Conversion: seeing differently
The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon in Residence
Sunday, 25th March 2018 at 3.00 PM
Ordinary people usually get it right, we’re often told. They’re the ones who welcomed Jesus, cheered him into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. Whereas the powerful, the leaders, usually get it wrong. They’re the ones who opposed Jesus, cynically trying to protect their own position like the vineyard tenants of our second reading. It’s a familiar, convenient, trope which we hear today too - this assumption that ordinary people are generally in the right, not needing much moral challenge and change; only our corrupt public leaders really need to change.
But of course it’s a superficial, lazy, analysis, isn’t it? The biblical narratives certainly don’t support it. Read further and other ordinary people later turned against Christ, calling for him to be crucified. Conversely, some leaders (like Nicodemus) turned out to believe in him…
So - we shouldn’t buy in to these lazy prejudices, then or now. Blanket endorsement of the ordinary public or blanket suspicion of all public leaders is naïve - and all too often just a device to deflect judgement onto others and let ourselves off the hook. The deeper, truer analysis offered in Christian faith is that there are no such simple binary distinctions. Whoever we are, whatever our social role, whether we are so-called ordinary people or leaders, all of us may get some things right: and all of us certainly get some things wrong; we see things wrongly; we sin; we fall short - and so all of us need to change…
This call for us all to change, to see things differently (the call, in other words, to some form of personal conversion) isn’t always easy to hear positively. Not least because it has often been abused. It’s been used oppressively and manipulatively to exert psychological pressure on vulnerable people, just to boost the ego of an evangelist or boost numbers in an institution; or it’s been used just to evade a harder challenge of working for social change.
But abusus non tollit usum: abuse should not prevent its proper use. In fact personal conversion at its best and truest is entirely positive. It’s a call to healthy, liberating, change; it’s not oppressive, coercive. It’s offering change from the claustrophobia of self-centredness to the boundless uplands of generosity to others, and gratitude to God. It’s a call which includes changing society, rather than evading it. Think for example of someone like John Newton, the 18th century slave trader memorialized here in the Abbey. His personal conversion to Christian faith was eventually inseparable from his efforts to abolish the slave trade itself.
So - we should shake off any shackles of embarrassment about conversion. Whoever we are, whether ‘ordinary’ people, public leaders, religious or doubters, it is for us all: and it is potentially life-giving, not life denying, for us and wider society.
But how does this sort of personal change actually come about? It happens, I suggest, by an encounter with something or someone from beyond our normal routine, beyond our normal frame of reference, which provokes a new way of seeing. ‘I once was blind, but now I see’, wrote Newton in his celebrated prayer. It was the same for St Paul and St Peter: they had encounters which fundamentally shifted their perspective; helped them see differently; see deeper; helped them see beneath their routine life, their routine fishing , their routine religion - to ultimate realities..
Such deep seeing is not something we do much of. Understandably. Not seeing too deeply is a form of self-preservation from being overwhelmed by the often fearful ultimate realities of life and death. That’s why we create and cherish ordinary routine life (whether going fishing or going to church): the mundane is a sort of tent, a necessary veil to shelter us from seeing the darker ultimate realities.
But of course we cannot always shelter from reality like this. Eventually some gust of wind will lift the tent flap of mundane life and make us see what really lies beneath. So the question then is, what or who can we trust to help us see these ultimate realities truly? Do we just allow the random jolts from happenstance or circumstance to do it for us? Novelist Joseph Conrad described once how it was the random experience of seeing a young girl watching her mother die which (I quote) ‘drove me out of the shelter of contrived sunny conveniences that that each of us makes for himself’ - to reveal ultimate reality only as ‘vast and dismal disorder’. I suspect we’ve all been ambushed by events like this: and left seeing ultimate reality only as this terrifying randomness and disorder. Which is why we quickly we draw the veil back over again and put our head back under the duvet of routine life..
But my question is this: why trust random events to interpret ultimate reality for us? Why think they tell us the real and final truth? The point of Christian conversion is precisely that it doesn’t rely on such random events to interpret ultimate realities. The encounter with Christ is with a richer, thicker, tried & tested, truly lived, narrative: Christ’s passion and resurrection. Allow this to open us up, invite His spirit to blow through the tent of our mundane lives, and it may still make us face the horror that is there in life and death - but we shall also see much more! We shall see like the see-er of the book of revelation who saw that the ultimate reality is not the sadness, guilt, and loss of life and death. There is something even more ultimate beneath that: a new redeemed heaven and earth where there are ‘no more tears, crying, pain’, where the infinite love of God is the final truth.
This sort of deep seeing (seeing through Christ, not just through random shocks) will certainly change us - as surely as it changed Newton and Nicodemus. It will give us different priorities; a different moral compass; a different sense of wonder, humility, hope.
It will also give us renewed motivation. For how wrong Karl Marx was to worry that visions of God as an ultimate good would only de-motivate us here and now. It’s the opposite! Like the attraction of a magnetic pole, a personal power of ultimate goodness actively draws us to itself all through this life too.
That, then, is an anatomy of Christian conversion. Or at least how it begins. It begins by a new deep seeing. Something for us all, whether we count ourselves ordinary or great. That is why I invite you once again, this week of all weeks, to let the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection lift the tent flap of our routine life. It will help us see more deeply. It will help us face reality unflinchingly. But it will also give us a true hope, faith, and resolve…