Tuesday, 26 April 2022

The Three Conversions

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
1st May 2022
The Conversion of Saul: 14th-century predella panel by Luca di Tommè.
Acts 9.1-20   
Revelation 5.11-14

It’s not often that Easter Sermons get the attention of the Prime Minister,
          certain none of mine have - at least not yet.
But when the Archbishop of Canterbury chose, a couple of weeks ago,
          to use his Easter Sermon to criticize the government’s new policy
                    of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda
          as, ‘opposite of the nature of God’,
                   he certainly drew an angry response from No. 10,
          whose current incumbent would, it seems,
                   prefer the church to stick to theology and avoid politics.
Others have since got drawn into this debate,
          with the ever-excellent Revd Richard Coles commenting:
‘People who question the archbishop of Canterbury’s right
          to criticise government policy
need to acquaint themselves with the most basic rudiments
           of Christianity.
Christianity always insists, or should insist,
          that we uphold the dignity of every person,
and I don’t think this policy is one that fully respects the dignity
          of people who are seeking asylum in this country.’ [1]
But this tension between the church and the state is nothing new,
          and ever since Henry II’s murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral,
our country has struggled to negotiate the uneasy legacy of Christendom.
In 1988 a grocer’s daughter was invited
          to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
And she began her speech with the deceptively simple assertion that
          ‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform’ [2]
And this quote, I think, takes us right to the heart
          of the question I would like us to consider this morning,
which is this:
          What difference, if any, does our Christian faith make
                   to the lives we lead, and the society in which we live?
Or, to put it another way:
          What, in heaven’s name, is the point in being a Christian,
          if it doesn’t make any earthly difference?
It’s all very well becoming a Christian,
          and indeed encouraging others to follow the way of Jesus,
but the question of ‘why’ seems quite important to me.
Over the years, I have occasionally found myself
          getting drawn into discussions with other Christians
          about the topic of how, and why, we hold the faith that we do.
And these are good questions,
          which are worthy of serious consideration.
But there is one question that has come up again and again in such conversations
          that I have found rather less helpful.
And this is the question not of why are you a Christian,
          or what does being a Christian mean to you,
but the question of when did you become a Christian;
          and the difficulty for me, in answer to the ‘when’ question
          is that I simply can’t remember a time when I wasn’t!
There are, I know, many people
          who have had dramatic and sudden conversions to the Christian faith
There are those who have encountered the risen Christ in a decisive way
          as they have made their way along their own Damascus Road.
There are those who will speak of the scales suddenly falling from their eyes
          as they unexpectedly find themselves seeing the world differently
But that’s not been my story, nor my experience…
          I’m one of those who has grown up going to church.
I’ve always know the love of God
          in the same way that I’ve always known the love of my parents.
It isn’t something that I have needed to be converted to,
          because it has always been a part of me.
And one of the things that has occasionally been said to me
          is that because I haven’t got a date and a time
                   to put on a point where and when I ‘became a Christian’
          then maybe I’m not one at all?
“Simon, brother, I’m worried – are you truly saved?”
The church where I grew up was a great church,
          and I have very fond memories of the 20 years I attended there.
The minister when I was in my teens
          sometimes used to take the opportunity, usually at a baptismal service,
          to ask people if they wanted to commit their lives to Jesus for the first time.
He’d ask everyone to close their eyes,
          and invite anyone who wanted to register their commitment
          to raise their head and look up at him.
He’d then murmur, ‘thank you’, ‘thank you’, ‘thank you’
          in gentle acknowledgment of each life given over to Jesus
Now, the cynic in me used to wonder
          whether there really were that many people
          actually lifting their heads and looking at him…
I mean, who’d know if there weren’t?
          The rest of us good Christians had all got our eyes shut!
Maybe, I thought, his ‘thank you’s were simply ‘priming the pump’,
          creating an environment in which someone might actually respond.
But the problem I had, was that the only way of knowing
          would be for me to lift my own head and have a look.
