I heard about a lady who decided to get a pet after her husband died. The house seemed so empty and she wanted some company. So she went to the pet store and the pet store owner talked her in to getting a parott. She brought it home and after a few days this parrot started talking--but this foul had a terribly foul mouth. She could not believe the words that came out of the bird’s mouth--blankety blank blank after blank. She tried everything she could think of it to cure it. She would squirt it with a water bottle. She would take its food away for a little while. She tried throwing a blanket over the cage. And the pet store would not take it back.
One afternoon the pastor called and wanted to stop in for a few minutes to visit and have prayer with her. In her haste to straighten the house, she forgot about the parakeet. Just as the pastor was leaving the parakeet billowed out the most horrendous string of curse words you ever heard. She was so upset that as soon as the pastor stepped out of the door she ran to the cage, grabbed hold of the bird – she was so mad. She opened the freezer door and placed the bird inside thinking she would let that bird cool off for a minute or two. Then, the phone rang and she forgot about the parakeet. When she finally remembered and opened the door the parrot was almost frozen stiff. There were ice cycles hanging off its feathers. Shivering the bird says, "I reeeeeppppent. Then the bird asks, “WWWhat ddddid that Turkey do?"
The life of Christian discipleship is about conversion, that is, it is about change. The kind of change that makes us more like God. This change does not happen through fear. Like the parakeet we may decide to amend our ways because we fear what will happen if we don’t. But fear cannot bring about any deep personal transformation.
In the little letter of 1 John, the writer says that God is love. And there is no fear in love, but rather perfect (or mature) love casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:16-17). Fear does not produce love. It might produce conformity to a behavioral code, but that is not Christian conversion. Christian conversion results in loving God and loving others the way Jesus did, who is our model and guide. Fear of punishment does not produce love. The writer of 1 John says that fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached completion in love (4:18).
Authentic conversion is grounded in the assurance that we are loved as God’s children. The writer of 1 John says in the passage we read earlier (3:1-2), we are God’s children now. This very moment. It’s all grace and gift. There is nothing we can do to merit this relationship. It’s our birthright. We claim this relationship by faith. But whether we claim it or not, it’s still true. We are God’s sons and daughters. Faith involves trusting in this relationship and being faithful and committed to this relationship. But faith doesn’t merit or earn us the relationship. The relationship is pure grace.
We don’t make our children earn the right to be our children do we? We instruct and guide and pray and hope that our children will become caring, compassionate, loving persons. But regardless, they are our children and we are going to love them no matter what. Why would we ever think it’s any different for God?
Some folks are nurtured into this awareness that they are God’s daughters and sons, and may have not thought of themselves in any other way. From the time they were toddlers they were told how God loves them. They believe that and trust that. Others may have had some religious or spiritual experience that brought this awareness to light rather suddenly. None of our histories or experiences are exactly the same. However, the one thing that is the same is that an authentic Christian conversion is rooted in love, not fear. It is grounded in the awareness that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.
The passage we read in Luke highlights two essential processes that are a vital part of any genuine conversion – repentance and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is unconditional. Luke makes this point in his Gospel when Jesus forgives those who crucify him. There is no hint that those who killed Jesus ever repented of what they did, but Jesus still forgives them, and in doing so embodies the forgiveness of God. Unconditional forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean everyone automatically enters into the experience of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness can go unappropriated, like an unopened Christmas gift. If I don’t think I need forgiveness, then how can I ever receive forgiveness and rejoice in it. An important part of appropriating forgiveness, which Jesus emphasizes, is our need to forgive others. We find this in the model prayer: “Forgive us our sins, our failures, our offenses, as we forgive those who have failed, offended, and sinned against us.” Forgiveness is a two way street. If we do not have a forgiving spirit and are not willing to forgive others, there’s no way we can enter into the experience of the forgiveness that God has granted us.
Repentance is the other process highlighted by Luke. Repentance involves a turning around and a change of mind, a change of attitude and direction. The Hebrew word that is translated by the English word repent means “to turn or return.” It’s often used in connection with Israel, God’s covenant people, and their need to turn back or return to God. In the OT, when Israel is unfaithful to their covenant relationship with God, God would raise up prophets to call Israel back, to repent, to return to a relationship of faithfulness.
