Constant Christian Conversion
May 3, 2015
Baltimore was the location of significant activity…in 1784. Significant for Methodists, anyway, as it was the city in which the Methodist Church in America was born. Methodist lay preachers from all over the colonies gathered at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore on Christmas, 1784. They met with representatives sent by John Wesley who ordained some of them so they could serve the sacraments – and so our new denomination, called the Methodist Episcopal Church, was born.
Two African American preachers, Harry Hosier and Richard Allen, attended the Christmas Conference as it was called. They were allowed to attend, but not to vote. They were ordained, but their preaching was restricted to black congregations that were allowed to meet in Methodist church buildings when they weren’t being used by the white congregations.
Eventually Richard Allen’s patience with the Methodists ran out. He and his congregation formed a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which continues as a significant part of African American culture today.
Baltimore has been in the news much more recently, of course. It has been the scene of violence born of frustration with continuing racism, as have so many other American cities. The legacy of the same racism that kept Richard Allen from fully participating in the life of the early Methodist church has kept other African Americans from fully participating in the economic, educational and civic life of the United States.
Not that racism or its legacy is monolithic or one-sided; it’s complicated and multi-layered. But I think it has come as a surprise to many white Americans just how angry many black Americans are and how prevalent the incidences of prejudice are in the lives of people of color in America.
The eyes of power-holders rarely see the world as the less powerful see it. Some of us are only stopped when we really are speeding; some of us aren’t followed by loss prevention personnel in department stores; some don’t have to wonder if it’s the color of our skin that was the reason we weren’t hired or accepted or included.
When the shoes you’re wearing are comfortable, why would you walk in someone else’s?
Neither Jews nor Christians were the majority in 1st C Rome, but the world of Jewish Christianity was Peter’s world. And in his world, Peter was a power holder. He was not only a disciple of Jesus’, he was the disciple chosen by Jesus to lead the community. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter had no reason to see his world through any other lenses than the ones he already had on.
So God had to work especially hard to open Peter’s eyes to a different vision of God’s intention for the world.
Our story from the 10th chapter of Acts begins with Cornelius, a Roman soldier and a Gentile; pious but still not acceptable; religious unclean, someone outside God’s covenant with Israel. During a time of prayer, Cornelius has a vision of an angel who tells him to go fetch a man named Peter. Cornelius does what he is told, and sends two servants and a soldier to find Peter.
As the caravan is making its way from Caesarea to Joppa, Peter is making is way to his rooftop to pray. In contrast to Cornelius, Peter is a Jew, an apostle of Jesus Christ’s Way, orthodox and even narrow-minded in his belief. He, too, has a vision during his time of prayer – a vision in which he sees a sheet being lowered down from heaven. It is full of animals, reptiles and birds that good Jews would never eat. But Peter hears God say “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter knows what the correct answer is “Surely not, Lord!”
The centurion got the message on the first try, but it takes three times for Peter to believe that what he’s seeing and hearing is truly from God. Finally, as he begins to take the message seriously, the doorbell rings.
Brought to Cornelius’s house, Peter discerns that what he has seen and heard about food was not really about food, it was about people. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality….” Peter has learned more about who God is, and now he can see more clearly what his own mission is.
Not that everyone else is convinced. The church leaders back in Jerusalem aren’t quick to sign on to Peter’s newly-converted mindset. As one commentator puts it, “The idea that God shows no partiality ‘dies a slow death within the church, even in the face of hard evidence gathered by Peter and later by Paul.’”
Conversion is often understood as being moved from no faith to faith, or from one faith to another. It is just as often understood to be something that happens just once in a person’s life. Peter’s experience throws a monkey wrench into those assumptions. He is already a follower of Jesus, but his rooftop vision leads to his conversion to a new understanding of the church’s faith and mission. He finds himself stepping across boundaries and barriers that had, up to this point, seemed impenetrable.
But God converts him just as dramatically as God converted Paul by knocking him off his horse on the road to Damascus, moving a zealous persecutor of Christians to become its most important evangelist. Long after he’d already decided to follow Jesus, Peter finds his mind opened and his life redirected yet again.
Some Christian traditions embrace the idea of conversion as a one-time event: “We’re done; we’re saved; we have become Christians.” We are not done – nor are we finished. What Martin Luther said of baptism applies here as well: “Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our whole life to complete.” The life of a Christian is a life of constant conversion: constantly allowing God to open your eyes and mind and heart, again and again.
I was 21 years old and a senior in college when God’s converting Spirit found me on my own Road to Damascus and sent me running to find a church community to join and a seminary to attend. But that same converting Spirit has continued to open my eyes and redirect my life in many ways since then:
- Almost a decade after seminary graduation and my ordination, God used a short-term position on the staff of an Episcopal campus ministry to open my eyes to the power of the Sacraments. Not magic or superstition as I had believed until then, but untranslatable into words and therefore beyond human ability to explain.
- Several years later, God worked through a United Methodist congregation in a small town in the northwest Lower Peninsula to open my eyes to the power of a healthy Christian community. Not a status symbol or a social club but a source of love and healing and committed lifestyle for those who were part of it.