And here you can see my problem:
          I had absolutely no intention of doing so,
          because he might have caught my eye, and murmured ‘thank you’ at me!
The thing was, one or two people in the youth group had started to suggest to me
          that perhaps it was time I ‘gave my life to the Lord’…
And the assumption that I wasn’t already a follower of Jesus
                   just because I hadn’t responded in this particular way
          made me, I’m afraid, all the more determined to resist any attempt
                   to inveigle me into an act of public commitment.
Another thing made it all the more frustrating,
          was that my favourite hymn of the time
          was the great Charles Wesley classic ‘And Can It Be’
which has the wonderful and challenging verse
          Long my imprisoned spirit lay
          Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
          Thine eye diffused a quickening ray -
          I woke, the dungeon flamed with light,
          My chains fell off, my heart was free,
          I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
And the problem here was very simple:
          I was just a kid!
          And a good, Christian kid at that.
The idea of my spirit having lain imprisoned for years
          in sin and nature’s night
was nonsensical to me
And whilst I longed to be able to sing that verse with gusto,
          it simply didn’t seem to match my experience.
I had not seen the blinding light diffused from the divine eye,
          nor felt the dramatic loosing of chains
          that preceded the freeing of the heart
                   and the going forth and following.
And then, one day, something obvious occurred to me.
Paul, the one who experienced the great Damascus Road conversion
          the one who quite literally had the scales fall from his eyes,
was already a follower of God, and a faithful one at that,
          long before his Damascus road experience.
It’s too early for us even to think of him ‘converting’
          in the sense of ‘changing religion’
because Christianity didn’t exist as a separate entity to Judaism
And the stories in the book of Acts
          of Peter, Paul and Silas
          imprisoned but then miraculously released,
                   after finding their dungeons flooded with divine light,
                    with the doors flung open or the chains that bound them removed,
were stories about people who were imprisoned because they were Christians,
          not stories about them becoming Christians.
And suddenly the whole language of ‘conversion’
          and the assumption that one needed ‘a point of commitment’
          in order to be a ‘proper Christian’
found itself added to my growing list of things
          that I needed to have a bit of a re-think about.
And where I’ve come to on this, after several decades of pondering,
          is a sense that conversion
          is not really about marking the point
                   at which one first encounters God in Jesus,
          (although it might well include that).
Rather, conversion is about responding to God’s invitation
          to see things in a new way, and to living accordingly.
One helpful way of thinking about this
          is to think of conversion, not as a one-off event,
                   but as a process that goes in stages
          and which should, ideally, last a lifetime.
If conversion is thought of as a process rather than an event
          then the task of conversion
                   ceases to be focussed around a once-for-all moment of decision,
          with the evangelistic preacher
                   proudly carving one more notch in the church pulpit rail.
And conversion ceases to be something that we can put behind us
          secure in the knowledge that we did that in our youth
          and don’t need to do it again.
And it ceases to be something that some of us worry about
          because we’ve never had our dramatic moment in the bright light
Rather, it becomes a process and a calling,
          that engages each of us personally,
          not one, or twice, but daily
I have to say that the verse in ‘And Can it Be’
          that I struggled with as a teenager
makes a lot more sense to me now that I’m in my 40s.
Still not as a one-off moment of release, now firmly in my past,
          but certainly as an ongoing experience
                   of forgiveness, deliverance and freedom
          as I continue to discover more of the gracious love of God in Christ.
If conversion is about responding to God’s invitation
          to see things in a new way, and then living accordingly
then conversion is something that we cannot ignore:
          because it is fundamental to our calling as followers of Jesus
By this understanding, it is entirely legitimate for us to ask of ourselves
          whether we have experienced conversion,
not in some attempt to define who’s in and who’s out,
          but out of concern for one another,
          that our walk with God has neither stagnated nor stalled.
Something which I have found helpful when thinking about conversion
          is the idea that Christians experience conversion in different ways,
          at different times in their Christian journey.
My wife Liz has a saying, which she’s shared here at Bloomsbury before,
          that everybody needs to be saved from something,
it’s just that what we need saving from isn’t the same for each person.
