During these summer months I have decided to move away from the prescribed Daily Office readings and instead read a chapter from Paul during each of my prayer times. I have been moving through the Epistles in canonical order and have found this a most edifying discipline. As parishioners and regular followers of my sermons page will note, since June, I have been preaching on Romans. The daily reading of Paul, combined with reflection and research on the texts for my Sunday homilies has helped me consider the importance for Paul of turning to Christ in our moments of crisis. I have preached on this subjected much, of late, and from several angles.
Several key themes have emerged – decision, community, being alive to God, not being ashamed of the Gospel, amongst others – and I suppose what I find most exciting about reading Paul, and particularly Romans, is the challenge he lays before us. It is essentially a reworking of that old deuteronomic admonition: I set before you life and death, choose life! For we live in a wonderful but broken world and we can choose how we shall live in it. It is a world that is so imbued with the imprint of divine love and yet it is a world that fails to recognize the beauty bestowed upon it by our creator. It is a world that paradoxically seeks after the divine and simultaneously rejects any authentic encounter with the God who both consoles and challenges.
But what does it mean, in Christian terms, to choose life? I suppose the most poignant thing that we learn from Paul, and especially in his letter to the Romans is that we, in and of ourselves, are unable to do what God alone can do, namely, bring about the reconciliation of the world to God. This goes for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for the human family as a whole: strive as we might, God alone, in Christ Jesus, is the one who transforms human hearts, brings about reconciliation amongst peoples, and transforms us into his likeness; it is not we, ourselves.
What then are we to do? As I understand it, from my reading of Paul, we are to turn to Christ, put our whole trust in him, and follow him as our Lord. This is what it means for a Christian to “choose life.” Traditionally, turning to Christ has been a phrase that has been appropriated by Evangelicals and members of the "religious right" to speak specifically, and only about our moment of conversion. While I certainly believe that this can, and might very well be the most poignant moment in many lives, a moment in which one experiences God first time, I have tried to suggest over these past weeks, and I believe that in doing so I am faithfully presenting the position of Paul the Apostle, that “turning to Christ” is something that we must continually do, especially in our moments of crisis, change, and even triumph. Choosing life is something that we must do again and again, and to choose life, we must choose Christ.
We are each faced with moments in which we know that we cannot do it on our own, no matter how hard we work or strive. Perhaps you or someone you love is facing a chronic or terminal illness; perhaps you have been engaging in intensive psychotherapy and confronting the demons of your past; perhaps you are facing frightening decisions about beginning, ending or changing your employment; or facing decisions about discontinuing the life support of a family member; or going through one of those difficult life transitions in which your whole world has been turned upside down. These are moments when we are apt to meet God if we simply put our whole trust in him.
Then there are the moments of joy in which we realize that God has walked with us and that is only by his grace that we are where we are. It may be the joy of the gift of new life in the birth of child; or perhaps the joy of fulfillment and sense of relief after making the risky, but correct decision about a life change; or maybe the opening of a door when one has closed; or simply the emerging reality that God has walked with us and carried us to the other side of our sea of troubles.
These are all “moments of conversion” in which we have the potential to see that God in Christ has transformed our lives and set us on the path of life. These are moments when joy comes out of suffering and meaning out of chaos. And to respond to these moments by recommitting ourselves to seek and serve Christ all our days is, I believe, the truth at the heart of the Gospel preached by St. Paul.
In the Church we have a moment in which we can respond to these encounters with the living God. Many will feel that it is appropriate to respond either to the stark conversions that we experience in the midst of crisis or to the gentle unfolding of God’s grace over many years with a re-affirmation of faith. To such an end (or rather, new beginning) we may share in the rite of Confirmation.
Confirmation is a moment in our shared liturgical life when baptized Christians who have had an encounter with the living God choose to make the vows of their baptism their own, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the hundredth time. It is a moment in which our bishop lays hands upon the Christian person and confirms for them what they already know to be true, that they share in the apostolic faith of our fathers and mothers, in the gospel of our Salvation – that in Christ, they have chosen life. It is a moment in which individuals stand in the midst of the community and say “yes”, once again, to following Christ as their Saviour and obeying him as their Lord. It is a moment in which all our moments with our Lord coalesce into an affirmation of faith that is a witness to our broken and hurting world that hope is not destroyed, that death is not the final story, and that Christ is indeed Risen, restoring life, releasing us from the captivity of meaninglessness existence, releasing us from fear, from death and calling us forth to share this Good News with the God’s beautiful but broken world.
Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This text may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.