Archbishop Vincent M. Concessao, Archbishop of Delhi
We have gathered here on the Rhodes islands, a beautiful surrounding and though surrounded by a lot of sea water, sometimes known for its tidal waves, storms and tsunamis, the atmosphere is rather quiet, a fitting ambience for reflection on matters that are related to the spirit. I am thankful to the organizers, particularly Ms. Vassula for inviting me to share my views.
Let us look at what Transformation is. In an organizational context, it is a process of profound and radical change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness. It is no mere incremental progress on the same plane or a change from a bad situation to a good one. Transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.
Frances Vaughan puts it beautifully, “Transformation really means a change in the way you see the world – and a shift in how you see yourself. It is not simply a change in your point of view, but rather a whole different perception of what is possible. It is the capacity to expand your worldview so that you can appreciate different perspectives, so that you can hold multiple perspectives simultaneously. You are not just moving around from one point of view to another, you are really expanding your awareness to encompass more possibilities. Transformation implies a change in the sense of self.”
Here we are going to reflect on transformation of the spirit which is again quite different and pertains to the spiritual world rather than biological, technical or material world. The two main themes or points to remember in our reflection are Repentance and Love.
Repentance is the act of changing one’s mind. Webster defines the word as “to feel sorry for or reproachful for what one has done or has not done”. Webster also gives the definition as to feel such regret and dissatisfaction over some past action or intention as to change one’s mind about it or to change one’s way.
Repentance involves changing one’s affections – from earthly things to heavenly things. It involves turning to the living God from a god of self. It is looking unto Christ instead of looking unto any other.
Repentance requires the rejection of sin and surrender to God. Repentance is a
return to God. Repentance implies also the right attitude toward self. The Prodigal Son came to himself. Repentance is the right attitude toward others. The Phillipian jailer took Paul and Silas the same hour of the night and washed their stripes.
Repentance is not gloomy despair. When Judas sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver, he was filled with gloom and despair, so much so that he committed suicide, but he did not repent. Repentance is not quitting a sin for a season, it is totally turning from that act of sin, a complete one hundred-eighty degree turn. Repentance is not concealing sin. David tried to conceal his sin, but God exposed it. Even we know about David’s sin today.
Repentance must be followed by works proving that change. In (Acts 19:19), repentance was evidenced in the bringing of books valued at fifty thousand pieces of silver and burning them before all men. This let all men know of the change. All need to repent. All sin and as a result, all need to turn from sin and turn to righteousness. Again when Paul was speaking from the Areopagus to the Athenians and reasoning with them concerning the living God, he told them that in times past God had overlooked the ignorance of the Athenians, but now commanded all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17: 30).
The Thessalonians showed their sincerity by turning from idols to serve the one true God, (1Thessalonians 1: 9). Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians and included a scathing denunciation of their sinful deeds. However, part of the second letter to them was written commending them for turning from their vile way of living.
A certain man had two sons, and he said unto one, “Go work today in my vineyard”, and he answered, ‘I will not’: but afterward he repented and went” (Matthew 21: 28-29). Whatever this young man did, Jesus said he repented. Jesus called his action repentance. The young man reflected over the matter, he came to know that he was wrong, realizing that he had sinned against his father. Having arrived at this conclusion, the young man turned his face in the opposite direction and did according to his father’s request.
People not walking on the right path need to repent. In Acts Chapter 8, the story is told of a man who obeyed the gospel, he was baptized, but later for the love of gold and popularity, he wanted to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit. At this time it seems apparent that Simon’s heart was not sincere and pure. God, knowing the hearts of all people and certainly knowing the heart of Simon on this occasion, directed Peter by the Holy Spirit to tell Simon to “repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven thee”, ( Acts 8: 22). The thing that was first and that was indispensable was to repent or change his attitude and desire. Simon was commanded to exercise proper sorrow for this act and to abandon his plan or principle or action. This lets us know today that all unrighteous people are exhorted to repent. This is their first work. They are not told to wait, to read, to pray, to receive an experience, to relate a revelation in the expectation that repentance will be given to them. Such unrighteous beings are to repent, to change their affection, and to turn to the living God. Then prayer will be acceptable and only when we repent, will God hear and answer. When someone comes without giving up his sins and resolving to continue committing them, God will not hear him, (John 9: 31, I Peter 3: 12).
There is a blessing in repentance. For the one who has never been baptized into Christ, turning to the living God is the initial step of his response to the love of God about which he has heard, and believed, by being drawn by the life of Jesus Christ, the Savior of humankind. For those who have, like Simon, been directed by the love of power and the love of the world, it is that initial act that leads one to be restored to his former relationship with the Father.
