Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon for March 11th: 'Conversion'


Two Sundays ago I introduced our Lent sermon series on sharing our faith with others. We began on week one by remembering Jesus’ words ‘the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’. If you’ve got a hunch that your life is going in the wrong direction, but you’re not sure what the right direction is, that’s a pretty good definition of ‘lostness’! We went on to explore some of the common signs of ‘lostness’ in the world today. Then last week we went on to ask, ‘What is the good news that Jesus wants us to spread?’ We talked about three ‘R’s – the reign or kingdom of God, reconciliation with God, and resurrection. The first two sermons are both up on our church website, and if you missed them, I encourage you to check back and read through them so that you’ll see where we’ve come from.

Our word for week one was ‘lost’, and for week two it was ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. Today our word is ‘conversion’. How do we respond to the good news of Jesus? I want to begin by telling you a story that happened in my previous parish.

Terry showed up in our church out of the blue one Sunday. It happened that we had a guest preacher that day; the sermon text was the story of the good shepherd who went out to find the lost sheep, and the gospel message in that passage really touched Terry’s heart. He told me later, “I was the little lost sheep coming home”.

Of course there was a story behind his appearance in church – there usually is. His life had recently taken a bad turn – his wife had left him, he had lost a well paying job, and he was now trying to make a living as a farmer. He had never been a churchgoer although he had always believed in God, and he was good friends with another man in our church, Chuck. Later, I discovered that on one occasion Chuck had shared with Terry the story of his own faith journey.

Well, Terry kept coming back to our church, and eventually he decided that he wanted to be baptized (he had not been baptized as a child). So I did some baptism preparation with him, and eventually the day came when, as he put it, “Tim traced the sign of the Cross on a bald man’s head”! He began to attend our midweek Bible study group and we discovered that Terry had a real hunger to understand the scriptures. He also offered his musical talents to help us in our services. In fact, when I was inducted as the rector of St. Margaret’s twelve years ago, Terry brought his ‘Gretsch Country Gentleman’ electric guitar with him to inject a little country twang into our singing!

I’d like to be able to tell you that becoming a Christian solved all of Terry’s problems, but that wasn’t the case. He’s continued to have his struggles over the years. Nonetheless, I know that Terry would testify, if he were here, that Christ has made a real difference in his life, and continues to do so today.

Why am I telling you this story? For a couple of reasons.

First, I want you to notice that a lot of people were involved in Terry’s conversion story. There was an aunt who prayed for him and kept in touch with him over the years. There was his friend Chuck who was brave enough to share his own faith story with him. There was the guest preacher on that Sunday who preached the message that touched Terry’s heart. There were the ordinary church members who welcomed him and supported him and prayed for him on his Christian journey. There was the priest who prepared him for baptism (me). There was the Bible study group that helped him grow as a new follower of Jesus. Evangelism, you see, is so often a community project!

But there’s another reason. The truth is that very few of us ‘cradle Anglicans’ have ever seen an adult conversion. Most of us – not all, but most of us – were brought up as church members. Some of us can identify moments of crisis where we made intentional decisions about following Christ; others of us just seem to have gradually grown into it. So we don’t feel very confident about spreading the gospel message to people who are totally outside the church, because we don’t know from our own experience what a conversion from the outside would look like.

Of course every conversion looks different, because every person is different. Nonetheless, are there some essential elements that we can identify? Well, let’s go to the scriptures to find out, and let’s start with Jesus. In Mark 1:14-17 we read these words:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news”.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.

In this passage we see a number of aspects of conversion. We see that it begins with the good news – Jesus goes into Galilee, announcing the good news of the kingdom. He also calls people to repent – the word in Greek means ‘to change your mind and thus to change your way of life as a result’. It’s not just about feeling sorry for your sins – it’s about seeing the world differently, and then living differently.

Coupled with this is the call to ‘believe in the good news’ – which in the original language is not just about an intellectual belief but also ‘faith’ or ‘trust’. Its object is often a person – believing in God or in Jesus - which doesn’t just mean believing that they exist, but rather means putting your trust in them, which usually involves doing something concrete as a result. For example, four men brought a paralysed friend to Jesus for healing, and the gospels comment that Jesus ‘saw their faith’. So faith, for these four men, wasn’t something vague or nebulous – it led directly to concrete action.

This brings us to the call to discipleship“Follow me”. In the ancient world discipleship was how education happened. Students saw a teacher they wanted to learn from, so they went and lived with him. They not only listened to his teaching, they also watched his way of life and tried to imitate the good things they saw in him. So a disciple is a person who is learning to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their everyday life; that’s what it means today to follow him.

If we turn to the beginning of the Book of Acts we see some of the same themes, but also a couple of others. In Acts chapter 2, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preaches a powerful sermon and a large crowd of people decide that they want to become disciples of the Risen Jesus. Listen to what happens in Acts 2:37-38:
Now when (the crowd) heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.

We can assume that the crowd had already ‘believed in the good news’ they had heard from Peter; we also see the call to ‘repent’. But there are two further components of conversion here: baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is coupled with forgiveness: ‘repent and be baptized…so that your sins may be forgiven’. I note that in Jesus’ great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel baptism is also connected with discipleship: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Baptism, then, is seen as a sign of forgiveness, of being washed clean from our sins, and is also enrolment in the school of discipleship: to be baptized is to become a follower of Jesus.

The gift of the Holy Spirit reminds us that conversion is not just a human process; it’s not just about ‘going through a phase’ or ‘turning over a new leaf’. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that our bodies are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’; a temple in the ancient world was primarily a place where a god lived. So if you are a temple of the living God, that means that God himself has come to take up residence in you. The Holy Spirit is God himself, coming to live in each of us, filling up that empty God-shaped hole in our hearts. He is the one who brings our dead spirits to life again and he is the one who gives us the power to live as followers of Jesus.

