Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I still believe in . . . CONVERSION!

The Mass readings over the last two Sundays have had us thinking about the real meaning of CONVERSION.

It is really untrendy in some church circles to talk about conversion - especially conversion to Jesus! In my travels I've even heard liberal so-called "missionaries" carry on about how their role is to help Hindus and Muslims etc become better Hindus and Muslims rather than to nudge them along the way to being "converted" to Jesus . . . that "this is what Jesus would want if he were on earth today" (where else have we heard that turn of phrase!!!).

Well, I'm sorry, but Jesus doesn't send us into the world JUST to "dialogue." He sends us into the world to preach the Gospel, to live the Gospel, to incarnate the Gospel in our relationships and communities so that all those people from every background, race, language and culture for whom he died and rose again will be inspired to respond to his love and come to know him as their Saviour and Lord.

Another way of putting this is to say that he sends us out as part of his "loving the world back to himself." So, obviously, we relate to those around us with respect, reverence, acceptance and love, not as potential "pew fodder", but as real people who enrich our lives, even as we long for them to give us the privilege of sharing with them what we have discovered of the Lord. That's the case whether we live in London, New York, Iran, India, China, Africa or suburban Brisbane!

And, as has happened everywhere the community of Jesus has gone over the last two thousand years, some of those we love will be converted. Praise the Lord!

I believe in conversion.

Two Sundays ago we thought about John Newton. He was born in London in 1725, and went to sea with his father at the age of eleven.

As a teenager he reluctantly worked on a battleship. He ran away, but was caught, flogged, stripped of his rank, and bullied. He was allowed to swap over to a slave trading vessel that worked the waters off Sierra Leone. Newton was brutally abused in that job also, but his luck changed when he was rescued by the captain of another ship who had known his father.

By now he had seen how wealthy a man might become trafficking in slaves, and eventually he became captain of his own slave ship.
Newton prospered.

With little or no religious conviction, it didn't matter to him whether God approved or disapproved of what he was doing.

But on one voyage home all that changed. Newton was trying to steer his vessel through a violent storm. He thought he'd come to his end. As his ship was about to sink, he surprised himself by crying out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

And, just at that moment the storm began to die down. This really got to John Newton. Eventually he became convinced that God had spoken to him through the storm.

His life changed. He got out of the slave trade. He married, studied theology, was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England, and spent the rest of his life bringing others to Christ.
He wrote these now famous words:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears reliev’d;

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;

’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Gospel reading from two Sundays ago (Matthew 20:1-16) was about workers employed at the eleventh hour who received as much as those who had laboured the whole day. The latter were annoyed about the supposed unfairness of grace.

But, God's grace ("his free gift to us of himself, his love and his help") is amazing, precisely because it saves wretches at the eleventh hour!

I guess it's easy to understand those who think that God was unfair in saving the life of that slave trader, especially when you consider how many hundreds, maybe thousands, died on Newton’s ships . . . just so that he could get rich!

But God's grace really is amazing, and in his grace he reached out to this man who had ignored him for years. And Newton was CONVERTED.

The bottom line is that you and I could never tell God that this is unjust, because we’ve all FREELY received grace from him. And the plain fact that should demolish our foolish pride is that you and I deserved God's grace not one little bit more than John Newton did. So, we're not in a position to begrudge Newton his opportunity to respond to God’s love.

That’s what the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is really about. God’s grace comes to different people at different times and in different ways.

Last Sunday we thought about the very different conversion story of Oscar Wilde.
We considered how in his book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Joseph Pearce shows Wilde’s conversion before he died to be a true surrender to Jesus - a surrender from which Wilde had backed off a number of times throughout his life.

While rightly celebrating Wilde as the scintillating genius he was, Pearce carefully examines his life-long struggle to respond to Jesus, and his frequent teetering on the brink of damnation (sometimes even courting it). The triumph of God’s grace is seen in Oscar Wilde's surrender to Jesus at the eleventh hour - and it really was the eleventh hour! It is something that all who have a ministry with the dying witness more often than others might imagine. It is always a REAL triumph, and - as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel - never, never, NEVER to be despised!

Of course, understanding this enables us to re-read Wilde in a new way, tracing his
struggle with grace all the way through his life and his writings.

On Sunday we thought about two other experiences of conversion . . .

