Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
Ye were as sheep going astray, but now are ye returned
unto the Bishop and Shepherd of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)
Conversion is the subject of today's readings. Since radio and television religion concentrate so much on at least one small part of conversion we will all know something about it already, but if we pay attention to this Sunday's Epistle and Gospel we may learn a good deal more.
To begin, if we consider the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we will recognize that conversion has two aspects. It is both a turning around, on our part, and a bringing back on the part of our finder or saviour. The shepherd goes out to find the sheep gone astray, puts it on his shoulders, and brings it back to the sheepfold. Similarly the good housekeeper searches and sweeps until she finds the lost coin and returns it to its original place in her treasure chest. From this we should conclude three things about conversions.
First, it is basically something done to us or for us by God. No doubt we have some role to play, but it cannot be the primary role. The sinner--and we are all of us sinners gone astray--is lost. He cannot find his way home. Unless someone goes out into the wilderness and brings him back, he will die.
Second, we gather from these parables that conversion is fundamentally restoration, getting back to where we ought to be and where we originally were. It is at root a going home or return. I want to say something more about this later but let me note here that it is on this account that we can have some part in our conversion. In so far as we recognize the country or place from which we have come out, in so far as we have a kind of homing instinct which makes us long and seek for our true home and native land, in so far as we remember some good we have lost as we wander and struggle in the wilderness, we can eagerly seek and desire our homecoming.
Third, conversion has many forms. The form which comes first to our minds is only one of them. We usually associate conversion with the salvation of an individual from some dreadful vice by means of some momentous experience. This is a form of conversion but if we concentrate only on it we miss three major points. First we lose sight of the conversion of all things, including all men and all creature, which is taking place all around us and which must happen in each one of us. Second, we forget that conversion must be a gradual life-long process. Third, we fail to see that our separation from God, our getting lost, our error, sin and pain are included in God's plan and loving care.
The Epistle for today, which concerns our struggle in the wilderness with the devil in the form of a roaring hungry lion, moves to a conclusion thus:
And the God of all grace, who hath called you into his eternal glory in Christ, after that ye have suffered a while, shall himself restore, stablish, strengthen you.
This is not the conversion and restoration of one sheep or one coin. Rather, we encounter the grace of God who calls us back into his eternal glory through the suffering and misery of our falling away. Here we see that struggle in the wilderness and restoration by Christ is the pattern of all Christian life.
Creation and birth involve having a separate existence. Growing up and becoming independent and then finding our way in the world, all of the necessary steps in life contain a negative aspect. All of them involve wandering away, both the danger and the reality of getting lost and the necessity of struggle and pain. None of us can avoid these if we are to grow up, and they are features of God's creation. He wills to give creation a being of its own and to make in it free spiritual creatures with their own powers. And so all of us, every single one, mankind as a whole and indeed all of creation, must be converted, brought back, led home again. This is the whole work of God in visiting and redeeming His people. Christ does this work as our way, our truth and our light. By His death he came to where we had fallen into the farthest darkest pit in the wilderness. From there he has brought us back.
He sent his Holy Spirit to accomplish this work in men and creation throughout the whole course of time. So Christ became the Good Shepherd not only by redeeming all mankind by his death and risen life, but also by sending the Holy Spirit. He is the Good Shepherd quietly and strongly leading mankind and all creatures back, day by day, to the sheepfold of our Father's mansions, from which we have come out.
Our Gospel for today tells us the reason for this whole massive work. In order to discover the meaning of conversion as return and restoration and to recognize its forms, instant and gradual, individual and cosmic, we have had to paint the great picture and to represent the total cosmic dimension of the process of conversion. In doing so we have had to acknowledge the necessary place of sin, pain, struggle, and evil. These are a part of the existence God has given us, which involves a power and freedom of our own, and thus the possibility of sin. Without these, without our going out, there would be no conversion, homecoming, restoration and return. But then we must ask, why should there be a restoration? We look at the terrible struggles, suffering, pain of the world, for us displayed in the news everyday, in case we do not know enough of it in our own circumstances, and we ask why? What could possibly justify this? And the answer comes back in today's Gospel: "more joy." There is more joy over one sinner who repents, or returns, than over the ninety-nine just who never sinned, who never left home. Think of this cosmically, on the grand scale. God lived complete in himself and infinitely happy before the worlds were made, before anything else existed. He created all else for the sake of more joy so that others might share his happiness, and so that his heavenly joy might be increased in them. This greater joy is the purpose of creation and the reason both for the independence, pain, and suffering of the world and for its conversion. God made other separate beings to be each a center of joy and happiness and he draws them all back towards himself where the fullness of joy is found forever.
Surely when we see this great picture and consider the gracious goodness of God in making us, and his infinite charity in overcoming our separation from God as he did on the Cross, we are filled with thankful praise, love and joy. When we consider that wonderful love for us and all creation, and when we are moved to joy, praise and happiness in this knowledge of him, this is a conversion. This conversion is our celebration of this holy sacrament, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In this sacrament, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we do what Christ did at the Last Supper and on the Cross and what he now does, interceding for us in heaven. In memorial we present his sacrifice and are present in his sacrifice. For, by honouring God the Trinity with our thanks and praise and love, and by finding our happiness and joy in him, we give back to him what has come out from him and we return to him what is his due, to whom Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, belong all dominion and glory for eternity. Amen.
Father Ed Bakker ,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne
Launceston on Tasmania