Sunday, December 31, 2023
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio

“Paul Against Conversion”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 31, 2023
Reading: 2 Tim 1:1-7, 11-12

Good morning. Here we are in our beloved building but in a different part of it. We worshiped up here in the chancel last Maundy Thursday and Elaine and I noticed folks looking around, enchanted. You don’t usually get to be up here unless you’re in a robe. There are symbols on the roof that invite the eye. Heraldry for Scotland, England, Ireland, France. No Wales that I can find—we need to fix that. I hope moving our first service around this month will help us delight in less familiar spaces in our building. Worship is flexible, it can shift and adapt, to be a blessing to us and to the world.

We stand on the cusp of a new year. Get ready to be confused when it’s time to write down a date. Christmas is a day when our culture acts religious en masse. We had this sanctuary full four times on Christmas Eve, some 2500 people total. New Year’s Eve is a day when our culture acts debaucherous en masse. It’s almost expected that you wake up tomorrow hung over (you don’t have to. Trust me). Then tomorrow everyone resolves to behave better, get thinner, pay off the credit card balances. By February those promises are mostly forgotten. We are strange creatures, but predictable if nothing else.

This is my last chance to preach on Paul as part of our series. And if there’s one thing folks know about Paul, it’s that he had a dramatic conversion experience. The Damascus Road. A blinding light. The risen Jesus asking why Paul persecutes him. Leaving him a helpless infant unable to walk or talk. Then Paul is miraculously healed and adopts the faith he once persecuted. Paul’s conversion is a reason we can’t ever give up on anybody. God has a thing for getting through to those who are supposed to be lost causes.

But our passage for today is different. Paul is writing to his protégé Timothy, and he doesn’t mention instant conversion. He certainly doesn’t seem to expect it for Timothy or for anybody else. Instead, Paul says this: “Your sincere faith lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Timothy believes not because of any dramatic U-turn. But because he inherited the faith from a household of believing women. Lois believes, Eunice believes, and now Timothy believes. There was a time, not long after my own conversion, when I assumed that without a single moment of coming to faith, Christianity was defective in some way. That was the new believer’s excessive zeal, forgive me. I didn’t realize there are passages like this one: where faith seeps into the pores and slowly changes you, and you can’t remember a time when you weren’t Christian. My sermon title over-promises a little. Paul is not against conversion. But the dramatic turnaround is not the only way to faith, is it?

I’ve been back home in North Carolina the last few days, an unexpected trip. My stepmom died after 40 years of marriage to my dad, bless her. My whole life of faith she was the family member who seemed least receptive to it. Then before she even got sick, she went back to church. “For the liturgy,” she said. She missed the Anglican prayer book. A rhythm of poetry that marks all of life. I was so, so proud of her, to bravely walk into a church in her 70s never been there before and take back up a faith she only knew as a kid, after a life of pretty bad experiences in church. I was wrong as a youth to think sudden miraculous conversion is the only way to faith. It’s one way, but not even the most common. There are a thousand more, a million more. God is not above using anything to get to us. A grandmother, a mother, a liturgy, or a prayer book, those will do just as well as a blinding light. Every time we gather in here, I’m trying to lead a revival. To rekindle faith in each one of us. Not least in myself.

Paul’s letters to Timothy are invitations to Christian maturity. I overstate to say Paul is against conversion. But he is against conversion alone. The point of Christian faith isn’t to enjoy a first kiss and be done. It’s to marry, move in together, have a household of kids, and grow old together. Faith is lifelong, not instantaneous, or one-off. Paul writes to Timothy about this because these two worked together, as mentor and student. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got for ministry was this: whatever you do, take Timothy with you. When you serve others, take along someone else who’s coming up in faith. You’re only as good as the next generation you raise up in your wake. Doctors know this: they say you only know a surgery after you’ve done three things. Watch one, do one, and teach one. If you can’t teach it to another up-and-coming surgeon, you don’t actually know how to do it. If you can’t teach anything you don’t know how to do it. I’ve heard several of you speak in reverent tones of your mentors in investing. That person didn’t just teach you the ins and outs of the market. They taught you integrity. How to balance work and play and family. How to be human. Way more important than just the work itself. This is one thing we have going for us, church, in an age where our culture seems to have lost its way. We get mentoring. We have children’s ministry, youth ministry, singing together. Even our Bible studies and yoga groups and knitting circles and committees (God help us) are really excuses for mentoring. People aren’t looking for church out there. They are looking for deep, meaningful relationship. Life-changing and challenging engagement with others.

