This evening we begin a five-part preaching series entitled, “Breaking the Word.” Each Tuesday in Lent we’ll be considering a different word. The words we’ve chosen – conversion, forgiveness, grace, redemption and passion – are words that we Christians use frequently but which we may not fully understand. We seldom take time to explore their meaning or to reflect on their significance for us. That’s the purpose of this series.
Tonight’s word is “conversion.” It’s a word that, for some of us, might have some mixed, or even negative, associations:
- It may elicit unpleasant memories of encounters with religious groups or individuals that make it their chief aim to convert others to their point of view.
- It may bring to mind a certain style of evangelism that strikes us as manipulative or intrusive.
- It may conjure up images of “hell-fire and brimstone” sermons, or of massive crusades in which charismatic preachers try to whip up the emotion of the crowd to affect a response to their message.
- It may remind us of people we have know who have been “converted,” but who bore witness to their conversion in remarkably unattractive ways.
As our bulletin notes, the word itself simply means “to turn around.”
- In religious settings, the word conversion may describe a change from non–involvement in religion to affiliation with a religious group.
- Or it may refer to a change from one religious tradition to another, or a change within a tradition, from one denomination or group to another.
- But most often, it signals the intensification of feeling experienced by those for whom religious faith and commitment have moved from the margins of their lives to the center.[i]
Sometimes these changes can be sudden and dramatic. A sudden revelation or a life-changing epiphany may be the catalyst for conversion in a person’s life – as it was for St Paul, for example. But usually, the change comes about gradually and over time. Even those whose conversions are sudden and dramatic experience the need for ongoing integration and growth as they adjust to their new life.
Conversion, then, as we understand it, refers to an ongoing, life-long process of transformation that characterizes Christian faith and discipleship. What does this change entail? From what and to what are we to turn? Is this a change that we can make by ourselves, or is it a change that only God can bring about in our lives? What is its goal?
Theologian Marcus Borg notes that there are two transformations at the heart of Christian life: one is individual, spiritual and personal, while the other is communal, social and political.[ii]
The individual, spiritual and personal transformation comes when we turn from thinking ourselves to be unloved to knowing ourselves to be deeply loved and valued by God. It is a movement from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from death to life. We come to know ourselves as the beloved children of God, and discover the greatest freedom and the deepest security we have ever known. Our lives become centered on God.
In this process of conversion, we exchange an old identity for a new identity, and an old way of living with a new way of living.
“If anyone is in Christ, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has been made new!”[iii]
Paul testifies to the newness of his own life in Christ in his letter to the Philippians.
I had all the things that my world valued most, Paul tells them: an excellent family background, a superior education, a brilliant reputation as one who was zealous for the faith and blameless under the law.
But all these things I now count as worthless, he says, “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”[iv]
In Christ, he has discovered a new identity and a new way of living. He has turned away from his former life to embrace a new life.
Those who are in Christ “live as children of the light,” he tells the Ephesians.[v]
“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”[vi]
The author of the First Letter of Peter strikes a similar note:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. One you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”[vii]
Conversion leads us to a new identity and a new way of living.
As conversion takes hold, we discover that we are beloved children of God – created by God and for God, loved and cherished by God more than we can begin to imagine, secure in the knowledge we will never be abandoned or forsaken.
This new identity is accompanied by new ways of being and acting in the world. We turn away from anger, greed, self-centeredness and the like, and grow in kindness, gentleness, and compassion. The new life is a life characterized by love, joy, peace and freedom.
Only God can transform us; only God can convert us. Resolutions of our own making and determined attempts at self-discipline are not enough. Strong desire and determination can help, but they won’t necessarily get us there. Learning and believing the right beliefs will not transform our lives. We cannot convert ourselves by our own doing; it is the work of the Spirit.
But we can open ourselves to the process by becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.
This is what spiritual practice is all about. This is why we pray and fast and study. This is why we go to Church and partake of the sacraments and join ourselves to the Body of Christ.
We are already in relationship with God, but we grow in that relationship by being intentional about it and by paying attention to it. And as we give ourselves over to this process of transformation, conversion happens.
But we said there are two transformations at the heart of Christian life: one that is individual, spiritual and personal, and another that is communal, social and political.