So here are a few common elements in conversion as the New Testament sees it. It starts with hearing and believing the good news of Jesus. It involves repentance – changing our way of thinking and our way of life – and faith – putting our trust in Jesus. It leads to a life of following Jesus – learning to put his teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. Baptism is an outward sign of this, whether we are baptized as infants or adults. And from start to finish this is the work of God who gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.

Now, just who needs to be converted? Is it just for people outside the church, or do churchgoers need a conversion experience too? This is a sticky issue for many people. The New Testament is mainly the book of the first generation of Christians. Most people in the New Testament became Christians through an intentional decision they made as adults; the New Testament doesn’t give us much guidance about what conversion looks like for people who are brought up in Christian families and grow up in the fellowship of the church. But obviously there has to be some sort of process by which my faith becomes my faith, not just my parents’ faith reproduced in me.

The Old Testament sometimes speaks about this in terms of ‘my father’s god’, and ‘my god’. Jacob grows up in a believing home, but he obviously hasn’t really internalized this yet when he runs away to Haran in Genesis chapter 28. But at night he has his dream of a ladder to heaven, and God speaks to him and says, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). Notice he doesn’t yet say, “and your God too” – that comes later. Jacob was raised in a believing home, but he will still have to go through a sort of conversion before he can say with the psalmist, “O God, you are my God, I seek you” (Psalm 63:1).

If we can use New Testament language to describe an Old Testament figure, we might say that Jacob had been sacramentalized but not evangelized: he had received the sign of circumcision, which was the Old Testament equivalent of infant baptism, but he had not yet come to know the God signified in that sign. And it remains true today that in the Anglican church we are a lot better at sacramentalizing people than evangelizing them.

So I would say, yes, often some sort of conversion process is necessary for us too, even though we have been brought up as Christians in the fellowship of the church. Please note that I’m not saying “Unless you can name a time when you prayed a prayer inviting Jesus to come into your heart, you’re not a Christian”. Conversions come in all shapes and sizes – sudden or gradual, explicit or implicit. So it’s not for me to say to someone, “Even though you’ve been a church member all your life you’re not a real Christian because you’ve never accepted Jesus as your personal Saviour”. I don’t get to make those judgements: only God does.

Nonetheless, I would turn the question around and ask, “What do you think about your Christian life? Is Christ at the centre of your life, or just at the margins? Are you conscious of the Holy Spirit’s help as you seek to follow Jesus, or do you feel totally disconnected from God? Are you intentionally building your life around the teaching and example of Jesus, or is your way of life really not that much different from the average secular Canadian? Is God your God, or is he still just your parents’ God, even though they died a long time ago?

If you ask yourselves these questions and come to the conclusion that no, you’ve never really put your faith in Christ in any sort of personal way, let me suggest to you four steps that you can take to rectify that. At the risk of being trite, let me list them in ‘ABCD’ format.

‘A’ stands for ‘Admit’. The Twelve Steps of AA begin with ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. Likewise, Christian conversion begins with admission of need – I am a sinner, I have not loved God with my whole heart or my neighbour as myself, and I’m not doing a very good job of changing that fact under my own steam.

‘B’ stands for ‘Believe’. Again, the Twelve Steps say ‘We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity’. In New Testament terms, we soak ourselves in the gospel message, the good news that God loves us, that Christ gave his life for us, that God holds out the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation with him and a fresh start, today and every day. So we are ready to put our faith, our trust, in him.

‘C’ stands for ‘Consider the Cost’. When Jesus called people to follow him, he warned them to count the cost. It is not easy to be a Christian. It means examining ourselves and being willing to turn away from our sins with God’s help. It means being willing to obey Jesus, even when we would rather not. And it means being willing to be publicly identified as a Christian, even if we’d rather keep our heads down.

Finally, ‘D’ stands for ‘Decide’, or even simply ‘Do’. There’s a step to be taken and a commitment to be made. Jesus is inviting you: “Follow me”. You need to articulate a response to that invitation. Maybe all you need to do is to look him in the eye, figuratively speaking, and respond, “Okay, I will!” Maybe there’s more you want to say. Maybe you want to be specific about the sins and failings you’re conscious of. Maybe there’s a particular sort of help you’re asking for at this time. Whatever it is you want to say, don’t be afraid to say it. You don’t need to use a particular form of words; God knows what’s in your heart.

For me, last Monday marked forty years since I took that step myself. I was thirteen years old. I had been going through a rather intense process of reading and thinking about what a living Christian faith would look like; I had always been a churchgoer but had become deeply conscious that something pretty fundamental was missing in me. And then one evening in a youth group meeting my Dad said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” That gave me the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and later that evening I sat on my bed and prayed a simple prayer committing my life to Christ. I know that I would not be here standing in front of you this morning if it were not for that prayer.

Let me reiterate that not everyone needs to have the sort of experience I had. I am very well acquainted with Christians who tell me that they have been aware of the presence of Christ in their lives for as long as they can remember, and they have always responded in faith to him. If that’s you – well, God bless you, keep on as you have been doing! But if it’s not – if you’re thinking ‘Even though I’ve been a churchgoer all my life, my faith has never felt real to me’ – then ask yourself, “Have I ever made an intentional response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him?” And if the answer is “No”, then you know what to do.

So – we’ve talked about being lost, we’ve talked about the gospel or good news, and we’ve talked about what Christian conversion looks like. But what’s our role in the process of spreading the good news? Stay tuned – our word for next week is ‘witness’!

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