Remember Who You Are
I confess that I sometimes have "conversion envy." A movie about my faith story would not be a blockbuster. I don't really have an I once was lost but now am found moment. If someone asked me to name the date and time that I was saved, the best I could do would be to point to my baptism as an infant, but I don't actually know the date or time of that. I grew up in the church, I went to Sunday school, and youth group, and Christian summer camps. And even when I tried to be a bit rebellious, I wasn't very good at it. I kind of wish that I could tell you a story about like St. Paul's, about how I was, in some way, railing against Jesus until he graciously knocked me off my horse. But it wasn't really like that.
That being said, I can point to seasons and stretches, to people and places, when I was suddenly made more aware of God's presence, when I began to understand a little better who Jesus is, when I heard his voice or his call a little more clearly. If I look back I can see where the path definitely changed here and there. If I think about particular times when I was actually, as Paul puts it, far off, without Christ, really (if I'm honest) without hope--for me it would have been my late teens and early twenties--I actually can feel the difference in my heart now: at some point, something changed, and continues to change. My conversion story isn't glamorous, but there is one. At some point it became undeniably clear to me that life with Jesus, though not always easier, is definitely better. Somewhere along the line, I made that choice.
I'd be willing to bet that a lot of you are like me, when it comes to this sort of thing. Especially if you grew up in the United Church, or another mainline denomination, it might be that it's hard to put your finger on a particular moment when you said yes to following Jesus, to walking in his way, to receiving his grace. Frankly, if you grew up in the United Church, you may never actually have been asked to do that. That has not been our style. Or it may be that even if you can point to a particular moment--that if I asked you to stand up and give your testimony, you could do that--but that it was a while ago. Maybe a long while ago. If you would describe yourself as a Christian, when was the last time you thought about how or when or why that happened?
In the passage we just heard from the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul says lots of really big things (covenant, commandments, blood of Christ), and some peculiar cultural things (Gentiles, the commonwealth of Israel, circumcision, "uncircumcision"), and it's easy to get caught up in some of those details. In some cases, it's really worth getting caught up in those details, in unpacking what he's saying. But the thing that jumps out at me, the thing I think is actually most important for understanding what he's getting at, is in verse 13, when he says, But now. But now.
He's been reminding the Ephesians that once they didn't know Jesus. For everyone in that congregation, their "conversion moment" would still be pretty fresh. They, unlike me, would almost certainly remember the first time they'd heard the name of Jesus, the first time they'd heard the story of God's world-renewing mission, the first time they had celebrated Communion; unlike my they would remember their baptism. Everybody that Paul was writing to was a new convert. Nobody in Ephesus had grown up in the church, because there was no church to grow up in. They couldn't take words like grace and hope and peace for granted. They'd have had a clear memory of life without those things, without Jesus.
And yet Paul seems to think that it's worth reminding them of their conversion anyways. He wants that memory kept fresh. Paul is insisting that there is life before Jesus and life after Jesus and they aren't the same. That was important for the Ephesians to remember, and I believe that it's important for us. It might be even more important for us, especially those of us who grew up in a nominally Christian culture, where to be part of the church was, if not expected, then at least not totally weird. It might be more important for those of us who have been raised within the basic assumption that Christianity is more or less synonymous with Western, democratic capitalism; that to be a Christian is basically the same as being a good citizen, and a polite neighbor. If you're like me and to become a Christian, to make a decision for Jesus, meant requiring you to change very little, if anything, I think that this is a really important word. But now.
I think that in order to do what we're called and created to do, we need to be reminded, we need to remember or learn again for the first time, that we are not called by Jesus to maintain the status quo. But now. Jesus doesn't say, I'm ok, you're ok, let's go for coffee. He says, Repent and believe, the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Think about the stories in the gospels, when Jesus calls the disciples. Drop your nets, and come this way; I'm going to teach you a different kind of fishing. Get out from behind that tax booth and follow me. Go home, sell everything you've got and give it to the poor, and let's go do something different together. Get out from under your fig tree-- your comfortable, predictable, easy life--and let's watch heaven and earth collide! These are the sorts of things Jesus is in the habit of saying to disciples. When Jesus calls us, and when we choose to go with him, when we choose life with him, life is not meant to be the same as it was.
There's a funny story at the end of the gospel of John, one of my favorite chapters in the Bible (John 21). Jesus has been crucified, largely for messing with the status quo. And he's been raised from the dead--his way in the world has been confirmed with a divine exclamation point! He's come back to the fickle and frightened disciples, who'd betrayed and deserted and denied him, and he overwhelms them with wonder and grace. He breathes the Holy Spirit all over them, and commissions them to go into the world as his witnesses. It's this marvellous resurrection moment. The whole thing pulses with new life and possibility. And in response to this extraordinary gospel experience, Peter decides to go fishing. "I'm going fishing," he says to the others, and they agree that that sounds like a good idea. In other words, Peter (Rock-of-the-Church Peter) decides that he's going to go back to what he knows best, back to life before Jesus strolled up the beach and called him into a gospel adventure. Peter seems to think that after Jesus, life will just carry on as usual. And of course, Jesus is having none of it. He chases them down on the beach and reminds them that he's called them into something altogether different.
In the Book of Revelation, there's a series of letters from Jesus, to seven churches, one of which is the church in Ephesus. And in the letter to the Ephesian church, Jesus says, You're doing alright, but you've forgotten the love you had at first. You've forgotten the joy and wonder and delight that you discovered when you first met me. You're going through the motions, but the passion's gone. I think that's part of what Paul is on about, too. When something is new, it's not hard to be excited about it. But once we've been doing it for a while, we tend to start taking things for granted, we stop doing the things that brought depth and energy, intimacy and joy. We are slowly drawn back into life before.