The Greek word that is translated “repent” in the New Testament primarily means to change one’s mind or attitude. One commentator points out that the Greek root word actually means “to go beyond the mind that we have?” The mind that we have is the mind that has been formed by being socialized into our culture, into our particular place and time in history. Our way of thinking, our attitudes, our priorities, our values are often shaped by the culture in which we live. When we commit to follow Jesus we commit to allow the Spirit of Christ to shape our way of thinking, our attitudes, our priorities, and our values, rather than our culture. In this way, we go beyond the mind-set of our culture and we allow God to form in us the mind of Christ.
Both repentance and forgiveness are processes, not one-time single actions. They are processes that involve letting go of the negative, destructive, and life-diminishing stuff that keeps us stuck in the same place. These processes cannot be forced upon us. We have to be ready and willing to engage and participate in them.
Sue Monk Kid tells about going into her young daughter’s room and noticing that she had went to sleep clutching a half-eaten grape lollipop that her grandmother had given her on her birthday. It was an all-day sucker that had turned into a two day sucker. Now it made a purple splotch on her pillowcase. She managed to pry her daughter’s fingers away from the lollipop, and then she tossed it in the trash. The next morning her daughter confronted her in a blaze of righteous anger. She said to her mother, “But it was mine, and I wasn’t ready to throw it away.” When it comes to letting go –whatever it is – an unforgiving spirit, a grudge, an addiction, a prejudice, or even a lollipop, we have to be ready and willing to let go and give it up.
Any time someone offends us or hurts us, we are faced with the issue of letting go of our desire and need for revenge and retaliation. Or anytime we hurt or offend someone, we are faced with the question of whether we will let go of our pride and ego, and be willing to admit the hurt we have caused, and be humble enough to seek their forgiveness. And, of course, the greater the offense and the hurt, the more difficult it is to let go.
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine and don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”
What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression. Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengence’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness”
I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady has had to contend with. But she decided to let go of any desire for vengeance, and she took the first step toward forgiveness. I suspect that her capacity to forgive will be a key ingredient in her own, personal healing. Only her capacity to forgive could give her any peace of mind.
A key part of this process of letting go in order to grow is knowing what we need to let go of and knowing the ways in which we need to change. Being humble, honest, open, and willing to change is critical to the process of conversion.
The first part of the passage in Luke today is Luke’s version of the story about Thomas in John’s Gospel that we looked at last week. In John it’s Thomas who doubts, but here in Luke it’s all of them. Jesus says to them, “Why are you full of fear? Why do you hesitate and waver?” Then Luke has this interesting description. He says they were joyful but still disbelieving. They were not ready to fully trust Christ and be committed. Then Luke offers this mysterious explanation of what happens to move them from a state of non-commitment to commitment. He says that Christ “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” then they were able to let go of their old ways of reading and interpreting their sacred writings, and were able to read them in light of their new experience with Christ.
Persons who get stuck in negative beliefs, attitudes, or patterns of behavior, who cling to their prejudices and biases, and are unwilling to change, will use scripture to reinforce their biases and their negative beliefs and actions. On the other hand, persons who are undergoing a process of conversion, persons who are willing to change, can read the very same scriptures, but they will hear in those scriptures the living voice of Christ calling them to let go of all the unloving stuff in their lives and to participate in the healing, liberating, transforming work that Christ is doing in the world.
And you know sisters and brothers Christ will spread love and grace through any willing instrument he can find to do it. Christ will use anyone, Christian or non-Christian, who is vulnerable enough to love. I suspect (I don’t have statistics for this) that the percentage of Christians actually undergoing the process of conversion is not much different that the percentage of non-Christians undergoing the process of conversion, even though the Christian religion provides us with all these great resources for conversion. Just consider today how many Christians end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of social justice and the common good, when it comes to the critical issues of our day. We should be on the cutting edge, leading the way into positive change.
What will it take to convert us? To get us to open our minds and hearts to the greatness of the love of Christ? Maybe it comes down to these kind of questions? To what degree do I really want to change? Can I be honest enough to admit how much I need to change? Do I want to be like the Jesus the Gospels tell us about- full of grace and compassion? Or do I just want to preserve the status quo and my biases and those of my group? Do I really want to overcome the negative stuff in my life that keeps me from loving like Jesus?
Living Christ, Holy Spirit, Everlasting Father, open our eyes and ears. Open our minds and hearts. Form Christ in us. Amen.