the situation he found himself in.

This reminds me of the people who come into the confessional and confess the same sin over and over again—not because they’ve committed the sin over and over again (because they haven’t).  They confess it again and again because they don’t believe God has forgiven them for it!  Even though they’ve repented; even though they’ve done the right thing and brought their sin to the sacrament—they don’t believe that Jesus has taken it away (even though he has!).

Like Judas, these men and women repent, but they don’t believe.

And so they have no peace.

How different Simon Peter was—even though his denials of Jesus were every bit as bad as Judas’ betrayal!

The Bible tells us that after he denied our Lord for the third time and heard the cock crow, Peter went out and wept bitterly.

So, like Judas, he repented.

But unlike Judas, he never ever stopped believing.  He never stopped believing that Jesus loved him; he never stopped believing that Jesus could and would forgive him if he sincerely repented. 

So he never gave up.  Consequently, when he had the opportunity after the resurrection, he went back to Jesus and professed his love.  He did it three times, in reparation for his three denials.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Peter’s coin had “Repent” on one side and “Believe” on the other—always.

If we want to be like Peter during this season of Lent, I think we should plan to do two things:

First of all, we should plan to attend the parish mission, beginning on March 12.  Doing that will help to strengthen us in our belief (side 1 of the coin).

And secondly, we should repent by getting to confession at some point before Easter (side 2 of the coin).

Belief and repentance—TOGETHER—helped to make Simon Peter a saint.

May they help us to attain the very same goal in our lives.