Monday, September 9, 2013

Conversion - real and ongoing

We come here each Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, to celebrate the newness of life that Jesus gives us. 

St Paul wrote to the early Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Did you hear that? “Newness of life!” Through faith and baptism the power of Jesus’ resurrection is released into the Church, the community he gathers around him. We are new people.

This is a work of God’s grace. It is nothing less than a miracle. 

St Paul wrote to the early Christians in Corinth: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (1 Corinthians 5:17)

This morning I want to share with you some things about conversion. 

There are those who turn to Christ as adults whose conversion experience is sudden, perhaps as the result of one single act of worship or an evangelistic gathering during which the scales fall from their eyes. It is as if they are overwhelmed by grace, and they just know that the Lord is real and wants to come into their lives. 

But for others the whole journey - while no less a work of God’s grace - is much more gradual, involving years of picking through difficult philosophical questions and emotional problems, and working through the accumulation of probabilities that indicate the existence of God.

Every priest and pastor can testify that even in our tough anti-God culture there is a constant trickle of people from all walks of life being converted to Jesus. Such conversion experiences, whether sudden or gradual, especially in adulthood, are nothing less than revolutionary. Theologian Bernard Lonergan wrote: 

“. . . conversion occurs in the lives of individuals. It is not merely a change or even a development; rather it is a radical transformation on which follows, on all levels of living, an interlocked series of changes and developments. What hitherto was unnoticed becomes vivid and present. What had been of no concern becomes a matter of high import. So great a change in one’s apprehensions and one’s values accompanies no less a change in oneself, in one’s relations to other persons, and in one’s relations to God.”  

There is a third group of adults – perhaps some of you here today – who have been brought up in the Church and who can never remember a time when they didn’t believe or when they didn’t feel close to God. It can be difficult for these people to understand the excitement of new converts.

And sadly, - not in this parish, but in many others! - “cradle believers” have occasionally been known to behave in a very snooty and snobbish way towards the newly converted. 

But just as sadly, it is not completely unknown – not here, but in other places! – for zealous new converts to treat “cradle believers” as if their faith is second rate because they haven't got a "capital T" testimony of conversion. 

Let’s not fall into either trap. We should be thankful to the Lord for the great blessing of a conversion experience, as well as for the equally great blessing of having been raised in the community of faith and love, and never to have strayed. The same Lord is the giver of both blessings. 

But, whether we had a dramatic conversion experience that changed the direction of our life, or whether we have always been among the Lord’s converted people, we have one really important thing in common: THE LORD CALLS US TO AN ONGOING CONVERSION OF LIFE.

This means not just being thankful for our baptism, our conversion, or other significant events of the past, but being open to God and his love NOW, seeking his will, obeying his Word, and discovering the gifts he has given to us so that we can be fruitful in his service. It means dealing with sin. It means, in the words of Jesus, denying ourself, taking up our cross daily and following him. (Luke 9:23)

It means living in the reality - as they knew even in the Old Testament - that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are NEW EVERY MORNING; and great is his faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
But when we think about conversion we need to be careful not to see it just in terms of ticking the boxes against a list of propositions about God that we have come to believe in our heads. There is a kind of evangelism and Christian witness that is OK in its place, but which seems to forget that CONVERSION IS NOT JUST A MATTER OF CHANGING WHAT YOU BELIEVE; IT IS ABOUT CHANGING WHO YOU LOVE MOST.

Didn’t the Master say: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength . . . and your neighbour as yourself? (See Mark 12:29-31)

Ticking the doctrinal boxes – understanding the nuts and bolts of the Christian faith – is, of course, important . . . VERY important. You know that. We spend a huge amount of time and energy teaching the truth about God the Father, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the Bible, about the sacraments . . . all the things God has revealed to us.  But on its own, ticking the doctrinal boxes is NOT “conversion.” Nor is our ongoing conversion primarily a matter of learning more doctrine or understanding the Bible and the Church’s teaching better, although we should be doing those things as well. 

