Behind "repent or perish"

March 1, 2010

Had there been a vote on the subject in my church youth group, my peers
would have decided without much debate that I was the least likely
person to become a pastor. Due to some kind of inverted sense of
personal integrity, I rejected what I considered to be any overly pious
songs—“They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” “For Those Tears I
Died”—because as an adolescent, I didn’t feel particularly loving toward
anybody.

I refused to sing in the choir or to participate in
“rapture practice,” those random moments when our youth director would
yell out “rapture!” and all of the teenagers would raise their hands
above their heads and shout “whooo!” as if we were being sucked up into
heaven like so many dust bunnies vacuumed away from beneath the bed. My
youth directors found my attitude troubling. I was uncooperative. In
Bible study, I giggled during the Lazarus story (“he stinketh”). They argued that my salvation was at stake.

I
never thought I would stick with Christianity because I grew up
believing that Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel text were the summation of
the Christian faith: repent or perish. Although I was told that he was
loving, Christ was presented by our leaders as an angry, petty man who
spoke on behalf of an even angrier God. Even as a teenager I thought,
what kind of God works that way, and how could people refer to “him” as
loving? If I was going to hell, I was going to do so on my own
terms—because I knew that I could never be good enough to make it into
heaven on my own.

My father’s death changed everything. He didn’t
believe in the God I learned about in youth group, although he was a
regular churchgoer. He believed in a God of grace, a God whose greatest
joy is to welcome someone like me, a sinner. A God who delights in
raising the dead from their tombs. It was at my father’s deathbed that
this God broke through to me. I needed to hear the immense “yes,” this
almost unbelievable promise, before I could hear the “no.”

Now I
hear Luke’s words in an entirely different context. Now I know that God
will risk all, and that because of this gracious God, who in Christ took
on flesh and bone and adrenal glands, I will never be separated from
God’s love. I know that I cannot make it on my own terms, that I will
fail myself and others, that we will die. I know that beneath the hard
“no” of “repent or perish” is a far deeper “yes”—a yes that spans time
and space, that sweetly hobbles even the hardest heart.

Additional
lectionary columns by Evensen appear in the February 23 issue of the
Century—click here to subscribe.