What is the classic conversion story regarding faith? Is there such a thing? Can it be run “by the numbers” like a formula? In Christianity, there are patterns of surrender, but it is best not to see it through a mechanical lens.
An important factor is that Jesus never shamed anyone towards the surrender of conversion. Shame does not work since it is sort of another flavor for fear and the scriptures teach us that, “perfect love pushes out fear” (1 John 4:12). Shame and legalism complicate the search for Jesus in ways that take us from simplicity, or in other words, the basics of love.
There is a story I like about the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi. His team lost a game once that he felt would not have got away from them if they had stayed rooted in the fundamentals of the game. He then had the next several days full of drills that a high school foot ball team would do. The re-rooting had to happen. One can be refreshed on the mission by renewing their perspective of what started them on mission. Love is the basics and at the heart of the mission.
Such was the case for Jesus the winter before the Cross. He had been in Jerusalem twice in the last three months or so. Shame and legalism were the themes of his adversaries and they rejected his love out of principle.
He went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained. Many came to him and said, “John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.” And many there began to believe in him (John 10:40-42).
The Jordan River was full of the meaning of conversion for the Jewish people. Just as Moses parted the Red Sea in leaving Egypt, Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan as the people of Israel entered the Promised Land. It had been seen as a place of going from slavery to the full benefits of being children of promise. Being children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob meant a context of covenant with God as a person. To go from one level of relationship with God to a higher one is part of what covenant means. It means more than “What I have is yours” but “I am yours”. In the thoughts and feelings of Jesus one can imagine in this later stage of his public life something like nostalgia on how he began ministry before at the baptism by John. That was where a model of Christian conversion began to be lived out and modeled in one fateful week in part by Jesus himself.
Three years before, the soil of John’s ministry was a prime place for Christ and the community he founded and would begin its foundation in an act and sign of repentance. One could call the people being baptized as going to the “Church of John” in that with his baptism they were saying they loved God more than their sins and were ready for God’s kingdom to come in fulness. This was a hunger for God’s grace that they could come and receive while putting aside the dirt of the weary journey. The baptism of repentance is good in an admitted need for God. It is like the 12 Step model in admitting that you have become powerless and cannot manage your life alone. It is even admitting your wrongs and their very nature. Such admission is the beginning of wisdom but not conversion in fulness: a conversion of the heart.
For Christ and his followers, this had other contexts and those contexts were of fulfillment partly in experiencing the beginnings of the Church which Jesus would found. Jesus was proclaimed by John to be the Lamb of God and baptizer in the Holy Spirit. Some who saw him being baptized heard a voice in the baptism that this was the Son of God. It was in this scene that some began to believe in him and among them two who would become apostles.
Of the pilgrims mentioned above, it is worth considering what they were thinking. John said that Jesus must increase and he would decrease. That was significant but still lacked something. There were no stumbling blocks in the crowd in Jordan. They had not heard the harder truths yet. They also did not know what it would be like to have a continued relationship personally with Jesus in tandem with such hard truths. Does that make their belief in Jesus meaningless? Not necessarily. It just means that they believed with obedience to the point that they could with what they knew. But the call of the price of discipleship would come soon enough like it does to anyone who takes the daring step of seeing Jesus as more than just a nice guy to believe in a savior like hero. The core message of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord.
One can look at the epistle to the Hebrews which speaks of the foundations of personal conversion, encountering God in His covenantal nature and eternal view. Below is a general outline for salvation from ones conversion into eternity within in the context of community.
“Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:2)
So what is it like to do those things in an experience that is ideal and clear? One can see in other scenes in the gospels how a conversion to Jesus is murky with condemnation and cynicism. What I will address next are ways Jesus can show up when the heart of the person is ready, the context is ideal and still have healthy skepticism come along for the ride. With that in mind, I concentrate on the first 7 days where Jesus sheds the garb of a carpenter and steps up in the public favor of the Father and models conversion for the world to follow.
To be clear on theology, Jesus was not a convert. But Jesus made a point in these first days of going public to show what conversion looks like. The unveiling of Jesus as the wisdom and power of God is not an enigma but a mystery that the humble can always at least get the gist of. One such humble person was John son of Zechariah baptizing people along the Jordan River. To a great extent, if one gets his lens, one greatly gets who Jesus is and offers. It is that Jesus atones for the sins of the world. Even the worst.
In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea [and] saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” …… At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Matthew 3:1,5).
Repent- A wise man with a dramatic addiction recovery story said that if he meets someone like he used to be that has a history of bad character and cannot describe their own turning point then he hesitates to trust them. Conversion is a choice and is a turning point.
the kingdom of heaven is at hand!– Conversion is towards a constant relationship that it rooted in heaven. It is not about politics, culture or any other schemas that humans conjure up. God is above the fray and his purest state of kingdom starts and ends in heaven but can be grasped on earth.
baptized by him…. as they acknowledged their sins- Conversion is a redemption process and is meant for a healthy community context. The call to Christ, is a call to community. It is no surprise that in many early Christian communities the norm was for some to stand up to confess sins and receive the grace of the forgiveness in the name of Christ at a church meeting. Even looking at today in 12 Step meetings there is a confessional quality as someone says “I am…..and I am a(n)…. “ While 12 Step is an honest program, Christianity is more than that.
To know the call of Jesus is to have the norm of knowing that call from honesty into change. In that, we can all be works in progress. Such is the beauty of the Savior’s work on all who seek him in a community of loved sinners coming out of the shame of our failings. We are all hungry for that even if we do not know it.