Throughout the church’s history, this communal, social and political transformation has received less emphasis but it is just as essential as the individual, spiritual and personal transformation that conversion brings about.
“The Bible is political as well as personal,” notes Borg. “It combines sharp political criticism and passionate political advocacy: radical criticism of systems of domination and impassioned advocacy of an alternative social vision. Protesting the nightmare of injustice, its central voices proclaim God’s dream of justice, a dream for the earth. Criticism and advocacy are grounded in their understanding of the character and passion of God: a God of love and justice whose passion for our life together is the Kingdom of God.”[viii]
Why has this emphasis been so neglected? Borg lists three reasons:
One reason is that Christianity has for centuries been the religion of the dominant culture and as a result, “Christians have seldom engaged in radical criticism of the social order. Instead, personal salvation in the hereafter was the primary message, an emphasis that continues to this day in many parts of the church.”[ix]
A second reason, writes Borg, “is because of a common misunderstanding of ‘God’s justice.’ Theologically,” he says, “we have often seen its opposite as ‘God’s mercy.’ ‘God’s justice’ is understood as God’s deserved punishment of us for our sins, ‘God’s mercy’ as God’s loving forgiveness of us in spite of our guilt. Given this choice, we would all prefer God’s mercy, and hope to escape God’s justice. But seeing the opposite of justice as mercy distorts what the Bible means by justice. Most often in the Bible, the opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice. The issue is the shape of our life together as societies, not whether the mercy of God will supersede the justice of God in the final judgment.”[x]
A third reason we miss the Bible’s passion for justice is that “our culture is dominated by an ethos of individualism… Individualism stresses that the primary factor responsible for our well-being is individual effort. The notion of the ‘self-made person’ – that we are primarily the product of our own initiative and hard work – is widespread in the United States. It is often used to legitimate a social system (both political and economic) that maximizes rewards for individual ‘success’ and minimizes providing a safety net for those who are not ‘successful’.”[xi]
Conversion, then, leads to a transformation of life that is both individual, spiritual and personal and collective, social and political. God is making the whole creation new!
Both of these changes are reflected in the story of Zacchaeus, which we read tonight as our gospel lesson.
Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus transforms his identity and his manner of life. As a Chief Tax Collector he was deeply implicated in a corrupt system. But he is clearly searching for something more. Being small of stature, he climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus, and when Jesus notices and calls out to him, he responds whole-heartedly. He is a changed man. He abandons an old identity and way of living to embrace a new identity and way of living. He turns around!
But his salvation is not just a private and personal matter; it also has broader implications. Zacchaeus offers to give half his possessions to the poor and to make a generous restitution to anyone he may have cheated.[xii] His household is also saved, and his conversion benefits both the poor and those whom he may have defrauded.
His transformation has an impact on others as well as on himself. He bears fruit that befits repentance!
As always, we are speaking of a great mystery. How the Spirit works in each of us, breaking down our defenses and barriers so that Love can reach us and transform us, will be different for each of us. This much is sure: God is at work within us, bringing us out of darkness into light, out of bondage into freedom, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
Perhaps no one captures the mystery of conversion better than the 10th century monk, Symeon the New Theologian:
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
[i] Rambo, Lewis R., “Conversion,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology; (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), p.123-124.
[ii] Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith; (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003); p.103.
[iii] II Corinthians 5:17
[iv] Philippians 3:4b-8a
[v] Ephesians 5:8
[vi] Ephesians 4:22-24
[vii] I Peter 2:9-10
[viii] Ibid, p.126.
[ix] Ibid, p.127.
[xi] Ibid, p.127-128.
[xii] Craddock, Fred; Luke (Interpretation Commentary Series); (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) p.219. Craddock notes that “[According to the Law of Moses], voluntary restitution called for a return of the original amount plus twenty per cent (Lev.6:5, Num.5:7); compulsory restitution called for doubling the original amount and, in some cases, repaying fourfold or fivefold (Ex.22:1,3-4; II Sam.12:6)… Zaccheus’ offer of half his possessions to the poor and a generous restitution to anyone he may have cheated can be seen as itself evidence of the radicality of grace and the power of Jesus’ good news to him.”