Posted by: 15shekels | January 2, 2011

—of whom I am the worst.

“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy…Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” -Paul, 1 Timothy 1:13, 15-16

“I always say that if we believe terrorists are beyond redemption, we can rip out half of our New Testament, since it was written by a converted terrorist who became an extremist for grace.” -Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution, p. 272

Jesus knew, of course, that his beloved church would be ever prone to the lie that its Savior is only for the squeaky clean. When he started his ministry, the Pharisees had been pushing a similar self-righteous agenda for years. Jesus could not have been clearer in his rebuttal to them—spending his time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and egregious sinners; offering forgiveness to outcasts and telling parables about obnoxious younger sons being welcomed home.

But they did not understand. And the church today, two thousand years after its birth out of a community of tax collectors and prostitutes, still often fails to understand. Again and again, we write off those who scare or anger us. Or we make the opposite mistake, and assume that self-righteous Pharisees are the ones too hardened to be loved, pursued and redeemed by God. Thankfully, Jesus foresaw both of these mistakes. And he gave us Saul of Tarsus.

Saul was the worst combination of violent sinner and self-righteous Pharisee. He had reasons to be self-righteous, as he wrote himself: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:4-6) Saul was from the right family, from the right social circles, educated at the right school—and he thought he was perfectly right with God.

He was also one of the Pharisees who saw Jesus and his early followers as a problem that needed to be eliminated. And so he persecuted the new church, and successfully sought the death of young Christians like Stephen (Acts 7) while “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) Saul was on track to be one of the memorable bad guys in the history of the early church. He was a cocktail of sin and pride, the worst combination.

And then Saul met Jesus:

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.'” -Acts 9:3-6

And in an instant Saul became Paul, the apostle who wrote half of the New Testament.

Jesus changed Saul’s heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh. As I discussed two posts ago, God has the power to rename us and give us a new identity. New Year’s Resolutions don’t work because we try to become someone different even though nothing has changed in us internally. This was not a New Year’s Resolution—Paul received a new heart and a new identity on the road to Damascus. Within the same chapter, we learn that he “began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20)

Paul, the former king of self-righteousness, went on to write in the book of Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and to proclaim himself the worst of sinners. He also reprimanded the Jewish Christians who wanted to exclude non-Jews from the church, and spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

Nobody is outside the reach of God’s grace in Jesus. Because the truth is, Jesus doesn’t look at us and see good guys and bad guys, like we do. He grieves with the victims of September 11th, but he also loves the individual terrorists. In terms that are even harder for me: he cries with young girls held by force in brothels, but he also wants the brothel owners and traffickers to turn to him and be redeemed. Jesus knows that we are all bad guys who are lost apart from him, whether our sin manifests in smug self-righteousness, lying, gossip, betrayal, adultery, rape, murder or genocide. Nobody is outside the invitation to turn to Jesus and receive a new heart, a new identity.

And so, to the “bad guys”: don’t let the snotty church-goer fool you; the gospel has always been for you.

And to the “good guys”: try to remember that your beloved St. Paul was once a terrorist.

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