Sermon: Conversion (1 Thess 1:1-10)
Reformation Principles in 1Thessalonians
One of life’s most difficult realities is change. Most of us have a way of doing things, a pattern of life, habits, routines; and we find it hard to adjust those or go in different directions. We have proverbs that talk about how we get “set in our ways,” about how you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and so on.
Psychologists tell us that studies have show that people after their 20s are not as open to change, at least until their 60s. That is probably because the demands of adult responsibilities that come upon us in our middle adult years make it increasingly difficult to change. Once a family and career are in place, novelty and change may not longer be as welcome. So most people may dream of taking adventures and making big life changes, but in the end most of us hold fast to the familiar.
Our brain also works against us making big changes. It is always trying to automate things and create habits that give off a sense of pleasure and accomplishment. When we hold to the tried and the true, we get feelings of security, safety, and competence, and our fear of the future and of failure are reduced.
Many of us do however entertain unrealistic expectations about what change is possible. There’s even a name for it: False Hope Syndrome. We envision big changes and try to do too much too fast. The result it that we get disappointed time and time again by our inability to maintain the change. New Year’s Resolutions, anyone? Better to think of making regular small adjustments than a total overhaul.
When we get to about age 60, however, we become more open to change, as the nest empties and we approach the end of our work careers, and we have fulfilled other life obligations. But even then, researchers have found, it is hard to make fundamental changes in our lives.
We have to face these tendencies in ourselves straight up. It is hard to change. It is difficult to change course. It is hard to replace bad habits with good ones, to alter our attitudes, to change our ways of thinking, to follow different patterns in our daily lives.
Nevertheless, one of the things the Reformation teaches us is that we must be people who are open to change. The first Reformation principle I would like to talk about from this first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is CONVERSION. To convert is to to change, to turn around and go a different direction, to adjust your course, to choose a different way than the one you’re going on. Conversion involves changing our minds, changing our attitudes, changing our feelings, changing our actions, and changing our habits. Converted people think differently, feel differently, talk differently, and act differently than they did before they were converted.
Martin Luther became converted when God’s Word came to him in power, showed him the futility of the path he was on, revealed a new path to him, and gave him the desire and strength to get up and walk on that new path. That is why the first thesis he posted on the Wittenberg door was this: The Christian life is a life of continual repentance, another word for conversion. In other words, he was saying that Christians are converted people who are always and ever being converted, or changed, by God.
If we are true Reformation believers, we are always changing, always growing, always dying to the old life and being raised to walk in the new life. We are always listening to God’s Word, which tells us which way to go and which way not to go. We are always being led by the Spirit, who shows us how to avoid the ways of darkness and seek the paths of light. Yes, we believe that God accepts us as we are, that he loves us and welcomes us even though we sin and fail and mess up. But in that process of being welcomed, new desires to change and grow and develop are born in us. We enter a new life of adventures, of new paths, of faith instead of self-righteousness, of hope instead of mere existence, of love instead of self-absorption. We don’t seek change because we’re afraid of God but because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts and it is our joy and ultimate fulfillment to learn to walk in his ways.
You see, when a person is converted, he/she receives new life, the life of Christ himself. We are joined to Jesus and we share in all that belongs to him — all of his righteousness, all of his goodness, all of his wisdom, all of his love. Life becomes a daily adventure of discovering more and more about the treasures we have received in him and then sharing those gifts with others.
This is what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians here in chapter one. He gives thanks when he thinks of them because, in them, he sees wonderful examples of converted Christians who are on the paths of ongoing conversion and transformation. He sees in them an ongoing “work of faith and labor of love and stead-fastness of hope.” He notes how God’s Word came to them “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with great conviction.” He rejoices in how they imitated the Lord and the apostles, even though they had to endure suffering because of it. They were converted so soundly and continued in daily conversion so steadfastly that they became an example to other believers all around the region. Everyone could see how they had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven.”
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote that one of the best ways to enter into the practice of daily conversion is to remember our baptism each and every day.
What does such baptizing with water signify?
—Answer. It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?
—Answer. St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
You know Gospel examples of people like Zaccheus, who made his living extorting money from others. He was converted and began living a life of justice and generosity. Or Peter and John, who exchanged fishing for the life of discipleship with Jesus. Or Paul, whom Jesus confronted on the Damascus Road and turned his life around. Or the people who came to John the Baptist, confessed their sins, were baptized in the Jordan, and began looking for the Messiah. I myself had a major conversion experience when I was a teenager, a spiritual awakening that turned my life around and led me into ministry. Martin Luther had several, from the thunderstorm which caused him to become a monk, to the Tower experience when he was reading Romans and it suddenly became clear to him that “the just shall live by faith.”
But I want to emphasize that conversion need not be a big, life-changing, dramatic thing. The most important conversion happens every day, when we die to sin and rise to walk in newness of life in the midst of our families, our neighbors, and our community.
Martin Luther’s first thesis of the 95 was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This turning around, this changing direction, is also known as conversion, and it is the first mark of Reformation Christians.