My daughter Meredith plays the flute. It’s not likely that she’ll make a living with her instrument, but she’s an accomplished musician. She has mastered various scales over the years. In other words, she reliably plays the correct notes in a range of keys. But musicianship involves more than merely playing the right notes.
Meredith’s first flute was perfectly suitable for a beginner and for an intermediate level flutist. With that first instrument she learned to be precise. Eventually her teacher told us that, for Meredith to reach the next level, she needed a better flute.
The first time Meredith played the new flute we could hear the difference in tonal quality immediately. This instrument produced a sweeter, richer sound. With this flute Meredith would, with hours of work, be able to express the emotional depths and textures of different pieces of music.
In other words, Meredith could now work not only to play the right notes, but to achieve the right tone. Interpreting a piece’s tone requires technical precision, to be sure. And yet it also involves something deeper. Something spiritual. It’s as if she has to be inhabited by the spirit of the piece in order to play it like she means it.
At this juncture you may be wondering what in heaven’s name Meredith’s musicianship has to do with John the Baptist. Well, my daughter’s musical gifts have nothing to do with John’s personality or his scruffy appearance or his ascetic diet.
However, a musician’s life does illustrate for us what John’s message prefigures about the Christian life. John preaches repentance. And an ongoing process of repentance is at the very heart of the Way of Jesus Christ. Ongoing repentance is how we learn to find the right tone for our actions.
The phrase “ongoing repentance” may strike some as peculiar. Repentance, you may think, is all about turning away from the kinds of behavior that fill us with remorse. If you have quit doing whatever it is that makes you feel guilty, then why on earth would you need to keep repenting? Presumably, God forgives you, so move on!
As it turns out, God is infinitely demanding. It is not enough to stop doing bad things. It is not even enough to do the right thing. God wants us to do it like we mean it. In other words, it is good to play the right notes, but even more pleasing when we achieve the right tone.
Love is the right tone. That’s what the Summary of the Law is all about. Love God. Love neighbor. All the rest is commentary. And love is both an act and a tone.
So, while repentance involves what we do with our hands and feet and tongue, it more fundamentally implies a transformation of our souls.
The Greek word translated as repentance means a change of mind. Or, more accurately, it means to change your whole frame of mind, your entire person. Thought processes, emotional responses, movements of the will, and attitudes toward others, in addition to your actions.
Repentance is more than a behavioral course correction, it’s a soul restoration process. St. Augustine puts it this way in his Confessions. “My soul is like a house, small for you to enter, but I pray you to enlarge it.” (Confessions I.5)
If we are doing bad things, it is good to stop doing those things. And while it is important to do those things we know to be good, the way of ongoing repentance is more than following all the rules just right. God is helping us to embody the very spirit of the law. To make room for God himself acting in and through us.
We are finite. God is infinite. To receive God into the very heart of our lives is going to involve some stretching. And there is always more of God to receive, so we are never done with the stretching.
Or should I say, God is never done with the stretching. For it is not we ourselves who can expand to receive God into our souls. Only God can stretch the human soul. Our challenging work is repentance. To admit again and again that our soul is too narrow and to surrender anew to our yearning to receive more of God.
The way of Christ is above all the way of surrender to God’s love so that we can live out of this love in all that we do. When we do that, our lives look for the most part like we are following the moral law. But in truth, the most mature moral life arises not from following rules but from loving God.
Some Christians have a different point of view. They view this life as a moral test. The purpose of life is to obey God’s law. After we draw our last breath, God will judge the adequacy with which we struck the right moral notes throughout our days.
In other words, they think of life as a moral achievement to be graded by God.
No wonder then so many of them strike such an unpleasant tone. Condescension, condemnation, and sharp criticism almost always result from a narrow focus on moral rigor. If you think of moral conduct as an achievement, it’s almost impossible to resist wearing your goodness as a badge of honor that sets you above and apart from others.
If following all the rules gives you license to condescend, to criticize, and to condemn, then you need some more time in the practice room. You may be hitting all the notes right. But you’ve got a lousy tone. As long as we rest upon a sense of our own rectitude, we’ll never be inhabited by the spirit of the law.
As Paul puts it, God’s power emerges through our powerlessness. Christ leads us to a life of radical dependence upon God, even for the moral timbre of our conduct.
And yet it is the case that some people enthrall us with their moral integrity and their commitment to justice.
For instance, I find St. Francis and Mother Teresa especially inspiring. There is nothing shrill about them. They utterly devoted themselves to Christ, leaving behind earthly comforts and social status. They served the poor and the displaced as one of them, choosing to live among those they served.
All that they did and said emerged from a deep humility. Their actions resonated with compassion and acceptance.
They recognized their own spiritual powerlessness and moral poverty. The good they did in this world was a response to the love that they had received from God. A love that cannot be earned and will never be lost.
Mother Teresa put it this way, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?”
Playing the right notes is important. But striking a lovely tone is at the very heart of following Christ. Doing the right thing is good. Doing it like we mean it is holy.
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Monroe, Louisiana.