How do we offer that?

Well, we need to go deeper than small talk. Small talk is fine: how the game went (I think my Hurricanes beat the Leafs last night, didn’t they?), how the kids are “fine, fine, everything’s fine.” But we can also ask one another questions that are awkward, uncomfortable even. How are your prayers going? What’s your biggest regret in life? Which of your children or friends is struggling the most? A friend of mine, when he’s asked about his children, says one of them is the “right” answer to that question. Another is the “wrong” answer. In small talk you only give the “right” answers. I just wonder if we could do “large talk” around here? Man, my finances are killing me. I keep meaning to quit the bottle but can’t seem to. Do you have a counselor you trust? This sort of large talk moves us from being acquaintances to friends. From pleasant superficiality to mentors and mentored. From ‘what’s their name again’ to Paul and Timothy: the sort of challenging friendship that leads to deeper life.

A friend of mine lost his job recently. I’m nearly 50 so other friends are going to get priced out of their field and turfed, more of that is coming. An age when you’re expensive to keep on payroll but no longer seem young and promising, looks like a soft cut. Any of you experience that? No hands, just a topic for large talk after. It was devastating. Any professional who takes pride in their work would feel a blow like that. But for my dear friend it’s existential. This organization I gave a quarter century to threw me out like trash. Now is when character matters. My friend called in his friends. We meet with him on Zoom regularly. He texts us his swings in mood. His deep sorrow. The job announcement for his replacement came out, listing all the things he was doing. “They want what I do, just not me,” he sorrowed. This is a wound that will mark the rest of his life. But we pray it won’t define his life. Wounds can become scars with which we bless others. And I got to say this sort of death and resurrection is much more how we become holy than being complimented, promoted, high-fived and given a COLA increase. And this is when you need friends. Not acquaintances. Not small talk. Not social media followers. Friends. People who’ll take your call at 3 a.m. Who’ll drop what they’re doing and travel far just to listen to your sorrow. I wonder if we can be that kind of friend to others this new year.

An example of Christian maturity. I got to visit Kenya once. Some Methodist ministers picked me up at the airport. We said hello, exchanged handshakes, and they said, “let us pray.” Okay, right here at the baggage exchange, this is how they roll here. They thanked God for my safe arrival, for all I was to learn in Kenya, for my bags turning up (seriously). Then we got in the car. They said, “Let us pray.” And they prayed for safe travel again—a good idea if you’re driving in a megacity like Nairobi. We got to my hotel room, and they prayed again. “Thank you, Lord . . .” I didn’t even remember these guys’ names and we’d prayed together three times. I wondered how do you get anything done when you’re praying all the time? And that’s precisely the point. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul commands. These guys were showing me what Paul means. They live in a world permeated by God’s presence, and they notice and give thanks.

In Judaism there are prayers all day for little things: waking up in the morning. Not just before but also after meals. My favourite: when you go to the bathroom. That one is delightful: “Lord, you have made me full of holes, without which I could not live.” Maturity is prayer coming as easily as breathing. Eastern Orthodox Christians have a prayer they’ll pray with each breath. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. That prayer is the whole gospel. Repeat that with me, first take a deep breath, and on the exhale pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Good. Now you can pray every time you breathe.

Another step in maturity, maybe the most important one. To suffer with Jesus. Another friend saw her marriage break up. She said it’d have been easier in some ways if she’d gotten a terminal diagnosis. In church, if you get cancer, people come over with food and pray around the clock. If your marriage breaks up, they go awkward. It’s a no-casserole condition, she said. She’s left bleeding, half herself ripped away, and most of us look the other way, pretend it didn’t happen. These are the moments when we can really show someone love. You don’t have to know what to say. No one does. Just go and sit and be. Make the coffee, bring food, sit and listen, clean up or do laundry. They’ll never forget the kindness. Neither will you. Our faith is one of death and resurrection. I wish we could have the latter without the former. But it seems we cannot.

