I find repentance to be something of a relief. A surrendering to God’s embrace. That’s why I love our Gospel reading for this Sunday (Luke 15:1-10). God is a shepherd searching for one lost sheep or a woman searching for one lost coin. And when the sinner repents, all the angels rejoice.
But I know that not everyone views the connection between sin and repentance so positively. We imagine that sin is attached to God’s judgement, wrath, or rejection. We imagine that repentance should be motivated by the fear of punishment or the pain of separation.
It’s hard to remember that the first believers who felt the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection did not really know how that miracle led to the forgiveness of sin. They certainly knew that it brought forgiveness (Matt 26:28; Acts 10:43). Through the cross they were a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), children of God and heirs of everlasting life (Col 1:14). They were a new community, with Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female becoming one Body in Christ (Gal 3:28). They had to live differently as children of the light (Eph 5:8; 1 Thess 5:5).
They knew this because they experienced it through the Spirit. But actually how were we reborn and restored in Jesus? Over centuries, different metaphors have tried to capture the mystery of sin and salvation. Jesus, like the Paschal Lamb, is the only sacrifice needed for sin. Or, his obedience unto death undid the original disobedience of Adam. Maybe, the world was in bondage to the devil and Jesus was our ransom. Or perhaps, we are like debtors in prison or slaves to sin, and Jesus redeems us. In a feudal vein, God is like a Lord and we are faithless servants. Jesus is the perfect offering that restores the Lord’s honor and our place in his kingdom. Or, God is like a judge who declares us worthy of punishment and Jesus steps in to take that punishment on himself.
All of these express some aspect of how we experience ourselves and God in the work of repentance.
But what if, God is a woman. And you are a treasure. She wants you back because you belong to her. God is focused on finding you with method and intensity, searching every corner to sweep you back into her hands.
Or what if, God is a shepherd. And you belong to his flock. He is not insulted but afraid for your fate, as he retraces every path with worry and skill, hoping to rescue you from yourself… before you fall deeper into danger.
What if, when you are found, it is because you are wanted. There is relief, rejoicing — God calling the heavens to welcome you. The cheers of the stadium: that thrill down an angels spine that you made it. This is my hope for your experience of repentance. Because what defines our relationship with God is not our sin but our great value to the One who died for us.
The Rev. Dr. Sonia Waters
Trinity Fellow for Spiritual Care