A Good Conversion (a sermon from Matthew 4:12-23)
In our Gospel text today Matthew pictures Jesus as a great light offering hope and direction to those dwelling in darkness. Matthew gives us a one sentence summary of the message he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The alternate reading given in the footnote is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It can be rendered either way.
Some interpreters picture Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet announcing the imminent arrival of God’s new world of peace and restorative justice. The Hebrew prophets spoke of such a world poetically. Isaiah prophesied of a time when the one to come would establish a kingdom of “endless peace . . . with justice and with righteousness.” It would be a time when all the peoples “would beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Some interpreters understand Jesus to be announcing the soon coming or imminent arrival of God’s new age of peace and justice.
Other interpreters read this differently. They see Jesus as more of a mystic than an apocalyptic prophet. For these interpreters the kingdom or rule of God Jesus is announcing is not the future kingdom of peace and justice, but the dynamic rule and presence of God that is already here. They emphasize that the kingdom is a spiritual reality that one experiences and lives in now by faithfully assimilating and embodying the values and virtues of Jesus.
Personally, I don’t make the distinction. I see no reason to choose one over the other. I see Jesus as both prophet and mystic. As prophet Jesus speaks truth to power, and as mystic Jesus teaches people how to know God. As both prophet and mystic Jesus speaks God’s truth and reveals God’s love. On the one hand, I believe that God’s dream for the world is a world of justice and peace. A world of equity and equality. A world where all have enough not just to survive, but to thrive. A world where people of different religion and tradition and nationality live in peace, supporting, caring, helping, and loving one another.
I also believe that the presence and will of God is being done right now by people who are awake and sensitive to the Spirit of God who is at work in our world and in our lives right now. So, in one sense God’s vision for a just and peaceful world is yet to be fully realized. But on the other hand, God’s Presence fills the world and is actively engaged in our world drawing us into participation to work for a just world.
So what is our part in all of this? Our part is to be open and receptive and obedient to God’s Presence (to God’s Spirit, to the living Christ) who is in us and among us so that we can be God’s agents and instruments in doing God’s will right now and in working toward the realization of God’s dream of a just world. Our part is to surrender to God’s will and engage the world as God’s image bearers. Our part is to yield to Divine Love and Mercy and work for the good of all God’s children. God works in our lives and through our lives so that God can bring peace and justice to the world. God works through committed willing human beings. The call to repent is a summary of Jesus’ call to participate in this great work of worldly redemption and renewal – of our personal lives, relationships, communities, and all the structures and systems of society at large.
The call to repent is a call to change. And what do we need to change? Well, we need to change our minds and hearts in any number of ways so that we have a larger, truer, understanding of and commitment to what is really important – to what God wants done. This may involve a change in our priorities so that we are not just focused on our own glory or position or place or piece of the pie, so that we are free to nurture loving relationships, give help and show kindness to others, and act in compassion and mercy. When Jesus calls the fishermen and says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people,” he is inviting them to participate in a great story and great work that involves fishing for people, that is, catching people up in the great net of God’s love; winning people over to the side of love and goodness and mercy and justice. This is what the Christ is calling us to do as well. Christ is calling us to a work of healing and liberation – of making people whole and freeing people to love. He is calling us to invest in relationships so we can build up one another and advance the common good together.
We need to realize that the invitation to participate in God’s will on earth is an invitation to participate in something that is large and great and wonderful, but it challenges many of our biases and prejudices and our cultural conditioning. It challenges our egocentricity and basic selfishness. It challenges our narrowness and greed. It challenges our consumerism and materialism and nationalism. It challenges everything that is an obstacle to love, because the call to participate in God’s will is a call to love – to love better and to love broader.
We all have this desire to love within us, but we need to tap into it and allow God’s Spirit to enlarge it and spread it around. John Philip Newell tells about the time his wife and son and son-in-law were at the international airport in Glasgow when a terrorist attack occurred. His son-in-law Mark had taken Ali, his wife, and Cameron, their youngest son to the airport. As they were inside the terminal making their way toward the ticket counter, suddenly in front of them hundreds of people came running in the opposite direction. A jeep packed with explosives had just driven through the front window of the terminal and burst into flames. As soon as they caught sight of the jeep and spotted one of the terrorists on fire Mark yelled, “Drop your bags. Run.” Fortunately, the explosives did not detonate. Later when Mark, their son-in-law recounted what was going through his mind at that time he said, “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.” He was prepared to give up his life to save Cameron.
John Philip Newell says that Mark said this not in any way trying to make himself look good, but simply as a straightforward, honest account of what he was thinking. And though his son-in-law does not claim to be religious, Dr. Newell says that this touched him as an expression of the heart of God. And what a contrast between the sacrifice his son-in-law was willing to make and the sacrifice of the terrorists. The terrorists had a twisted concept of love. There God was a God who only loved a certain kind of people and wanted to destroy everyone else. The terrorists were willing to die for their distorted, hate-filled cause in order to achieve a reward in the afterlife. Mark was simply acting out of a love that looked beyond himself. Authentic conversion is about nurturing and developing this desire to love that is within all of us.
