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Thoughts on Conversion

2011 October 6

In reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison recently, I came across the following passage that really captured my attention –

“This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners… in the healing of the sick, in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are… The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith.’ There is nothing of religious method here. The religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.

I found the passage so intriguing because it challenges the Christian assumption that encountering Jesus is an end in itself. For many in the church, “finding Jesus” is the point of conversion and salvation. This encounter is presumed to result in the involvement in religious activities such as attending church (which does not necessarily imply being part of the community of church), acts of personal piety, and the elimination of certain sins like sexual immorality. This encounter is what guarantees one a place in heaven and is often assumed to also grant one financial and social success in this life as well. In a dualistic sense, one’s souls’ eternal destiny is changed by this encounter, while physical life continues mostly as before (just in perhaps a better way). There is the encounter that in theory changes everything and in practice changes very little. For unless one’s whole life gets caught up in that suffering of Jesus, the encounter just affects the partial religious acts.

While some might say that ensuring one’s entrance into heaven is to have one’s life caught up into Jesus, it is still a partial event since it ignore the pre-converted life and often the entirety of physical life as well. As the God who suffered Jesus was already present though in the lives of all – the sick, the children, the shepherds, the wise men. He didn’t encounter them and change them so they could now be part of his story; his story became their story as they moved as they were towards him. To find Jesus in a moment is to assume that one was without God and then suddenly has God. Discipleship though is a journey where as people created in God’s image we move ever towards the people we were created to be.

The journey is our conversion as it was for the wise men drawn by the star. That shaping and forming of our selves into Christ-likeness is not a momentary wave of the magic Jesus wand, but the ongoing process of coming to reflect the image of the one in which we live and move and have our being. It is an entirely new life, like Bonhoeffer states, not simply a religious act we join into when it is convenient to us. And it by necessity involves being caught up in suffering. The suffering of Jesus frees us to reject the systems of the world that leave no room for the suffering (or are the cause of that very suffering). Instead of concentrating on our momentary encounters with Jesus, we are free instead to journey towards that shalom of all. The discipline of participating in Christ, the suffering of Christ, leads us not toward more acts of religion but toward standing in solidarity with the suffering. That is simply part of our conversion as we participate in ever fuller ways in our creator.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. October 7, 2011

    I find that my own conversion was/is a process, too. There was one moment in my life (when I was 17) that I can pinpoint and say, “That’s when God finally caught up with me.” But even then it took me a few weeks before I started reading the Bible regularly and going to church. In fact, even after over ten years of following Jesus, I’m still learning what it means to be a disciple.

  2. October 7, 2011

    I think learning what it means to follow Christ takes a lifetime (and more). Thinking we are ever done being formed would seem to imply that we are already god-like – a tad blasphemous imho.

  3. Duane Toole permalink
    October 9, 2011

    “I think learning what it means to follow Christ takes a lifetime (and more). Thinking we are ever done being formed would seem to imply that we are already god-like – a tad blasphemous imho.”

    I whole-heartedly agree.

    I came to this conclusion over a relatively long period of time.
    My wife and I are church musicians. Both of our children have been going to church with us virtually since birth. When my son was first asked if he were a Christian – in a Baptist church – he said, “Of course.” He was twelve. A few months later, the pastor of the church had a long conversation with him. There was no doubt in that pastor’s mind that Trevor was a Christian, though Trevor had no recollection of ever having had “conversion” experience; he merely sensed that he had ALWAYS believed. My daughter, Colleen, had a similar experience. Both my children are now adults, and are active in churches. My son is Methodist; my daughter (in theater as a sound designer) is active in NYC at Grace Episcopal Church.

    I recall a New Testament Theology professor of mine, Dale Moody, who said that the Greek word translated “saved” in the New Testament actually meant “I was saved; I am being saved; I will be saved.”

    Working in the church for over 40 years, now, I have seen the spiritual journeys of many people. They are all different, but they are all journeys. And they all take a lifetime.