Well, if I can take that idea a bit further,
          I also think everyone needs converting to something,
it’s just that what we need converting to isn’t the same for each person.
This idea is sometimes spoken of as ‘the three conversions’,
          but this isn’t to imply that they must happen in a set order,
          or even that they only happen once to each of us.
Rather, the ‘three conversions’ speak to us
          of the ongoing and daily task of conversion to the way of Christ.
The first conversion in our list of three
          is a conversion to Christ.
For many of us this will be where we started our road of discipleship,
          because for many of us, it was the love of God for us in Christ
                   that first drew us into faith
But knowing that Christ loved us and died for us
          is not the be-all and end-all of our conversion to Christ,
because it then asks a response from us:
If we are converted to Christ, not once, but daily,
          then conversion entails a daily decision
                   to put Christ at the centre of our lives,
          a commitment to live this day
                    in the light of God’s love for us in Christ.
If conversion is about responding to God’s invitation
          to see things in a new way, and then living accordingly,
then conversion to Christ
          means that our faith in Christ should be so much more
          than our offering of Sunday worship.
It means that Christ will be found at the centre
          of our decision making processes;
it means that Christ will be found at the centre
          of our relationships;
it means that the risen Christ is encountered daily,
          shining the light of God’s truth into the darkest areas of our lives,
          releasing us from all that seeks to bind and imprison our souls.
So we come to the second conversion in our list of three,
          and this is a conversion to the Church of Christ.
We sometimes use Paul’s language of the church as the ‘body of Christ’,
          in fact, we shall be doing so later as we share communion,
and so a conversion to Christ, implies also a conversion to his body.
It is a matter of not inconsiderable concern to me
          that the fastest growing Christian group in the UK
          are those who describe themselves as post-church.
There are countless numbers of people,
          who maintain an active faith in Christ,
but who have walked away from the body of Christ.
I’m not meaning to be depressing,
          but those of us who have been here a while,
can probably look around us at the pews here,
          and picture faces that used to sit there… or there… or there…
and we know that these faces are no longer here,
          not because they no longer know the love of God in Christ,
          and not because they’ve moved elsewhere,
but because they have just - stopped - coming.
The numerical strength of the church in this country
          still lies with the baby boomer post-war generation.
The so-called millennial generation,
          those who were in their late teens or twenties
          during the so-called noughties
are walking away from churches across the country
          leaving a huge gap.
Carson and Paul Nyquist, in their book ‘The Post-Church Christian’[3]
          say that:
          ‘The burden of each generation is to follow Jesus as best they can.’
and they go on:
          ‘For [Baby] Boomers, that meant revamping the church
                    and introducing fresh ways
                    to reach people and impact the community.
          ‘For Millennials, [it means continuing] to re-think faith and church
                    in today’s world.’
However, they note that,
          ‘The disconnect occurs when older leadership
                    is ready to hand the baton to the next generation,
                    and no one is there.’
If it is true that Christians need each other,
          and that a Christian going-it-alone
          is a Christian who is cutting themselves off from the body of Christ,
then those who have experienced a conversion to Christ
          need also to receive the invitation
          to have a conversion to the church of Christ.
We need to rediscover what it means
          to express our commitment to one another in real terms,
                   as we become a kingdom people,
          living the values of the in-breaking kingdom of God in our life together.
It’s worth saying, that conversion to the church
          is not the same thing as conversion to a particular institution.
And if conversion is about responding to God’s invitation
          to see things in a new way, and then living accordingly,
then conversion to the church of Christ
          may involve moving beyond institutional allegiances,
                   however powerful they may be,
          and discovering in new ways the vitality and humanity
                   of genuine relationships forged in Christ,
          as we journey together in partnership with others.
And so we come to the third in our trilogy of conversions,
          which is a conversion to the world for which Christ died.
Ancient Greek philosophy drew heavily on the teachings of Plato,
          who articulated a way of looking at the world
          which became known as ‘dualism’.
