By Rev. J.C. Austin
The other day I was looking for what’s called a “plug-in” for my Internet browser, which is sort of like an optional extra feature to let you do things more easily when you’re online. I have plug-ins that do things like clip articles I see online into an app where I can read and organize them, or manage my various passwords, or link up with my social media accounts to share things more easily.
As I was looking for something else, I found a plug-in that caught my eye which has a very specific function. It’s called “Just Not Sorry,” and it scans your emails before you send them, if you’re using a Gmail account, to highlight anything you’ve said that undermines or weakens the power of your message, such as “I’m sorry to be a bother, I just need one quick thing,” or “I’m sorry, I just want to ask a question.” It then offers you suggestions on how to rephrase things so you can make your points more clearly and confidently and without diminishing your own confidence or authority in the process.
This is all part of a larger argument that there is something of an over-apology problem in our society. Some of that is just a way of trying to be polite while asking something of someone else: “I’m sorry, but I asked for no ketchup on my burger.” But even there, it’s not a good approach when you think about it. You’re not the one who is supposed to be apologizing in that moment; you asked for them to accommodate a need, they agreed and then failed to do so.
You don’t have to be rude about it, but it’s not rude simply to ask someone to fix a mistake that they have made. And this is a particular problem for women, Black people, and other people of color in our society, who have generally been socialized to take up less “space,” that their own needs or preferences or authority are somehow an imposition on others or subject to their approval.
On the other hand, we have a problem with under-apologies in our society, as well. A slang phrase in recent years has been “Sorry (not sorry),” which at its best is a sort of doubling down on something you’ve said that is snarky but true, turning the over-apology to be polite on its head. But it’s not a bad description of a more problematic habit, especially by people in positions of power. Celebrities, politicians of all allegiances, and other public figures have all utilized the “non-apology apology.” You know what I’m talking about. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “I’m sorry if anyone was offended when they misunderstood my words.” Or the so-called king of non-apologies, which is especially popular in politics and institutional life: “mistakes were made.”
What both of these approaches, the over-apology and the non-apology apology, have in common is that they are rooted, obviously, in the word “apology.” And that starts getting to the heart of the problem. I remember the first book I read in my Introduction to Western Philosophy class in college was The Apology of Socrates by Plato. I knew it was about Socrates being on trial for charges of corruption and impiety, so, not knowing much of anything about Socrates himself besides him being important, I assumed it was his attempt to plea for mercy from his accusers.
But the book is actually a dialogue between Socrates and his accusers in which Socrates engages in an impassioned self-defense through rigorously logical argumentation. Which actually makes total sense, because the word “apology” comes from the Greek word “apologia,” which does not mean “statement of sorrow or remorse,” but “statement of explanation and defense.” We have painted over that meaning with our associations of apology with contrition, but the original meaning still seeps through like a bright red wall that we’ve tried to cover up with a single layer of white primer. That’s what the over-apology and the non-apology apology have in common: an attempt to explain, defend, or justify one’s actions.
I don’t honestly know if this linguistic and conceptual struggle was true back in the first century, but I do think it’s significant that, for John the Baptist, renewed faithfulness begins with a baptism of repentance. Mark says John “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and that pretty soon people from all over the countryside and from Jerusalem itself were going out there into the wilderness to listen to him, confess their sins, and receive John’s baptism of repentance.
All too often, we think and act like an apology, a confession, and repentance are all the same thing. They are not. Nowhere does John (or Jesus) talk about apologies or apologizing. In fact, the concept of apologizing does not appear anywhere in the Bible; the word “apologia” or any of its derivatives is not used even once. John the Baptist is calling for something very different than an apology, a statement of explanation or defense; in fact, pretty much the opposite of it.
Which is perhaps why he had to go out into the wilderness to call for and proclaim it, because as I’ve discussed before, the wilderness is a place where all the predictable order and defenses of civilization are gone, and so it is a place in which it is somehow easier to recognize that you are at the mercy of forces that are bigger than you, and dependent on their grace, because you can’t explain or defend your way out of an encounter with the full strength of the wilderness. I’ve always thought it was odd that people talk about “conquering” something like Mount Everest. If you make it to the top of Mount Everest and back again, you didn’t defeat it; it just allowed you to live this time.
Repentance is the opposite of an apology. It is entering a plea of guilty, not establishing an argument for the defense. And so repentance begins with confession, as this passage describes. The people were going out into the wilderness and being baptized, confessing their sins as they do so. But confession and repentance are not the same thing, either. Confession is admitting what you have done or not done; repentance is saying that you understand the consequences of what you are confessing, that you regret them, and that you will strive to do things differently in the future. It is perfectly possible to confess and not repent, to admit you have done something and have no regrets it about it.
To do that, to confess without repentance, is to make an end that is not really any different from not having confessed at all, because it leaves you standing at the dead end of a wrong path out of the wilderness. But repentance is not where things end; it is where things begin. Repentance means to turn in a new direction: turn away from the past, from sin, from the things, including the things we have done or not done, that separate us from God; and to turn towards God, towards faithfulness, turn towards Jesus and to follow him.
You hear this in the liturgy of Baptism; listen when we get to that soon after this sermon. The parents of these children will be asked if they renounce evil and its power in the world, if they renounce the ways of sin that seek to separate them from the love of God. These renunciations are the turning away; in fact, in the early church those being Baptized were generally adults, and they would face west in answering those questions, the direction of the setting sun, symbolizing death.
Then they will be asked, “do you turn to Jesus Christ and confess him Lord and Savior?” That is the act of repentance, the turning in the new direction. And again, in the early church the candidate would literally physically turn to face the east to answer, facing the direction of the rising sun, symbolizing life and light coming into the world.
The basic question that often gets asked about this story of the Baptism of the Lord is, “why would Jesus need to receive a baptism of repentance if he was ‘in every respect tested as we are, yet without sin’?” (Heb 4:15). I think that’s the answer: Jesus is demonstrating that repentance is where true faith and discipleship and life as God intends it truly begins, and is inviting us to follow. And you can see it in this scene as Jesus’ baptism happens. Mark narrates it like a newscaster watching something dramatic unfolding in real time: “Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on him, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; in you I am well-pleased.”
Which is the other side of repentance being where it all begins instead of end. Because John’s practice of baptism stopped at repentance. It was a baptism of beginning, of preparation, of waiting: waiting for Christ to come and truly begin the work of reconciling the world to God, overcoming every division, driving off every force that opposes it, binding up everything and everyone that is broken. Reconciliation is not, and cannot be, a beginning; it is an end, it is the end, it is the purpose and goal of Christ’s ministry to and through us as his followers. But it begins in repentance: in telling the truth, expressing regret, turning in a new direction, and waiting for Christ to show us the path forward.
In Christ, through the ministry of repentance, there is always an opportunity to begin again. No matter how far gone you think you are, no matter how long you have been lost, no matter where you are; every day, every moment, every breath, every beat of your heart is an opportunity to turn towards a new beginning, for the heavens to be torn open and God’s Spirit to find us, and claim us, to breathe into us and whisper, “you are the Beloved. In you I am well-pleased.”