# the university student who went on to become a priest and bishop as a result of being converted during a concert performance of Schubert's Mass in G. "Before it began," he said, "I didn't believe anything much; as we walked out at the end I realised that something had happened to me, and I now believed the lot"!

# C.S. Lewis, who described his conversion on these words: "I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. 'Emotional' is perhaps the last word we can apply to the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake." (Surprised by Joy page 237)

Of course, the tricky thing about conversion in the Christian sense is that it's not JUST about helping people change what they BELIEVE (as if our task is complete when we help them tick each of the propositions of the Apostles' Creed). It is about helping people change what (that is, "Who") they LOVE. Truth and love go together. Being converted is even more about surrendering to the drawing power of the Lord's love than it is about coming intellectually to assent to a series of propositions.

Yet we all know that conversion is not as easily divided up as that because our search for truth and our discovery of the Lord's love are really one piece. And, as Pope Benedict reminds us in many of his teachings, it's not just truth and love, but also beauty.

For most of us, the search for truth, love and beauty is immensely complicated, and it is a real triumph of grace when someone eventually sees these realities in Jesus. The movement to this point is a mystery; it usually involves the witness of friends and the accepting love of a congregation; it is always chiefly the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the words of the great charismatic Belgian Cardinal Suenens:

"Christianity cannot be reduced to an ideology. It is first and foremost an event, a person: Jesus Christ acknowledged as Lord.

"A Christian is not a philosopher who has opted for an explanation of the universe: he is someone who has experienced in his own life Jesus of Nazareth, crucified on Good Friday, risen from the tomb on Easter Sunday. The cry of Claudel: 'Why, all of a sudden you have become A PERSON!' is a cry of faith for all generations.'"

Or in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in the year before he became Pope:

"Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional rather than as an encounter with Christ, which explains why they don't see it as a source of joy. If we stay with this impression, we do not live the essence of Christianity, which is an ever new encounter, an event thanks to which we can encounter the God who speaks to us, who approaches us, who befriends us. It is critical to come to this fundamental point of a personal encounter with God, who also today makes himself present, and who is contemporary. If one finds this essential centre, one also understands all the other things. But if this encounter is not realized, which touches the heart, all the rest remains like a weight, almost like something absurd. We need to understand Christianity in a personal way, from the point of view of an encounter with Christ."

WHEN were you converted?

For some Christian traditions, all that matters is that you can give a date and time to your "conversion experience" . . . "the realization of this personal encounter".

Now, don't get me wrong. I love to hear how people come to Christ, especially those who were hardcore atheists, wishy-washy agnostics, followers of other religions, great public sinners, and even lapsed Anglicans. I honestly believe that when Church members really witness to Jesus and his Gospel in our generation there will be many MORE of these stories!

But I have to be honest and say there are at least three problems with the idea that absolutely everyone should be able to give a "date and a time":

The first is that there are many millions of truly blessed people who can look back over their lives and never remember NOT knowing the Lord. That, too, is a wonderful work of his grace for which we praise and thank him. (It's just that that has not been the particular theme of the readings these last two Sundays!)

The second is that many cannot in all honesty pinpoint things, but they do know that, as they have matured, their lives have come to focus on Jesus.

The third is that sometimes the "date and time" people can be so focused on the past that they've got little to say about their continuing growth in Christ.

What, then, are we to say about this?

It was Archbishop Jensen of Sydney who said not long ago that the really important question is not "WHEN were you converted?" but "ARE you converted?"

For me this means that we should ask ourselves if we know Jesus as a Person, as our LORD - as the One we trust to run our lives, knowing that we only mess them up if we don't surrender to him. In this relationship he forgives us and cleanses us from our sins, he shares with us his strength and his peace, and he assures us of his presence in our struggles and tragedies as well as in our times of happiness and joy. Furthermore, we keep on receiving his truly amazing grace through prayer and the sacramental worship of his Church, the community he gathers around himself that spans heaven and earth.

So, you can see why I still believe in conversion.

And you can see why it is not presumptuous to say in all humility that we are "converted" people, trusting not in ourselves but in the Lord and his grace.

Are YOU converted?

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This photo is of my friend Father Trevor Jones, the Parish Priest of St Peter's London Docks at the High Altar of that historic Anglo-Catholic church, which you MUST visit if you go to London. And if you can't afford to do that, go to Father Jones' blog HERE. You'll learn a great deal about Anglo-Catholics preaching the Gospel and witnessing to the love and presence of Jesus in the "ordinariness" of human life.


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