Ongoing conversion is a continuing surrender of ourselves to the love that sought us from all eternity, the everlasting love we see in the Saviour hanging on the cross for us. Ongoing conversion is about allowing the newness of life Jesus gives us - the power of his resurrection - to surge through us daily, to continually re-fashion every aspect of our being, our priorities and our loves. 

Hence the words in today’s Gospel when Jesus says that “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

What terrible words. Heartbreaking words. We cringe when we read them. Clergy hope they’re not on the preaching roster when those words come up in the readings! 

They are, of course hyperbole, a form of speech very much in vogue among the Jewish people at the time of Jesus. What the Lord is telling us is that real conversion of life means that he is our first love. Of course, he also wants us to love our families with a truly sacrificial love. That is spelt out in other parts of the Bible. But every now and then – and you know this as well as I do – there is a situation where someone, in order to respond to the Lord, has literally to give up everything, and that can mean being cut off from family and friends. It is a hard thing to cope with, and there is heartache all round.

I think of St Perpetua, converted to Jesus in second century Carthage in North Africa, who, in spite of her father’s love and tears remained faithful to the Lord, and died a martyr’s death.

I think of St Francis of Assisi in early 13th century Italy whose response to Jesus meant estrangement from his wealthy father. (But it also meant the renewal of the Church in the Gospel!)

I think of Edith Stein, the brilliant Jewish girl who became an atheist before then being converted to Jesus. Her mother was deeply hurt by her conversion, but Edith knew she must respond to Jesus, and, indeed, eventually died a martyr’s death in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

I think of so many young men whose parents have not wanted them to respond to the call of Jesus to be priests, but they responded anyway.

I think of young men and women who heard Jesus call them away from family businesses, worldly success and even their inheritances in order to go into isolated poverty-stricken places as missionaries, incarnating in their lives the love of the Lord Jesus for the people to whom they were sent, so often paying the price of rejection by their own families. 

Well, that’s the first thing. We love him most.

The second thing is that ongoing conversion means allowing the newness of life we have in Jesus to impact on all our relationships, with sometimes surprising countercultural results. 

That is the message of today’s second reading, a very short letter written by St Paul to his friend, Philemon, who lived in Colossae.

Philemon and his wife Apphia were well off, and the church met in their house. One of the household slaves – Onesimus – had run away, possibly stealing from Philemon to help finance his escape. But, like many other people, Onesimus was converted to Christ through the ministry of St Paul who was under house arrest, most likely in Rome. Not only that, but young Onesimus was formed in the life of faith by a cluster of the early Church’s most notable leaders, including Mark and Luke (Philemon 23-24; Colossians 4:7-14). 

What could Paul to do with Onesimus, who was technically a criminal, and who could expect to be severely punished for running away?

In his letter, Paul calls Onesimus “my child”, and says that Philemon is to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). If the conversion of Onesimus is remarkable, no less remarkable is the ongoing conversion of Philemon, who, despite the social arrangements of the time, faces this Gospel challenge to his household relationships. 

According to early church tradition, Onesimus was set free when he returned to Philemon. He became a preacher of the Gospel, and forty years later, by the time Bishop Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Church at Ephesus, Onesimus had become the Bishop there (Ignatius to the Ephesians 1.3; 2.1; 6.2).

All because St Paul urged upon Philemon that the newness of life we have in Jesus, and the love which has touched our lives in him, be reflected in our network of relationships and in our treatment of others, specifically recognising the new lines of kinship that are established in Christ. 

In fact, in the early Church, the greatest impact for the Gospel was made, not so much by the actual preaching of the apostles or those who came after them, but by the quality of the fellowship, the communion, the shared life, of those who had been converted. People could see evidence of the love of God and the power of Jesus’ resurrection being released in these communities. Many ended up responding to the Gospel, so as to be drawn into the same life, and experience the same realities. Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark makes this clear in his recent studies on the nature of early church growth.

What about us? Surely the Lord is calling us to embrace the challenge of continuing conversion, not just - or even primarily - for our own blessing, but so that we as a community of faith are being changed from glory to glory into a magnet of love and new life for those around us who are seeking the reality of God.


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