Are you getting the point? It’s not always clear or direct what I’m saying. I sort of try and romance you to the point rather than spell it out. I prefer to sneak up on you rather than give you the headline. The way to grow in maturity in faith over time is to be there for others. To grow in love with them. To reach out with time and attention when it’s awkward or painful. To suffer with Jesus. Woody Allen said 90 percent of life is showing up. He may have understated it.

Leighton Ford is a great Ontarian. He’s Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, married to Billy’s younger sister Jeannie. He was adopted: an unplanned pregnancy to a United Church minister’s daughter. Back then in the 30s girls were sent away to have the child, put it up for adoption, and came back claiming they’d been to France or whatever. Leighton’s so grateful to have been adopted, come to faith, and led. He spoke at rallies around the world, subbed for Billy Graham on TV. And then he was turfed out. Others in the organization wrested power from him. He went from speaking in stadiums to thousands, on TV to millions, to the sidelines. And he changed his ministry. From high profile to low. From one-to-many to one-to-one. Leighton is one of the great mentors alive. He started an organization to encourage Christians to mentor one another. This is no chore. Mentoring makes him happy. Leighton’s taught me about reverse mentoring. The older, supposedly wiser one, learning from the younger, less experienced one. Mentoring is selfish. It makes you better. To me Leighton Ford is Gandalf. He's up front about his wounds, his scars, his pain. If he has anything to offer others its not his fame. It’s his sorrow. Leighton prays for you all here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. He has since I interviewed here. So do countless others. And all the angels and saints too.

A Sufi disciple came to his master and boasted he knew the old man’s entire work. I’ve read everything, I know your teaching, he said. The master asked, what causes me pain? The younger man was startled, didn’t know what to say. The master asked, how can you claim to know me, if you don’t know my pain?

Sorry to keep coming back to death, guess you get no reprieve from what’s going on in my life, and I’ve just been in its shadow. My stepmom Jean had cancer for some years. And some months ago, I asked how she was. We didn’t know her decline was coming as soon as it did, but we knew she was dying. She said ‘you know, I’m living the life I want. I dig in the garden. I see my granddaughter. I see my friends. I wouldn’t change anything.’ She was at peace with her world. Isn’t that a good way to die? It’s weird: often peace only comes when you know death is imminent. Most of us hope we won’t be around for our death. It’ll come suddenly. We just won’t wake up one day. I get it, my stepmom was in a lot of pain. But in the long memory of the church, we’ve usually prayed against a quick and sudden death. You need time to reflect on what’s coming, to get right with those you love, those you’ve hurt. To live like my stepmom: where you’re at peace. I’m proud of her. But it’s not just her. It’s God, who longs for that for all of us. By the way: death is imminent for all of us. We can live like that now.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century Britain, had a distinctive teaching about this. Some say they didn’t have a revolution in his time in Britain the way they had in France because of the Methodist revival. People were too busy pursuing God in prayer, visiting in prisons, loving enemies, to go out and murder aristocrats. All that energy has to go somewhere, right? Wesley had seen many people on their death beds like my stepmom, full of nothing but love of God and neighbour. And Wesley wondered, hmm, how about before the death bed? Why not before we’re sick? How about in ordinary life? Can’t we be perfectly full of nothing but love? He called the teaching Christian perfection. Most other Christian churches sneer at this doctrine. But Wesley didn’t have confidence in human capacity to love. He had confidence in God. If God can raise the dead, can’t God raise us to overflowing faith? Yeah, he can. I’ve seen it. I want it. I want to raise it up in others. Wesley makes me wonder, my stepmom makes me wonder: whatever is on my mind, eating at me, will it matter at death? Will it come to mind when it's my time? If the answer is no, let it go. If the answer is yes, then it is a matter of the heart. Of love. Or else of profound wounding and sorrow. A matter of cross and resurrection.

Wesley had a way to help Methodists mark the new year. He called it the watch night. Like the disciples staying up with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Wesley asked his followers to stay up and fast and pray to welcome in the new year. A little different than our culture’s debaucherous expectations, isn’t it? It was weird in his culture too. One of you sent me an article about this. Our culture wants constant feasting without any fasting. Nothing but laughter without any sorrow. Only booms without busts. It’s a lie. It doesn’t work. Life has both. And neither need be feared. Wesley prayed this prayer to welcome in the new year, and I wonder if you wouldn’t pray it with me? Let us pray . . .      

Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us. Therefore, let us make this covenant of God our own. Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which we have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.