In Platonic dualism, there is a fundamental distinction,
          between the physical world that humans inhabit,
          and the non-physical world that lies beyond human experience.
The key to understanding Platonic dualism,
          is the notion that the non-physical world is the true world, the perfect world,
whilst the fallen, flawed, and imperfect world we inhabit,
          is merely a shadow of a reality currently inaccessible to us.
Early Christianity, as it moved from the Jewish world
          to the Graeco-Roman world,,
inherited something of this dualistic worldview,
          which in many ways is still with us today.
For many Christians,
          what really matters is the spiritual world,
whilst the messy messed-up world we actually have to live in
          is something to be endured
          as we pass through on our way to somewhere better.
This can lead to a view of the physical world
          as something that matters less than the spiritual world,
and so we end up with Christians caring more
          about the spiritual standing or personal morality of their politicians,
          than they do about the social policies that those politicians enact.
And here we find the root of my concern,
          with the quotation with which we began.
The assertion made by Margaret Thatcher
          to the Scottish Assembly was that
‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform’
And my problem with this
          is that it sounds a lot like an assertion of Platonic dualism
                   couched in Christian terms
If we divorce Christianity from social reform
          if we go along with the view that Archbishops and Baptist preachers
                   should stick to theology,
                    and keep away from politics,
then we run the risk of robbing the gospel of Christ
          of its power to transform the world.
And, I’ll say it again:
          What, in heaven’s name, is the point in being a Christian,
                   if it doesn’t make any earthly difference?
This is the crux of the third conversion.
It’s all very well being converted to Christ,
          and it’s all very well being converted to the church of Christ,
but without a conversion to the world for which Christ died,
          none of this actually goes anywhere.
The call to care for God’s creation and those who live in it
          is not an optional extra for those who like that kind of thing,
it is a fundamental part of the gospel of Christ
          as good news to all nations.
And if conversion is about responding to God’s invitation
          to see things in a new way, and then living accordingly,
then conversion to the world for which Christ died
          is an invitation for us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling,
          as we learn to see the world differently.
Paul’s experience on the Damascus road
          hinged around what happened to his eyes.
To start with he can see normally,
          and then he sees a bright light,
                    and then he is blinded,
          and then, after a few days, the scales fall from his eyes,
                    and then he can see again.
The conversion of Paul is the story of his experience
          of coming to see the world differently;
and the rest of the book of Acts is the story
          of how he then lived accordingly
And the world has never been the same since.
We see the same thing happening
          in our reading from the Book of Revelation
which describes
          every creature in heaven and on earth .
                   and under the earth and in the sea,
                   and all that is in them’
          singing glory and praise to the one in heaven.
Here we catch a glimpse of the world transformed,
          of the peoples of the world
                   set free from the darkness and chains
                             which diminish and imprison them
                             and keep them from being fully human
Here we catch a glimpse of the conversion of the world,
          not in the sense of conversion by force,
          but in the sense of conversion by love:
as those whose lives are already aligned
          to the values of the in-breaking kingdom of God,
live out their salvation in such a way that others experience the reality
          of God’s love for the whole world expressed in Christ Jesus.
As Citizens UK, our partners in social justice action, put it:
          this is the gap between the world as it is,
          and the world as it should be.
This is a challenge for us to play our part in the kingdom coming,
          on earth, as it is in heaven.
And our calling as followers of Christ
          is to join with others in standing in that gap,
in interceding for the world,
          bringing the all-embracing love of Christ
          to those who stand most in need, without exception or preference.
The bottom line is that I just don’t think we can separate
          spiritual redemption and social reform,
If we are daily converted to Christ
          we discover that we need one another,
          and so we are converted to the church of Christ
but then in order for our conversion to have meaning,
          we are converted to the world for which Christ died.
So, I’ll ask again:
          What earthly difference does it all make?
                   It’s simple.
                   It makes all the difference in the world!

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/apr/20/pmqs-boris-johnson-denies-bbc-criticism-no-justin-welby-apology
[2] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107246
[3] http://www.theunitive.com/post-church/

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