The letter of St. Peter says that the goodness of God should lead any man to repentance, “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This is the goodness of God. This is the love of God.
Repentance is a change in our affection, a turning to God. Leaving Satan and serving the Savior saves one from destruction. Christ said and Luke wrote it down in Chapter 13, verse 3 of his account of the gospel of Christ, “I tell you nay, unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish”. It is bad to sin, but it is worse to sin and not repent.
One of the hardest things for men and women to do is to repent of their sins. Repentance is a direct challenge to man’s pride. It demands that he humble himself before God, and give up everything that is contrary to his will. The holy demands of repentance have kept many of the arrogant out of the kingdom of God.
Repentance is a duty imposed upon all humankind. It is a plain command of God, and no man can refuse to repent without bearing the responsibility that must come upon him. When Jesus gave the world-wide commission, He said, “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations . . . (Luke 24:47).
Let us clear away some of the misunderstanding about repentance by learning what it is NOT. In the first place, repentance is not simply being afraid. Paul convicted Felix of his sins, Felix trembled with fear but he did not repent and turn (Acts 24:25). There are many people today who are afraid when they think of their sinfulness, but they, like Felix, refuse to repent, and die without hope.
In the second place, repentance is not simply being sorry that one has sinned. The murderers of Jesus sorrowed on Pentecost at Peter’s preaching. They were pierced in their hearts by sorrow. Yet they were told to repent (Acts 2:38). Their sorrow was a response to Peter’s preaching of God’s Word. In the third place, repentance is not simply and solely a reformation of life. A man may quit sin and yet not repent toward God. He may quit because that particular sin renders him unpopular in his business or among his associates. Thus, he may reform his life for selfish reasons, but such reformation is not repentance. Simply stated, repentance is a change of mind, and will, based upon sorrow (II Corinthians 7:10), and resulting in a manner of life directed by Christ (Acts 26:20).
Our Lord gave us an example of repentance which we can all understand, He said, “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard, He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went” (Matthew 21-28-29). This boy began to reflect on what he had done, and he realized that he had disobeyed his father, He became conscious of the fact that he sinned against his father, who was responsible for his very existence, and when he came to himself, he acknowledge that wrong, and then corrected it. He changed HIS MIND (repented) and did that which he said he would not do. Jesus said that was repentance.
Christ said to the Pharisees that, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here” (Matthew 12:41). Jesus here says that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonas. The Bible says: “God saw their works that they turned from their evil way (Jonah 3:10). The preaching of the prophet of God changed the mind of the Ninevites, and this change led them to turn from their evil way. This change of mind was repentance.
The Lord has given men two motives as the means of bringing them to repentance. The first motive God uses to bring about repentance is love. The Bible says, “. . . not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). The goodness of God is revealed in the life and death of His only Son, Jesus Christ. As we study the life of our Lord, who made it possible for poor sinners to be saved, and to become children of God, we ask why all this flow of love, why all this display of goodness?
The second motive is fear. The Bible writers say, ” For all the truth about us will be brought out in the law court of Christ and each of us will get what he deserves for the things he did in the body god or bad.” (II Corinthians 5:10-11). This statement and all the warnings in the Bible are intended to move us to repent of our sins.
A little reflection on Love which should bring Transformation
The first thing that comes to my mind about love is from the Gospel of St. John, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son…” (John 3: 16), one of the most oft quoted verses to present Christianity to the world. Let us be clear that for us Christians we believe that it is God who took the initiative to love us first, as John in his letter says again, “ This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10)”.
But before John comes to saying that God loved us first in verse 10, in verse 7 & 8 he says, “ Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”.
Even before we can start speaking about how love can transform our spirit, we must establish two things that are emphasized in the 1st letter of St. John chapter 4, one, that God loved us first and two that we need to love one another, not only because God loved us first and that love comes from God but also because St. John would say that ‘whoever does not love does not know God’.
There are many things that can be said about the power of love from different angles. It is said that love is the most used, misused and even abused word in languages as well as in life. But the underlying message we get out from it is that love by its very nature is outgoing. God had to share it with us human beings, “He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”. What is also to be remembered is that God’s love is gratuitous and given freely. Not because we deserved it, as St. Paul puts it in the letter to the Romans, “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 7-8). We find this all the time. In fact the whole of salvations history of humankind is this. God created Adam and Eve out of His free gift of love and then even when they committed sin, He did not abandon them. Throughout the whole of Old Testament, God takes the initiative and sends prophets after prophets to bring people back to the right path through repentance.
