SERMON PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY WINTON
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER (5th May) 2019
Let me begin again, as I often do even amongst near-strangers, by acknowledging that I have the privileged insight of life as a convert Christian. I’m not a particularly spectacular convert, nor was I a particularly spectacular pre-Conversion degenerate. I have however, despite a few wobbles either side of coming to faith, more or less soldiered on with an unspectacular life, but one that shifted from one faith-view to another. Although I did as a teenager I humbly considered it my duty to eradicate religion in the world (single-handedly, I presume!), I did not perform citizens arrests and drag Christians off to Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, unspectacular though my life may be, I have the privilege of living a life invaded by the Christ I once did not know. In many Anglican circles we are a wee bit too embarrassed to speak of such experiences.
So I was not, am not St Paul by any means, so let’s talk about him instead of me. While there are four different accounts of Paul’s conversion, there can be little doubt that his was a life that was invaded by a new light, by new purpose. His life was invaded by a divine presence that he almost immediately began to name in terms of lordship, divinity, to name the light as God and to surrender to him. There can be few more powerful experiences. Suddenly the sense of being exposed yet loved, of stumbling yet being lifted up (these metaphors that struggle to explain the joy of conversion are so inadequate), suddenly this experience was his.
To some extent it is a once-only experience, like realizing we are in love and loved in return. Yet it is not to be considered the be all and end all. For some, for many in western culture, even today, there is no such experience but rather an on-going awareness of the Christ who walks alongside. The Lukan story of the Emmaus Road, rather than his story of the Damascus Road, attempts to convey that. But as it happens our liturgies, if we take them seriously, present the experience back to us again and again. “Merciful God, we have sinned against you …” “God have (God has) mercy on you.” And our response should be to stand and song in praise … “Glory to God.” We are transformed, redeemed, all those words that attempt to express the experience of the risen Christ who invades our lives, daily, weekly, for ever, even beyond our grave.
Conversion is re-programming. In films like The Matrix it is near instantaneous, but for most of us it is a lifetime process or more. Slowly, inexorably, we should but too often don’t allow ourselves to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. The not altogether wonderful impression the Christian community has given the world around it suggests we have flawed, inhibited, even thwarted the process, yet we are called over and over again to open ourselves to what many biblical writers refer in terms of light, the radiating scrutiny of God. We are called to be as it were reconstituted by God. Our eucharistic liturgies reenact the transition from sinner to redeemed missioner, Christbearer, but it is up to us to reposition that re-enactment so it becomes true for us, so that our lives are invaded again and again by the joy and the transformative love of the risen Christ. “Re-clothe us,” says the hymnist, “in our rightful mind.”
The conversion the biblical writers tell of is no superficial moment, but a lifelong process of cleansing and reconstituting, It is also, as the author of Revelation makes clear in that apocalyptic vision, a lifelong and often difficult process of trusting against all odds. Luther’s hymn, “a safe strong-hold is our God,” (look it up if you don’t know it!) and the much-derided “To Be a Pilgrim” with its hobgoblins and foul fiends, strive to express the presence of the risen Christ with us in times of duress. The former in particular was written in apocalyptic times not unlike our own, yet the authors can speak of the need to cling to the risen, transforming, doubt-conquering Christ in such times of trial.
These are the same times of trial from which we implore deliverance each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: Lord, save us. These are the same words, the same implication of the words that a convert cries out: “Lord, help me!” They are the same words we heard in the psalm. They are not an excuse by which to do nothing about the world around us in all its trials, perhaps even death-throes, but a heartfelt request that we can be invaded by the risen, death conquering, hope breathing Easter Christ who transforms us and helps us transform the world, the communities in which we live, the globe on which we dwell.
Lord, help us. The on-going conversion process is one of trusting God not only in the complacent times – the decades, for example that followed World War Two – but in times of great uncertainty, of Trumpianism, of racial and religious hatreds, of economic and ecological collapse. Christ is with us, and these are times to be increasingly aware, however strange, surreal, unreal that affirmation seems to be. Let us together rejoice and be renewed in and by the risen Easter Christ who will lead us beyond the hobgoblins and foul fiends of every apocalyptic age, even the last when it comes.