A few years ago, HBO released a miniseries on the life of President John Adams. A powerful scene in the final episode depicts him, in the last years of his life, walking with one of his sons. He has lost all the vigor of his youth (he can no longer even bend his knees). He is off the world’s stage. His power and influence has largely disappeared and he is left an old man at a farmhouse. One might anticipate bitterness, the pain of loss, or a pining for younger days. But the dying President has found something new. Admiring a simple flower in a field, he remarks that, though he has seen the French queen, “all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much.” The world has become wondrous to him. It is new and alight with grace. His monologue concludes with an exuberant quotation from Saint Paul, “Rejoice evermore!”
In our gospel this weekend, we hear Jesus’ first sermon: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Repentance is a lot like dying. Both entail loss and a diminishment of our sense of self. Repentant, we acknowledge our weakness, our frailties, our failures. The dying person confronts the same. As we repent, we are stripped of our attachments and comforts. The same happens to the dying. We like thinking about our faults about as much as we like thinking about death. Both are experiences of loss. But, as President Adams shows us, there is new and wondrous life to be found as well. Coming to the end of his life, enduring the loss of everything once important to him, he discovers a new world whose splendor surpasses all he once valued. Dying has changed his perspective on what is important and what is beautiful. Repentance does the same.
Immediately after that first sermon, Jesus calls his apostles. They leave everything and follow him. They don’t wait to die to leave the world behind. They do it that instant. Doing so, they are not cast into regret and sadness, but enter the very friendship of God. They rejoice here. Abandoning their former way of life, they find what President Adams would find much later: a world filled with the presence of God. The President learns to “rejoice evermore,” but with this one regret: “Oh I wish [those words] had always been in my heart and on my tongue.” We need not share his regret. Today, enduring the little death of repentance, we will find new life. Abandoning all that is not of God, we’re given new eyes to see that “the kingdom of God is at hand.”