  4. October 10, 2011

    This Friday I leave for the DR with 15 others to hand-deliver a quarter of a million meals (that we packed last spring) to Haitian refugees. The empath in me is going to get a real work-out, for it definitely wants to “stand in solidarity with the suffering” of the Haitians. It wants to eat what they eat, live where they live, work where they work (in the sugar cane fields), even if only for a week.

    The other part of me wants to help build some shelters and make some permanent, sustainable change to help relieve their suffering. I’ll probably be an obedient (sigh!) team member and do the latter.

    Keep preaching it, Julie. We’ll eventually reach the ones who just come to the locker room to hear the pep talk each Sunday. We’ll eventually get them to not just show up, but to suit up and head out onto the playing field.

  5. October 12, 2011

    What is “salvation”? What is it, really? Years ago, my second reading (OK, I am slow) of Sylvia Keesmaat’s doctoral disertation on Romans 8 gave me insight into the many arguments and contentious debates on this subject which I had heard (and participated in) over the years.

    Sylvia brings out the echo of what she calls “the Exodus event” behind Paul’s writing. What she finds I have distilled in my own teaching/writing into five elements without which salvation appears to be incomplete: 1) rescue; 2) testing; 3) equipping; 4) indwelling and 5) marching orders to which Isael must respond faithfully in order for salvation to be complete.

    1) At first, the people are stuck, helpless, groaning in Egypt. They must be rescued so they are thrust out of Egypt after 8 months of plagues. Then they are rescued again at the sea and multiple more times while being carried as if on eagles’ wings across the desert. Buried in the rescue theme, however are other elements of salvation, both testing and response.

    2) Then we see Israel clearly tested again through desert travel and war.

    3) Equipping, shows up when they come to the mountain of God. There they are made clean and given Torah, including the instructions for the tabernacle and again, testing and response, faithful or not, show up as essential elements of equipping.

    4) Within equipping is the means of indwelling for if they faithfully build, prepare and consecrate the tabernacle, then the kabod (smoke/weighty proof) of God will have a place to dwell in the very center of their midst. This element is so important to the author(s) of Torah that it serves as the triumphant conclusion of Exodus and it is the story which must be told again as the narrative picks up in Numbers 9.

    5) Finally come the marching orders: now go take the land. Numbers 13-14 carry the first chapter of this story. Salvation for Israel clearly cannot be complete until they are secure in the land and the promises of God to Abe are fulfilled. There will be many chapters in many books before David settles Israel’s scores with its neighbors and they begin to live securely in the land, until they can begin to attract all the nations to their ethos, their culture and thus their God.

    Paul covers all these matters in what we call the last verses of Romans 7 and Romans 8, all the way from helplessness and the need for rescue to our inheritance of a redeemed creation, the very land which we are now (supposed) to be invading, not with swords and bows, but with grace, truth and love. He discusses being led by the spirit — the groaning of both God’s people and God’s spirit, not responding with a fleshly spirit of fear and not being tempted to return to slavery because that is not the spirit we have been given!

    So, moving from Paul, all the way back to the single most important story in Israel’s history, salvation is a lot more than being saved (rescued). It is being equipped and tested, filled with God’s spirit — including learning not to take direction from the world’s spirits — and entering into the creation — which will be our inheritance! — by faith: taking the land.

    (Not the dominionist taking: wrestling control of “the seven mountains” away from “the secularists,” by any means. Power politics, pay-to-play tactics, as well as all the other violent ways of empire are strictly off limits. Not one inch of creation can be won through violence.)

    The emerging church, I hope and pray, will embrace this larger understanding of salvation as its own. Thank you, Julie, for your clear witness. You are pushing the movement in the right direction. I thank God for you.

  6. October 25, 2011

    Having never read the quote before, I really found it striking (along with your insight) the connection between “faith” and suffering.

    It gives such new light to sharing in the faith!

    Thanks for the great post!

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