- A decade after that, God redirected my life once more by convincing me that parish ministry really was my calling after all.
I can only imagine that God’s not done with me yet. God’s not done with you, either! Or with this church. Because churches, like people, if they are going to follow Jesus as their Lord, must also allow God’s Spirit to open their eyes and minds and hearts in a lifelong process of constant conversion.
If Peter, the lead apostle, the rock upon whom Jesus founded the church, required continuing conversion and transformation, who are we to rest on our laurels?
Or to spin this in another way: What prospects for fresh ministry, for reaching new people and bringing new life to our community, exist right here already? What new purposes might University Church and MSU Wesley be put to, if we will allow God to open our eyes and redirect our hearts?
The truth is that the congregation that is spiritually alive, where conversion and transformation are ongoing, is more likely to be inspiring and inviting to visitors and seekers than the church that thinks it’s got itself figured out. The congregation that allows God to redirect its mission is more likely to be made up of people who are also willing to allow God to redirect their lives than the congregation whose implicit message is, “We’ve arrived.”
The whole thrust of the Book of Acts is that the mission of the church is not just a budget or program of the church but everything the church is and does. Mission means bold witness;
- it means authentic Christian community;
- it means congregations that are capable of having - and growing stronger through – disagreements;
- it means churches where fresh, innovative, and surprising ministries are the result of the Spirit’s bidding.
- It means congregations where transformation is happening, where lives and communities are being changed as they experience God’s amazing grace.
When the church first began in Jerusalem, in the days of Peter and Paul, to be constantly converted was to understand that God’s good news was for the Gentiles too. It took awhile, but eventually the church figured out that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus.
When the Methodist Episcopal Church first began, in the city of Baltimore, soon after the close of the War of Independence, to be constantly converted was to understand that God’s good news was for people of color, too. It took awhile, but eventually the church figured out that neither your skin color nor your ethnic or cultural background disqualified you from leading others to follow Jesus.
And now, as Christians around the world consider once again how God is opening their eyes and redirecting their hearts, to be constantly converted is to understand that God calls people of all sexual orientations and gender identities to lives of Christian commitment lived out in Christian community.
Indeed, it turns out that individual conversion is not meant simply for the individual. Peter didn’t receive God’s vision of clean and unclean, and then go back to bed. He opened the door to his visitors, traveled with them to meet Cornelius and set the church on a new path. God opens and re-open eyes and hearts so that we can open and re-open the church’s door.
Many of you have heard me and others talk about VCI, the Vital Church Initiative, a process by which our congregation, and many others, can reassess our own vision and mission. If you’re feeling confused about VCI – exactly what it is, who’s part of it, how long it’s going to take – you’re in good company. Because it’s a process, not a program, VCI is different for each congregation…and therefore it’s not simple to explain.
One specific reason that University Church is taking part in the VCI process is that we now own this entire facility, including the northern half that until recently was owned by the campus ministry, the MSU Wesley Foundation. That’s a lot of bricks and mortar, more than we need just for ourselves, in an amazing location. It is a gift, and it is a responsibility. How is God leading us to use it?
More than that specific question about our space, VCI will help us to ask and answer questions about our own identity. Congregations that have reached our stage of maturity can easily fall into complacency. We like our worship; we’re content with our educational programs; we support mission programs. VCI will help us to redirect our vision outwards. Whom can we reach? What lives can we transform? Can we allow God to enlarge us, to work in us, to surprise us with, to convert us to deeper, broader understanding of our faith and our mission?
In fact, while VCI’s aim is to help us look outwards, it is also intended to help us take an honest look inwards. Revitalization needs to happen inside our sanctuary, too, in our life as a congregation, and in our lives as individuals. Conversion and transformation continue - and need to continue – in our lives and churches today because God is a living God, because God is still speaking, because God is always doing a new thing.
Peter was not expecting to be led to an understanding of God’s inclusion of gentiles. He had not been going to meetings of the evangelism and church growth committee. He had not even been asking himself “How can we reach the gentiles?” He had his hands full right there in Jerusalem. He was not expecting – nor did he think he needed or even wanted – a new mission. No wonder it took him some time to figure out what that sheet full of clean and unclean animals meant. It was God’s doing! And fortunately for us he was paying attention.
Now we are being asked to pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit. Now we are being challenged to open the door to those the Spirit has sent to us. Now is the time for us to expect the Spirit’s surprising, challenging interruption in our life together.
It won’t be easy. Change never is. Look at Baltimore – in 1784, and in 2015. So here’s my suggestion and my hope…
…that as we open our eyes to God’s new vision for us, as we open our doors to the people and the needs waiting for our response, we remember that the most important thing about us is not how great we are, or how wonderful our programs are, or even how many people we reach…but what God is doing through us.
Brothers and sisters, this is what will keep us together through all that the future has in store for us: the knowledge that it is not what we do, but what God does through us, that really counts.
Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall. Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day. Eerdmanns, 2006.
Sanders L. Willson, “ God Does Not Show Favoritism: ACTS 10.” Presbyterion 29/1 (Spring 2003): 1-8.