I define religious conversion as the divine-human process that transforms one into a more loving person. I define Christian conversion as the divine-human process that transforms a person into someone who loves like Jesus. The only difference between religious conversion in general and Christian conversion in particular is that Jesus is our reference point and goal. We Christians see in the life of Jesus a definitive revelation of God’s love. So our goal is to love like Jesus. But any good, genuine conversion is always about nurturing and developing our human capacity to love. A good conversion is about loving better and loving broader.
By loving better, I mean that we are able to love the people we already love with greater intensity and passion and sacrifice and loyalty. By loving broader, I mean that we are able to extend and expand our love beyond our little circle of family and friends or our kind of people. This is hinted at in our text. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus goes to the “Galilee of the Gentiles” to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. Gentiles make it into the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 and in chapter 2 Gentiles described as magi from the east come bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. Though Jesus’ primary ministry was to his own people and nation, it is clear that he did not exclude others. He intended his people to love outside their limited boundaries. So when we come to the end of Matthew’s story the risen Christ charges the disciples to take the good news to all nations and peoples.
A powerful illustration of what it means to love broader comes from an experience Will Campbell recounts in his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly. His friend, civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels, had just been gunned down in cold blood by volunteer Deputy Sheriff Thomas Coleman. Will was livid with grief and rage over Jonathan’s murder.
In the aftermath of that tragic event Will’s agnostic friend P.D. East reminded Will of a conversation they had years earlier. In that conversation P.D. had challenged Will to give him a definition of the Christian faith in ten words or less. What would you say? Here’s how Will defined it: We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway. That’s what he said to his agnostic friend. Now his friend decided to challenge Will’s succinct definition of the gospel. P.D. tore into Will: “Was Jonathan a bastard?” he asked. Will commented on how Jonathan was one of the sweetest, most gentle guys he had ever known. P.D. pressed him. His tone almost a scream: “But was he a bastard?” Will knew that P.D. had him cornered. So Will finally conceded. “Yes,” he said. P.D. came firing back: “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?” (the one who killed his friend Jonathan) That was easy. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard,” said Will. P.D. said: “Okay, let me get this straight . . . Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Colman is a bastard. . . . Which of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does God love the living bastard Thomas the most?” Will says that the truth of the gospel hit him with conversion force. Will was overcome with emotion. He found himself weeping and laughing simultaneously. Will says to P.D.: “Damn, brother, if you haven’t went and made a Christian out of me.”
What was Will saying when he said, “Damn, brother, if you haven’t went and made a Christian out of me.” He was saying to P.D, “You have helped me to see what it means to love like Jesus. You have helped me see how deep and wide, how better and broad is the love of God. God’s love even extends to those who have nurtured hate instead of love. It extends to murderers and terrorists. To those driven by their prejudices and biases. God doesn’t give up on any one. God keeps reaching out to all of us – to turn us away from our hate and greed and egotism. God keeps trying to convert us, to win us over to love and grace and compassion. God keeps fishing for people hoping to catch some with the net of divine love, and God calls us to go fishing too. We are the lures God uses to draw people into his net of love. Follow me, says Jesus to every would-be disciple, and I will teach you how to catch people with love.
The gospel of the kingdom is a gospel that challenges those of us on the left and on the right. For those on the left the temptation is to make the gospel mainly about social causes. And don’t hear this as me demeaning or downplaying social causes because work for restorative justice and equality is a vital part of the gospel of the kingdom. But it’s also more than that. It may be a lot easier to invest in some social cause than it is to love well the people right in front of us, especially those who are against our cause.
For those on the right the temptation is to make the gospel about some judicial arrangement to magically remit the penalty of our sins and offer heaven in its place. If that’s all the gospel is then why even worry about the hard task of loving others and working for the common good? Why even worry about justice for the downtrodden or lifting up the oppressed, if the gospel is just about believing the right things and going to heaven when we die. I do not doubt that we will go to heaven when we die, but that’s not what the gospel of the kingdom is.
The gospel of the kingdom of God, the gospel of Jesus is about love. It’s about loving our neighbor as ourselves – and that includes our enemies as well as our friends. It’s about loving better the people we know and care about and it’s about loving broader so that we extend this love to people we may not like and those we don’t even know. And our conversion to love is never ending. We never arrive. It’s a process and a journey that is ongoing. It’s an adventure in growing and learning how to love better and to love broader. It’s all about learning how to love like Jesus.
Gracious God, show us how to love like Jesus. Fill us with your love so that we can show others how much you love them. Keep converting us Lord from our narrowness to your wideness, from our resentment to your forgiveness, from our anger to your mercy, from our exclusiveness to your inclusiveness, from our selfishness to your generosity, and from our hatred to your love. Help us to see that no matter how much or often we fail, or how often we disappoint you, you continue to love us with an eternal love and will never give up on us. Help us to keep growing and nurturing this desire to love that you have given us, that is basic to our humanity. May we never stop growing in our capacity to love like you. Amen.