In Isaiah chapter 49, God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely even if she forgets, yet I will not forget you. See I have carved you on the palms of my hand” (Is. 49: 15-16). Again in Jeremiah we hear, ““I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jer. 31:3). In Hosea we find, “But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them” (Hosea 11: 2-4).
When we come to the texts of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus we find again and again Jesus emphasizing about the “unconditional love of God, His generosity; His forgiveness; His compassion and kindness”. The New Testament is full of it and though it is difficult to pick out special references, I will just take examples of one parable and a couple of incidents from the Gospels and elaborate a bit from St. Paul’s letter to Corinthians chapter 13. The first is the parable of the prodigal son. Though the parable has many different teachings for us, the two most important ones are about requirements for transformation of the Spirit, i.e. repentance and love.
We find in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel, the most touching stories of the New Testament – that of the Prodigal Son. But already in verses 7 and 10 of the same chapter we find Jesus saying, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance”. This is something we have seen already.
Then from verses 11 onwards we find the story of the prodigal son and notice here that the prodigal son returns to the father and is repentant of his sins and the father showers his unconditional love on him and forgives him. That’s what brings about transformation in the son. If the parable were to continue I would like to think that the prodigal would have been depicted the most obedient son because now he had come to know his Father whom he did not really know before. Had he known his Father he would not have gone away and ended up in misery.
Another very good example of transformation of one’s spirit through repentance and love is that of Zacchaeus a senior tax collector. He was not happy with his condition. Money he must have had in plenty but I wonder if anybody ever smiled at him because tax collectors were looked down upon as sinners. He must have heard about Jesus and that must have given him some hope of finding peace which money could not get for him. Hence, when he came to know that Jesus was passing by, we are told that he ran and climbed a sycamore tree. Adults normally do not run on the street, much less climb trees. It looks like the hope that Jesus gave him some how had already enabled him to experience freedom that love brings about.
We do not know what he expected from Jesus but when Jesus saw him what a surprise he had. Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. The man was so overwhelmed with this invitation that he experienced instant conversion. He got a new image of himself, no more as what people thought he was but as what Jesus thought he was. A stingy man who had been storing up wealth all these years suddenly becomes so generous that he gives half of his property to the poor and four times whatever he had to pay others. That is the power of love which gives a new image of the person loved and brings about a transformation in his very self-perception. He looks at himself differently and he looks also at others differently as a result of being really loved.
The initiative of Jesus gave Zacchaeus a new image of himself as made in the likeness of God. Others were no more threats to him. They were fellow human beings, his own brothers and sisters, and that is why he gave so generously. The moment Jesus entered his life money had no more value. He would give it away without any thought for the next day. Someone has said that Zacchaeus must have exhausted his money to keep the promise he had made and possibly had to dispose even off his house but now it did not matter. Jesus had entered his life. He was precious in the eyes of Jesus and that was enough.
One more example is of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This is an extraordinary example of the expression of Jesus’ love. Again there are many things that can be said about this unique event in the gospel of John. But it is worth reflecting that by doing this Jesus is making the lives of his apostles immeasurably more challenging. He is showing them exactly what it means to be a servant. He serves the man who will in a few hours deny ever knowing him. He serves the man who will in a few hours turn him in to the soldiers. He serves the man who, three years before, had questioned what good can come out of Nazareth?. He serves the men who argued over who was the greatest among them.. He is washing the feet that will, in a few hours, run away from him. And it isn’t like he didn’t know what these feet, these hearts, were going to do. Jesus told them what they were going to do later. But he still washed their feet. And his behavior invites us to do what he did. He expects that we will, when we are with those who we are closest to, who we are most likely to treat with familiarity or disdain, drop to our knees and help them.
If love has to be transforming then it has to turn into humble and loving service of others. Mother Teresa, whom I had opportunities to meet several times in India, including giving a retreat to her and her sisters, has set before us an example of that love in service. When we get involved in that kind of love, there won’t be time for anything else for we will have been already transformed by God’s love in our lives. We must not imagine either that serving others out of love will always be a matter of inner joy. It wasn’t so to Blessed Teresa. For the greater part of her life she went through the dark night of the soul to such an extent that once she wrote: If there is hell it is this.
What sustained her in her darkness was the explanation given to her by her spiritual father, namely, that she was sharing the agony of Jesus on the cross when he cried out to God: “ Father why have you abandoned me?” And that she was also experiencing the rejection and the loneliness and the isolation that the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients and the destitute dying on the streets go through.
The transformation that repentance and love bring about should not be thought of as an ecstatic state of life but truly accompanying Jesus in his death and resurrection all through in this life and abiding peace and joy hereafter.