Last year, when my nephew was two, he begged my brother to allow him to join the rest of us in the Ash Wednesday service. My brother explained to his little son that it was a “very serious” service, and if he sat with us he must be very still and quite. The two-year-old gave his word and became the youngest member of the congregation.
He really gave it his best shot and did well during the music, scripture readings and sermon, but by the time the extended prayers of the people rolled around he started getting antsy. At such a somber time in the service, leading up to the extended confession and the institution of the ashes, my brother could only whisper a couple warnings before taking action. He picked up the boy and prepared to take him to the nursery.
“Noooooooooooooo!” the congregation heard my nephew wail. “I will be quiet! I will change! I will be a new boy! Let me stay in the church!”
In a service that emphasizes repentance, what could my brother do? The munchkin repented his way back into the congregation.
I have certainly echoed my nephews wails many times (I once wrote of his longing for “the disobey” to be oooooooooooover… amen to that!). When confronted with my own sin, I am shocked, horrified, and eager to repent. I may not be able to undo my sin, but at least give me the chance to change!
But now I wonder…
What if part of the Gospel, among all the ways it transforms and sanctifies us unaware, is that we do not change? What if those mistakes I repeat year after year will never completely be eliminated, and that is actually good news? When my three-year-old nephew sits in the Ash Wednesday service the following year and requires just as much hushing the second time around, what if that proclaims the Gospel more than his perfect obedience would have?
The resurrected Jesus shouted at his fishing disciples to throw their nets on the opposite side of the boat. They obeyed the potential stranger just as they had three years earlier, and didn’t recognize their Lord until the obedience produced a catch of 153 large fish. I’ve heard many a sermon chiding their continued lack of faith, but Christ (who doesn’t hesitate to chide Peter’s lack of faith that faltered while he walked on water) does not mention it.
Even if they are disciples, they are still fishermen. Even if Peter is the rock on which Christ will build the church, he will stretch out his hands and someone else will dress him and lead him where he does not want to go. Even if my nephew repents, he remains a toddler.
As actors in God’s great drama of redemption, maybe our flaws make us all the better equipped for our roles.