“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A question that all Christians should ask themselves is why we think that Jesus’ commandments still apply to us today. I mean, here we are now, living more than two thousand years after the fact -- why do we think that Jesus’ teaching is still relevant to our lives? Now, if your answer is simply that Jesus is God and we should probably do what God tells us to do, then you’ve pretty much got it right already. It would certainly be hard to improve on that answer. But then again, that answer would only prompt us to ask another question, which is why don’t always obey Jesus’ commandments like we claim to believe we should. If we’re being honest with ourselves, do we even know what his commandments are? In any case, whether we do or we don’t, it seems clear that the simple belief that Jesus is God and thus that his commandments are God’s commandments isn’t enough to ensure our obedience. Of course, it should be enough -- after all, what commandments could be more mandatory or more binding on us than those of God? -- but even still, the mere knowledge of who Jesus is doesn’t seem to necessarily translate into our obedience of what he commands us to do.
The equally simple answer to this further question is, of course, that we are sinners, every one of us -- even Christians who have been reborn by the will of God into the state of grace. To be a Christian in this life is to find oneself constantly engaged in battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yes, we have been liberated from the bondage of original sin by our baptisms, and thereby have received the infusion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit into our souls. It is therefore now possible for us to exercise these graces as we grow in conformity to the pattern of Christ -- growing, that is, “by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days,” as we pray in the General Thanksgiving at the end of the Daily Office. But the struggle remains nevertheless; and the way of Christ is the narrow one.
But that we begin each and every day as Christians in a state of compromise and in our lingering sins is a fact that Jesus himself even recognizes in his commandment to us today. That Jesus tells us first to repent means that he takes for granted that we have already failed in our obedience. He doesn’t go straight to all of the good works that we’re supposed to do. He doesn’t say that “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, so now it’s time to get after it with your prayers and your almsgiving!” Instead, he starts by calling us first to repentance and then to believe in the gospel.
Notice the order of things in Jesus’ commandment: he instructs us to begin with an action -- namely, repentance -- and then proceed to the knowledge of believing in the gospel. Our belief in the gospel proceeds from the action of our repentance. And this makes our belief a special kind of knowledge. There is no abstract “belief” in the God that has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, that is not rooted first in an active response of people to that revelation. The knowledge of God’s saving work in and for us is inseparable from the work of repentance. As St. James puts it so clearly in his Epistle, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). So one thing that we can take away from Jesus’ teaching to us today is that it’s not enough just to claim that we “believe” in the gospel as some kind of general principle of life. To believe in the gospel is to have subjected oneself to the repentance that is the necessary response to the this gospel.
This is why the proclamation that Jesus makes just before giving us his commandment is so significant. He announces to those in Galilee that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” -- and it is this statement, this revelation, to which the people are to respond with their repentance and belief in the gospel. Indeed, “the gospel” that they are to believe in here is precisely that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” But it’s the announcement itself that conditions the kind of response that the people are to make. And, for that matter, the kind of response that we are to make, even today. Because, again, the time is fulfilled. It’s another way of saying that, with the arrival of Christ, the time is up. There’s no longer any time left for presumptions about a future that is still conveniently far off. Repentance is not something that can be procrastinated now that Christ has made himself known.
So Christian repentance takes on a new form because of the revelation of Christ and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Christian repentance is a direct response to the fact that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. This announcement form our Lord is therefore a forever present one: the time is fulfilled now; the kingdom of God is at hand -- that is, at this very moment. And I would go so far as to say that this is the main reason why Christ commands us to respond first with repentance. Because repentance is what we do when we’re caught by surprise by the revelation of Christ, when who we really are at this very moment is suddenly exposed by the Light. Until the time is fulfilled, there’s always next week, so to speak; there’s always some later date when we could hypothetically be better or more obedient than we currently are. It’s like when someone decides to start exercising, for instance: until they actually make their first trip to the gym, they likely imagine themselves keeping up the workouts as if they had been in the habit for a long time already. But when the first day of their new exercise regimen does finally arrive, it’s then that they discover how difficult it really will be; how unprepared they are at the beginning to set themselves to the task. And this goes for any goal that we might choose to pursue; it’s always easier to keep deferring necessary changes in our lives, because it allows us to keep pretending that we’re really already fine as we are. It’s because the responsibility of your goal is not yet at hand -- because the time is not yet fulfilled -- that you can indefinitely postpone the need to be honest with yourself; to come to terms with your failures.
But, again, when the time is fulfilled and Christ makes himself manifest, bringing the kingdom of God with him, there’s no time left for pretending. The only choice is between honesty and the repentance of ours sins or denial and posturing with a fake self-righteousness. And it’s only the first choice that opens us up to the possibility of believing in the gospel and of entering into the kingdom of God.
For us today, the time is still just as fulfilled as it was when Jesus first entered Galilee preaching the gospel. Christ is forever and always; as the Son of God, he transcends time altogether and therefore his Gospel is likewise eternal. It is eternally relevant, which is to say that it is a depth of truth that confronts every human heart at all times and in all places. It comes to us wherever we are at any given moment, and exposes us for who we really are. Repentance, therefore, as John Henry Newman puts it, “is a work never complete, never entire”; it always remains “unfinished both in its inherent imperfection, and on account of the...fresh occasions which arise for exercising it” .
We are not dealing with the mere memory of some past event that we happen to find inspiring or interesting. The revelation of Christ and his gospel continues to shine even now. And what it shines upon is our countless imperfections and sins that remain. The only appropriate response is to acknowledge what is exposed in us and ask God for the grace of contrition. We will only believe in the Gospel by beginning in such humility. Practically speaking, we can start our repentance in the easiest of ways. The mercy of God does not present us with an impossibly high standard of excellence that’s out of reach. Instead, he has condescended to provide us with the most ordinary means of grace to begin slowly moving towards perfection. We don’t start with the “high affections” of the deepest spirituality or anything like that; we start “with what looks like a form”; we start with simple acts like regular attendance at the mass, saying our prayers both morning and evening every day, and diligently studying the Scriptures . Basic stuff. “For it is our duty,” to quote Newman again as we close:
...to be ever striving and praying to enter into the real spirit of our services, and in proportion as we understand them and love them, they will cease to be a form and a task, and will be the real expressions of our minds. Thus shall we gradually be changed in heart from servants into sons of Almighty God. 
To be so changed in heart is to gradually believe in this glorious gospel more and more, and in so doing, to enter ever more into the Kingdom of God that is now at hand, until we finally make our full entrance into that Kingdom as the inheritance that God will grant us as his saints. We take our first step in that direction every day with a renewed act of repentance -- for we are ever beginners in the Christian life -- by “an unconditional surrender” of ourselves to God . Now is as good of a time as any, for “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Amen.
[1-4] John Henry Newman. "Christian Repentance." Parochial and Plain Sermons. 542-546.