Paul wants to remind us of the good news that we know, this thing that we know about the world--that God loves it, that God loves us; that God goal, God's dream, God's passion is to make all things new. Paul wants to remind us that we've been called into cahoots with the God who made the heavens and the earth. Paul wants us to know that we've been invited into a relationship of wild intimacy--we're not strangers, being carried along by a hopeless, impersonal fate; we're people in covenant, women and men in living, mutually self-giving relationship with the maker and sustainer of all things, the One who will love this broken world back to health. Remember that! Paul says.
We need this reminder whether we've been a Christian for as long as we can remember, or since yesterday. Because unless we have that reminder, unless we remember the conditions, the grace-soaked, good news conditions that we're living in, we're going to get drawn into something else, something less.
Last Monday some of us got to hear Bishop Will Willimon talking about evangelism in our modern context, and in the shadow of some pretty terrible decisions by the Church. And the question of conversion came up--should we be converting people?
And I thought his response was important. He said basically, that everyone is being converted to something. The thing that's been accomplished by making religion a personal, private choice, is that most of us and most of our neighbors are converted to individualistic, capitalistic, consumerism. There are lots of people, there are entire institutions, committed to converting us to the way that says that we are only what we make of ourselves, that the way to measure success is by acquiring stuff, and that happiness has something to do with getting whatever we want, whenever we want it. That's a framework lots of folks, inside and outside the Church are working in, and we are taught it, converted to it. Paul is determined to make sure that we know, that we remember that we have another option, that when we signed on to Jesus' mission, we got caught up in something altogether different.
Remember! Paul says. But now, he sings. But now what? For starters, but now we have a kind of peace that we couldn't otherwise know. And that's not just a general sense of contentment and well-being. There's action and life, as well as healing and calm in this peace. We have peace with God. We're not running all over the place, trying to earn divine favor. We're not looking over our shoulders, or tiptoeing around, worrying that we might mess up, fearful of what will happen when we do. We have peace with God. So many voices in the world, religious and otherwise, tell us that if we do this, this, and that, if we manage to accomplish these things and avoid doing those things, then we'll be worthy; then we'll be in God's, or at least somebody's good-books.
Paul says, no. We are made worthy. We have peace with God. We are inseparably bound to the source and sustainer of all things, not because of anything we've done, but because of what God has done. No matter what, what we see in Jesus is that there isn't anything that God won't give to show us that we're loved, without question. I think that's a better, more human starting point than "we are nothing but what we make of ourselves." No. We have peace with God. We are loved. Period.
That's what should motivate us as Christians. It changes everything. It opens us up in a way that we can't be opened, if we're constantly on guard in one way or another. It creates a peace between us and our neighbors. When we realize what God will do, what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the lengths to which God will go to be with us and for us, to overcome any distance between us, we grow in our capacity to love others. When we begin with the truth that we are loved (which is not self-evident, but which we come to know sure and certainly in Jesus), without qualification, then we become an awful lot less self protective. Walls start to come down.
Paul's particular concern in the passage is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, in the first century church. That's not necessarily the dividing line in our time and place, in our lives. But we've got plenty of walls that could use to be knocked over. The more time we spend in the company of Jesus, the more he tends to point out folks that he wants us to learn to love, just because he loves them, and whether or not we want to love them.
Elsewhere in Paul's writing he talks about our "ministry of reconciliation." We who would follow Jesus, who would be his ambassadors in the world, are meant to have a special concern for people that we might not otherwise have been expected to be concerned for. In the light of Jesus we begin to see people differently--as people that God also loves. That love, that peace that God won for us, compels us to bust through barriers of sin and brokenness. Where are the places of friction and hurt in our lives, in our city, in our neighborhoods and homes and nation? Pastor Greg Boyd says, "Us and them is the opposite of God," and we have a responsibility to bear witness to that truth--to actually love others as we love ourselves.
Paul wants us to remember that in the company of Jesus we're called to be a part of God's new world order; we're adopted into the family of God. When he says that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, that obviously doesn't mean that we receive a new passport. This is not a government sanctioned immigration. It means that we are absorbed into a new way of relating to God and neighbor, a new possibility for how we fit in the world, how we use our stuff and our gifts, our time and our energy. Literally, it's a new economic option (economic comes from the Greek work oikos, household): a way of generosity and trust, a way of hope and grace, a way of abundance and gratitude; a way that turns the dehumanizing ways of selfishness and greed and irreconciliation and anxiety upside down. It's a way built not on our desperate attempts to make something of ourselves, but on the "foundation of the apostles and prophets," the promises of God's hope, peace, joy, and love for this broken and beloved world.
Remember. But now. Remember who you are. Let God's love convert us again. I like to think of remember--the way we use it here, the way we use it at the Table--as the opposite of dismember. In Christ we are "put back together"; we are made most fully into who we are meant to be. What sin and brokenness destroy, the grace and love and passion of God restore, remember. Listen to what Paul says about the church and about us: The whole [thing] is joined together in him, and it grows into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit (2:22 CEB). Remember who you are, who you are made to be: wildly loved, wonderfully made, light in the darkness, holy salt in a sin-bland world. By grace, you--we--are a reminder of all the hope, peace, joy, and love of God for us and for all things.