Your Conversion Story

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John 20:1-18

Conversion is not always a one-time experience.

By now you’ve heard parts of my conversion story—how I grew up in a family that meant everything to me.

We didn’t go to church.  So all my boyhood questions about the meaning of life were answered in my family.

That is, until my parents split up.  Which sent me outward, looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life beyond my little circle.  I had to think outside of my family box.

Which led me to Bible studies, and youth group, and a Billy-Graham-Crusade like experience at a camp where I went forward to pray and receive Christ as my Lord and Savior.

I remember the day, in fact, April 1st, 1985—almost 31 years ago today!  I even remember the time: 7pm.

Yes, something significant happened in my life at that moment.  Was it conversion?  Yes.  Another name for it, a more biblical name, is repentance.

Anyway, can you relate?  Do you have your own conversion story to tell?

Maybe yours was the day you were baptized, or even the moment the water first touched your scalp in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Or maybe, like with my wife’s conversion story, you don’t recall a specific time and place where the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of your heart in an obvious way.

Nevertheless, you reflect on your own life and you see Christ at work in you.  You were baptized: you have a certificate at home in your filing cabinet in your garage that says so.  And you know and trust the theology of the church well enough to know that this, too, was a bona fide conversion experience.

Is it okay that you can’t point to a specific time and place?

Well, of course it is!

You and I both know we can’t bank on a one-time conversion experience, as if we’ve checked off a box on our spiritual to-do list, depending on it to carry us through the rest of our lives into heaven.

Conversion, we know, is not always a one-time experience.

In fact, conversion is arguably never a one-time experience.  Rather, scripture, tradition, reason, experience—they all persuade us that conversion takes place over a lifetime.

And don’t we all experience conversion differently?

Just look at the three main characters in today’s story: there’s an unnamed disciple; there’s Peter; and there’s Mary Magdalene.  Each of these experiences conversion differently.

The unnamed disciple hears Mary’s news and runs—races, in fact—to reach the tomb first.  But there, at the entryway, he lingers.  He doesn’t enter the tomb, but just looks in, staring at the linen wrappings there on the ledge.

Peter then shows up and, unlike the unnamed disciple, enters the tomb without reservation or hesitation.

Why didn’t the unnamed disciple enter?  Was he too amazed, too awestruck, too afraid?  We don’t know.

Then something in him triggers.  He enters the tomb after Peter; and, the scriptures tell us, he believes.  He believes, that is, but he doesn’t yet understand the scriptures.

Now look at Peter.  He hears Mary’s words and runs to see if what she says is true.  He races against the other disciple, and loses—I wonder what the meaning is in this detail.

In any event, Peter reaches the tomb and doesn’t slow; rather, he bowls over the unnamed disciple, like an impetuous bull.  He then looks at the linen wrappings, and notices a detail: the head wrapping is folded up neatly by itself.  If Mary was worried about grave robbers, this detail doesn’t fit; for why would a grave robber take the time to fold up the head wrapping neatly?

The disciples then return home.  The unnamed one believes, at least to some extent.  But we’re left wondering if Peter believes yet at all.  The only thing we know about him at this point is that he, along with the unnamed disciple, still doesn’t understand.

There’s something of a conversion experience here for both disciples.  But they leave still confused, still not understanding.  We’re left with the impression that something more still needs to happen for these two.

Then we hear Mary’s story.  She reaches the tomb—and stands outside weeping.  She’s obviously not believing or understanding yet either.

In her remorse, she eventually peeks in the tomb.  And—incredible!—there are two angels inside.  And these ask Mary a question.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”

But even here—I don’t know about you, but I’d be dazzled by the spectacle of two heavenly beings talking to me—but even here Mary simply responds, “They’ve taken my Lord away.”

This whole episode with Mary suggests something of a sleep-like stupor.  My thinking is that she is so grief-stricken that she can’t even see that these are angels.

She then hears a voice from behind her, from outside the tomb.  And it asks her the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Mary supposes it’s the gardener, when she turns to see who spoke.  It’s really Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him: her grief has still got the better of her.

But then what happens?

“Mary!” Jesus calls her by name.

And now, in that divine address, Mary both believes and understands!

And in the conversation that follows, Jesus commissions her to go and tell the disciples that he lives!

And she does!

And so she is made the apostle to the apostles!

Have you ever thought about that?  Mary Magdalene was the first truly converted person.  Mary Magdalene was the person commissioned by Jesus himself to go and tell the Good News to the very apostles.  Mary Magdalene went and told the Good News to Peter—the Rock upon whom Jesus Christ would build his Church—and the others.

Leaving me to wonder—where would the Church be today without the conversion of Mary Magdalene?

But to return to my first point, every conversion story is different.  Mine is different than yours; Mary’s is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s.

Moreover, conversion is not just a one-time experience: it’s lifelong.

Like repentance.

Wait!  Hold the phone!  Did I just say repentance?

Yes, I did—for the second time, in fact.

Well, why am I bringing up repentance on Resurrection Day, Easter Sunday?  Wasn’t Lent the time for us to think about repentance?  Now is the day of resurrection—alleluia!—so why dwell any longer in the doldrums of our liturgical year?

Just this: repentance, remember, is the biblical word for conversion; and, more to the point, repentance is resurrection.

Repentance means turning away from the old nature of sin and death to the new nature of life in the risen Lord!

And this doesn’t happen just once, at some altar call, check off my spiritual to-do list and get on with my life already, thank you very much!

It is ongoing, daily, hourly, even minute by minute.  Repentance—and thus resurrection—is continuous and lifelong.

So, now, let’s return to our own conversion stories.  Think about your own ongoing conversion experience.

Have you ever experienced a time in your life when hope has overcome despair; when truth has defeated falsehood; when beauty has conquered ugliness; when charity has given selflessly; or when goodness has prevailed?  Every one of these is an example of new life overcoming death; every one of these is an example of ongoing conversion.

But Mary’s conversion story is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s.  And yours is different than mine.

But that’s just it: our stories are all different; but new life—resurrection—shines brightly through them all!  It is our common theme.

So follow Mary’s example!  Go and tell your story!

In your conversion, Jesus Christ is calling your name—again and again!  Listen to his voice.  Then go and tell your neighbors, your brothers and sisters, your friends and even your enemies, your ongoing conversion story!

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