Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 15th January 2012
15 January 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
‘Thieves, fornicators, greedy and so on…this is what some of you used to be–but you were washed, sanctified, justified in Christ and the Spirit’ - words from our reading which give a traditional picture of religious conversion: i.e. an experience of moral change and a whole new orientation in life, all given in a personal relationship with Christ.
The appeal for conversion has been shamefully abused by the church when it has used manipulation and psychological pressure to prey on vulnerable people and their fears. But it has been wonderfully used when offered with faith and love to transform lives, liberate them from despair and damaging self-centredness, transforming them to hope, generosity, Christ-centredness. It has transformed not only personal life but social life too as the 18th century slave trader John Newton testified - whose conversion to christian faith eventually led him first to become a clergyman, then to join forces with Wilberforce in opposing the slave trade. And so personal conversion, and the anatomy of it, is what I want to say more about this morning in this second in a series of January sermons about change and new life. I am well aware that personal change is not all that is needed or offered in Christian faith - we are an integral part of a society and religion which also need change. But that is for other weeks – today I will talk about personal conversion.
John Newton himself highlighted one key element of the experience of personal conversion, in his prayer which we now sing as the hymn: Amazing Grace. ‘I once was blind’, he wrote, ‘but now I see’. Conversion comes from seeing in a new way. This is not something we do much of - real seeing, seeing beneath the surface, seeing the ultimate truths and realities of people, life and death itself. And that may be just as well for much of the time -‘mankind cannot bear too much reality!’ (as TS Eliot said). Not seeing too deeply is a sort of self-preservation from being overwhelmed by what we see. And so most of us most of the time get on with living in quite limited worlds of reality, meaning, and morality, seeing just enough to serve our own immediate purposes and web of relationships. We don’t break out to become spectacular sinners or saints: we don’t want to see the absolute goods or evils that religion teaches: we don’t want to see the absolute nothingness that no religion and the vastness of an empty universe would mean for us. We don’t want the extreme experiences, behaviours, questionings, which that sort of deep seeing might require. We live instead in our limited tent of relatively mundane meaning, a shelter and veil between ourselves and the disturbing worlds of ultimate realities beyond the tent. And perhaps for the most part that’s all right, and necessary.
But occasionally that veil is lifted. Some gust of wind lifts the tent flap and makes us see more, and see differently. Sometimes it is tragedy which provokes it. In the novel Lord Jim Joseph Conrad describes such a moment when the narrator listens to a girl describing her mother dying with tears in her eyes. As the girl recounts this, almost in a monotone, ‘it so troubled my mind…’ says the narrator, ‘that [it] had the power to drive me out of my conception of existence, out of the shelter that each of us makes for himself… For a moment …the world which …normally is as sunny arrangement of small conveniences as the mind of man can contrive…now seemed to wear just a vast and dismal aspect of disorder’.
But it is not just the ill wind of tragedy which lifts the tent flap, and it doesn’t just have to show us disorder when it does: we can see other things. And this is where we find the deep seeing of Christian conversion. When the see-er of the book of revelation had a door onto reality opened for him by the wind of the Spirit what he saw was not a vision of dismal disorder but of heaven: he saw beyond the suffering of his time to a world ultimately in the hands of a good God: he saw a new heaven and earth with no more tears or crying or pain; and he saw the sacrificial love of Christ to be the final, ‘winning’, truth of reality.
And that is the other vital ingredient in the changes of conversion - Christ himself. In some shape or form, this new seeing happens by meeting Christ - and seeing new things in Him. Nicodemus’s meeting Jesus in the night, as told by John’s Gospel, is a paradigmatic example. Here was someone who certainly lived in his own tent of meaning and morality. He was a representative of the community of Israel and its religion. And he seemed for the most part to live quite well in it. As far as we know he was a worthy, good, religious person, not a spectacular sinner who obviously needed moral conversion. Yet in that meeting with Jesus a wind still blew through his careful system of belief and practice. He found himself being exposed to something greater, literally in the original Greek something ‘from above’, something which invited him to see things so freshly it is described as being like being re-born. For that’s the point: Christian conversion is indeed a whole new orientation of life, not just a new set of moral rules: it is an opening up to a bigger, more generous, Christ-like life - the very sort of change I described last week that Christ himself went through when his own boundaries were opened up to see the Gentile woman in a new more generous light.
One other ingredient: there does also need to be, of course, some willingness to let this happen: a willingness to give up our tight control over the tent of our lives; to let the Spirit blow where the Spirit wills, not where we will. As former Bishop of Winchester John Taylor wrote: ‘This Spirit blows most characteristically when, through despair or joy, we come to the end of ourselves…’ That is the point at which we are most likely to look up and out and see Christ, and see Christ in others.
So this is conversion: seeing more in One who is greater than us, and then being willing to follow Him. It is a change which requires us to relinquish our tight controls of self-preservation and self justification, so neither the faint hearted nor the self-satisfied are likely to welcome it. But it is the path of life. It becomes the sort of new purpose in life which invigorated Newton and other saints memorialised in this Abbey, and which quietly but effectively invigorates the lives of so many so-called ordinary people. It is a change offered to anyone, at any time - and available for us all, not just once, but all the time…