Day 20: True Conversion
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
When in Baptism our bodies are washed with water, we are taught that our souls are washed in the blood of Christ. The outward washing or sprinkling represents the sprinkling and washing which is manifested within us: the water signifies the blood of Christ. If it were nothing else but soul, he would give us his grace barely and alone, without joining it to any creature, as he did to his angels, but, seeing our spirit is drowned in our body, and our flesh makes our understanding dull, therefore we receive his grace by sensible things. [i]
John Jewel (d. 1571), Bishop of Salisbury
O Father, you alone have the power to perform what you put forth. Therefore, gather together the dispersed members of your Church and knit together those who are fractious and torn apart with various opinions. Unite us together, those for whom hatred and enmity have set as far apart as can be. Grant that all of us, who are regenerated and renewed by Baptism in your name, may unite together in one body, appropriate for such a head as you are, which none can be imagined either better or greater. Let us all be of one mind, let us set our hearts all upon one thing, namely, on you, the only almighty God and singular lover of us all, though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
Naaman is the strongest, wisest, most respected man in Syria. As head of the Syrian army, he’s a “mighty man of valor.” But he cannot heal himself. Although many translations refer to his disease as “leprosy,” this is misleading. Naaman probably has something more akin to Psoriasis which marks him as unclean.[iii] Christians for centuries have read this text as an anticipation of the Sacrament of Baptism. Naaman, an unclean Gentile, is healed both physically and spiritually when he is dipped in the waters of the Jordan River. Importantly, this “Baptism” marks his conversion to the one true God. Despite his great status, he humbles himself, does what the prophet tells him, and is healed.
2 Kings 5.1-15
1Naaman was the head of the army of the King of Syria. He was a great man before his master, the King, and highly respected because, through him, the LORD had given great victories to Syria. 2But the mighty man of valor had a skin disease. Now Syrian troops went out marauding and captured a young servant girl from the land of Israel. And she became a servant to Namaan’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, “Would that my master were in the presence of the prophet who is in Samaria. Then he would be cured of his skin disease.” 4So Naaman went and told the King, saying, “The young girl said such and such about someone from the land of Israel.” 4So the King of Syria said, “Go ahead – I’ll send along a letter to the King of Israel.” So he went and took with him seven-hundred and fifty pounds of silver, six-thousand pieces of gold and ten fine garments. 6And he brought the letter to the King of Israel, saying, “It is written in this letter to you, see I have sent to you Naaman my servant that you might heal him of his skin disease.”
7Now it came to pass after the King of Israel read aloud the letter, he ripped his garments and said, “Am I a god to give death and life, that this one was sent to me to cure him of his skin disease? Anyone could see that he’s using the occasion to resist me.”
8So it came to pass that when Elisha, the man of God, heard the King had torn his garments, he sent a message to the King, saying, “Why did you tear your garments? Let him come to me, that he might know that there’s a prophet in Israel.” 9So Naaman came with his horse and chariot and stood at the entrance to the house of Elisha. 10Then Elisha sent out to him a messenger, saying, “Go, wash seven times in the Jordan, then your flesh will be restored to you and you will be healed.” 11At this, Naaman became incensed and went and said, “I thought to myself, he will surely come out and stand and call on the name of his God and wave his hand over the place and heal the skin disease. 12Aren’t the rivers Abana and Pharpar in Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I just wash in them and be made clean?” So he turned and left in a huff.
13Then his servants came over and said to Naaman, “Had the prophet told you to do some great deed, would you not have done it? Only, he said to you, wash and be clean!” 14So Naaman went down and washed in the Jordan seven times just as the man of God had said. And his skin was restored just like a young child’s and he was made clean. So he returned to the man of God – he and all his entourage – and he came and stood before him and said, “Look, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel. So now receive a tribute from your servant.”
New Testament Lesson
This is the first scene in Luke’s Gospel that depicts Jesus’ adult ministry. Luke appears to have deliberately moved it up chronologically to allow it to stand as a kind of introduction to the whole story. Jesus had just finished a public reading in the Synagogue of a passage from Isaiah and claimed that it referred to him. The people reacted well to this. But he then encountered some very passionate resistance when he challenged the hard hearts of the people. The proverb Jesus uses, “physician heal yourself,” probably carried the nuance of “prove it.”[iv] Prove that you’re the anointed Messiah depicted in Isaiah 61. But Jesus did no miracles to authenticate himself. He foresaw the reality that the Gospel would go out to the Gentiles, as was foreshadowed in Naaman’s Baptism, but would be rejected by many of Jesus’ kinsfolk whom he came to save.
23Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will tell me this saying, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we heard happened in Capernaum now do here in your hometown.” 24So He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25And let me assure you, in the days of Elijah, many widows were in Israel since the sky was shut for three years and six months when a great famine came upon the land. 26But Elijah was sent to no one except to a widow in Zarephath of Sidonia. 27And there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet and no one was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28Upon hearing these things, all in the synagogue were filled with rage and they brought Him to the edge of the hill on which their city was built so that they might push Him off. 30But He passed through their midst and went His way.
Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever been like Naaman, puffed up, self-important, powerful? Why is humility such an important aspect of true conversion?
- When you consider your faith, can you point to tangible differences in how you were living before versus how you are living now? What kind of practical fruit is your spiritual life bearing?
- Do you demand proof from God? If so, is it possible that no proof God could give you will ever really satisfy you, that you will just keep seeking more and more proofs?
- We all feel God’s absence at times. What do you do when it seems like God isn’t showing up? Do you give up? Do you pray harder? Do you bargain with God to get what you want?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Our lessons today are obviously linked (Jesus refers specifically to Naaman), but as contrasts. In our NT lesson, the Jews of Capernaum know Jesus well. He grew up there. They immediately (and surprisingly) accept Jesus’ claim that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him (Isa 61.1). But they become enraged when Jesus intimates that the Gospel will go to the Gentiles. They may be good, pious, Jews, who are faithfully doing what their Rabbis tell them to do. But when Jesus appears in their midst and challenges their understanding, they react with fury.
It’s a bit hard to explain why the crowds react with such fury. Luke doesn’t tell us, which might be because he doesn’t know either.[v] More likely, they react like they do because Jesus offers no proof for his claims. He has offended them by pointing out examples of Gentiles who were made clean despite being enemies of Israel. The OT Law was clear that a false prophet, a dreamer of dreams, was to be put to death (Deut 13.2). This is clearly what they think of Jesus.
Contrast this with Naaman who is full of pride and undoubtedly outside a covenant relationship with God at the start of the story. Typical of powerful people, he thinks other powerful people (like the King of Israel) will have the answer for his problems, but they don’t. Yet, unlike the people of Capernaum, he recognizes that he has a need to be healed. It’s not too hard to figure out – he can’t hide a skin disease. Upon hearing that healing might exist with Elisha, he seeks out the prophet.
Naaman also reacts with fury after he hears the instructions of Elisha’s messenger. He wants a magical cure he can pay for with the gold and silver he’s brought. But, unlike the people of Capernaum, he eventually humbles himself and does what the prophet says. He’s dipped seven time in the Jordan River and washed clean of his disease. In short, he exercises faith and receives a kind of sacramental healing.
Thus the covenant markers the people of Capernaum were relying on – circumcision, the food laws, religious festivals – could not save them. This is what Paul means when he writes, “By the works of the Law no one is justified before him” (Rom 3.20). Paul doesn’t mean “good works” here. He means covenant markers. The external markers on which the Jews were relying.
This is why Naaman’s conversion is so surprising. He’s worse off than the people of Capernaum. He has no idea who the true God is. But as he’s washed clean in the waters of the Jordan, he exercises faith in God.
This is a picture of true conversion. Since Baptism is the outward visible sign of the so-called New Covenant, the Church has taught from the beginning that Christians begin a covenant relationship with God in Baptism. This does not mean we cannot experience the Spirit’s invitations to us before our Baptisms nor does it mean our Christian lives end there. We go on to maturity by cooperating with the grace that God gives to us. We grow in our love for God and for our neighbors. We eschew other gods and the enticements the world offers to us, not out of gruesome rejection of the world (it was created very good, after all), but because Jesus offers us something so much better. Salvation comes near.
Some want to make the Gospel into a free ticket to heaven. We’re promised if we just “trust Christ” we’ll be saved and live in paradise. I suspect this is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he used the term “cheap grace.” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices…Grace without price; grace without cost!”[vi]
Can it really be the case that we can be converted without amendment of life? Can we be converted without the love of God that grows slowly and quietly over years? The Christian life is a long process of cooperation between God and us. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, true conversion doesn’t happen in a day. True conversation is about turning from the life we had to the life that God wants to give us. We leave behind what thrilled us before and move toward the only one who can really satisfy us. We do this not out of a grim sense of duty but out of love, love for the one who makes us whole.
Naaman turned and was healed. The people of Capernaum, respectable, dignified as they were, couldn’t recognize their Messiah when he was standing right before them. And that makes all the difference. It’s only when we practically live out a relationship with God that we’re truly saved from our life of sin.
Find someone who needs to be mentored in their faith, someone who has not been at the Christian life that long. Make a commitment to get together periodically, listen to their issues and trying to be a compassionate, caring influence in their lives.
- Centering Prayer
Find a comfortable place where you can be still for a while. Use a short phrase or word like “Jesus,” “Son of God,” “lover of my soul,” to center you when your mind inevitably wanders. Use this to listen to the voice of God in your spirit.
Start recording how God is at work in your life. Periodically write down your struggles, answers to prayer and praises. This is probably the single best way to record God’s work in your life.
[i] John Jewel, “A Treatise of the Sacraments,” in Works of Bishop Jewel, ed. J. Ayre (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1847), 1000–1001.
[ii] Adapted from W.K. Clay, ed., Private Prayers Put Forth by Authority During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1851), 436.
[iii] Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 193.
[iv] Cf. Net Bible footnote to Luk 4.23.
[v] Francois Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 156.
[vi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 43.