Renewal, conversion, and trust in God

Today’s readings are all about renewal. The beautiful reading from Isaiah 43 speaks of how God tells us not to remember the “things of the past” but rather to focus on the present moment. It is easy for us to get caught up in the past—in past instances of suffering, or in the faults of and failings of ourselves or others, for example. But God is not fundamentally interested in remembering what has gone wrong in the past. Instead, God is a God of renewal, always moving towards creatively bring something good out of whatever situation has existed before. The past is unchangeable, in one sense. We cannot, for example, undo what decisions have led to the current crisis of climate change or to political injustices. We cannot undo difficult moments in the past in our personal lives. What we do have, however, is much more powerful than the power to change the past: we live in relationship of love with a God who actively labors on our behalf to creatively bring love, justice, and goodness into the world NOW. Our God never gives up in the effort to renew, restore, heal, and to love us into fullness of life.

St Paul’s words might be understood as articulating what happens when we really trust in this God of love and renewal—even in a world that has plenty of injustice and suffering in it.  Paul  rather poignantly says: “It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” I find this poignant, because Paul was hardly lazy. He worked tirelessly for the Lord in spreading the Gospel and was willing to go anywhere God called him. And yet even Paul did not think that he had attained perfection. He, after all, had persecuted Christians and caused them great harm, harm that could not be undone. Moreover, although Paul was converted to  Christianity, he recognized that his conversion did not mean that he had reached perfection. Instead, he understood that he still had many limits. And yet he does not give up, as aware as he is of his own limits.

How does Paul respond to the sense of his own limitedness and weaknesses?

Rather than finding despair in his own incompleteness, Paul finds hope in Christ.

Rather than saying he possesses Christ, Paul says that Christ has taken possession of him.

In giving himself and his life over to Christ, Paul lets go of himself and his own aims and plans for his life. He lets go of his anxieties and self doubts. Perhaps Paul even lets go of his need to redeem his past actions as a persecutor of Christians. He lets go of his need to redeem his own sinful limitations. Instead, he simply trusts that so long as he “strains ahead” toward wherever God is calling him right now, that somehow this will be enough for God.

Paul lets God be in control.

In the Gospel reading, we find Jesus also responding with gentleness and kindness to human limits. He speaks to a crowd before a woman caught in adultery. As Pope John Paul II pointed out, this woman is about to be stoned for adultery, and yet her sin is also the sin of a man, a man who is absent from the scene of punishment. The woman is about to take the punishment for the sin of two people, and yet the sin of the man is completely hidden from public view, as it were almost an afterthought.

Yet Jesus doesn’t decide that this punishment is not harsh enough. He does not, for example, try to find out who the man is who has participated in this act of adultery so that he, too, can be stoned. Instead, Jesus asks the onlookers to consider whether they, too, have ever fallen short in the eyes of God. As it turns out, there is no one at all who, when they seriously examine their own hearts, has not fallen short in some way. Sin is a great equalizer. And so they put down their stones and walk away.

But Love is an even greater equalizer, and that is the real point oF Jesus’ encounter with the woman. Jesus tells the woman to stand up, to get up again from her sin, and to be restored to community. God is interested not in punishment but in restoration of relationships. And so Jesus acts to free her so that she can stand up, start over, and get on with her life again.

God wants to know us, heal us, and love us. How does that take place? When we listen to God, and let God and not ourselves be in control. When we, like the onlookers, put down our stones, our anxieties, our self-doubts, and need to be the ones in control, and instead follow God wherever God calls us—then we are called into a deep conversion of heart. It is this conversion of heart that puts God and not ourselves at the center–a God who desires to bring us all to healing , community, and renewal.