Trinity 13 - Conversion to Christ

A sermon preached by the Rev'd Ivo Morshead on 2 September 2012 in St George's, Campden Hill

Deut 4.1-2,6-9; James 1.17-end; Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23

Words from the collect for this 13th Sunday after Trinity; help  us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you

Some of my time as a long retired Anglican clergyman is taken up with conducting services. I help out not just here  at St George’s but also at Saint Mary Abbots.  At this church we do not have what the retail world calls a positive footfall, that is, casual passers by. At Saint Mary Abbots they do and  it is  most unusual not to have complete strangers attending a service or present in the building. A couple of weeks ago I was called by the verger from the vestry after conducting a mid morning service  to go back and  speak to a man and a woman who wanted to see me. It turned out that the woman, the aunt of the man, was Islamic and wanted to find out about converting to Christianity. What would you do in such circumstances?  I suggested that we all joined hands which we did. I said a prayer, blessed them marking their foreheads with the sign of the Cross and put them in touch with their local church in Chelsea which they visited that afternoon. Conversion would be a big step to take. I want this morning to look at today’s Gospel and other readings in the context of conversion had that couple come here instead of Saint Mary Abbots.

In the Gospel this morning we heard Jesus in dispute with the pious men of his time, the Scribes and Pharisees. They were accusing the disciples of failing to wash their hands before eating. We should not think that this is just a case of lack of personal hygiene, everyone would wash their hands before a meal especially where there is a common bowl or loaf. No, they saw the disciples of Jesus, himself a man claiming authority, as being  of  a status with the priestly hierarchy and therefore should be complying with the strict code and ritual applicable to the priesthood.. Jesus in his reply to them as it appears in Mark, accuses them of hypocrisy. This people, Jesus says, honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.... You abandon the commandments of God and hold to human traditions.

Jesus never drew back from challenging those in authority. Mark goes on to tell how after that accusation of hypocrisy in the religious hierarchy,  he called the crowd of ordinary people again and reminded them that nothing outside of a person that goes into them can defile them ritually ; he tells them but the things that come out are what defile. In the context of conversion this whole Gospel story indicates and illustrates that Christian belief is centred on Jesus Christ.  

The richness of Christianity owes its origin to the Old Testament with its unfolding story of  God’s People who were for ever in rebellion against things of God. The Bible tells us of the journey from innocence to disobedience leading to the rise of Holy Men and Women who preached and led by example amid a world of warring tribes and factions, a chosen people who, banished from their homeland into slavery, were put on the path to a New Jerusalem. Their tribulations and lack of faith and gratitude nearly destroyed Moses. Did they not take advantage of his absence when he went up the mountain to collect the ten commandments and built for themselves a golden idol? We heard read this morning the Old Testament the words of Moses telling the people that they must work to appear to all the nations around them to be a people of  whom others will say surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people? Moses went on to say as we heard read But take care and watch yourselves closely so as neither to forget what your eyes have seen nor let them slip from your mind  all the days of your life, make them known to your children and your childrens’ children. 

The Old Testament is such a central basis of our Christian faith as any potential convert attending this service would  discover, not only from the first lesson, but even more so from the singing at every Eucharist such as today of the psalm. Today it is psalm 15 chosen to enhance the message Deuteronomy. The poet asks how he can be with God and live a life that he requires of a believer ; Lord who will dwell in thy tabernacle or who shall rest upon thy holy hill? The remaining verses that we sung reflected what is required of a believer. We have the opportunity in any moment of silence in the service this morning, perhaps when we return from receiving Communion to read those verses again and reflect upon how many of the requirements to which we can put a tick in all honesty as to our acceptance and practice in life and can rejoice in the final verse whoso doeth these things shall never fall. All this is food for thought for any prospective convert.

Finally, and especially, as we move from the Old to the New Testament, the writer of today’s epistle of James points to a fundamental of Christian belief, namely the indescribable and permanency of God’s love.    Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights. In the time of James God the Father was described as the Father of Lights. It is an association of endless stability and permanence of pattern with the solar system. We have just returned from a brief holday in the least populated region of France. There at night we were able to enjoy the full wonderful panoply of the stars which we are denied here in our constant artificially lit streets. The Father of Lights is a wonderful thought helping us to think of he from whom comes the gift of baptism , described by James as birth by the word of Truth.

Conversion to Christianity from another faith is a gigantic step. By attending a service here, at St Mary Abbots or at any other Anglican or Roman Catholic church my enquirers would have heard the same lessons. That might not be the case with the Orthodox, Armenian Eritrean  or other faiths. What is common to all, apart from the variation of the filoque clause for the Orthodox, is the creed, the statement of belief. What is common to all also is the rite of baptism, the initiation into the body of Christ and  the obedience to Our Lord’s command to do this in remembrance of me as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist or thanksgiving.

Those of my generation grew up in a Britain that seemed to be wholly Church of England with school assemblies every day with prayers and hymns, RE on ever syllabus, teaching of the catechism at home and in Sunday School. Even as comparatively recently fifty-five  years ago when I was taken ill and found myself an emergency  patient in that  enormous City ward at St Thomas’s Hospital we had to be all neat and tidy in our beds for the change- over from day to night shift of nurses and night to day for the prayers that were said by the sisters in charge. Prayers in which we were expected to participate. Years later when I was an ordinand I have no recollection of training in theological Colleges as to how to cope with those of other faiths wishing to convert to Christianity. That was for missionaries to deal with in foreign lands. Today the situation is very different as I learned the other day at St Mary Abbots.

Like boy scouts and girl guides we must always be prepared in case we have an enquiry about conversion. The centrality of conversion is the ability to say and believe the creed which incorporates our Christian Faith and which we will be saying in a moment. The act of conversion is baptism with water and the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian for millions in the world is fraught with danger. To convert to Christianity is a huge step but it our Lord’s command to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel applies to us all; Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. The final words of that Gospel are I am with you always to the end of the age.

May this lead us to heed the words we have prayed in today’s  collect help  us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you.
Holland Park Benefice