Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interrupted By Grace

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Ordinary 24
September 12, 2010
William G. Carter

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

There’s a cartoon in a Christian magazine that comes to mind. It’s a Sunday morning, and a large man is standing up in his church pew. He looks pretty rough, something like the cross between a motorcycle biker and a pirate. He wears a kerchief on his shaved head, has a black eye patch, and a large hooped earring. His right shoulder bears the tattoo of a woman’s name, which has been crossed out. Right below the tattoo is a nasty-looking scar.

Well, there he is, surrounded in a church, next to a lady in a red velvet hat and a man in a suit jacket. He opens his mouth, reveals a few missing teeth, and speaks his testimony: “Jesus has made me into a different person.” The people around him look awkward and uncomfortable. See that picture, hold it in view.

If we’re going to talk this fall about the riches of Christian faith, we need to begin with a scene like this. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the experience of personal transformation. The Good News is that God changes lives. It began when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, revealing him to be the human face of God. Ever since, Jesus has secretly made his rounds, affecting people, showing them mercy, and making them different.

Now, this can taste a bit awkward and uncomfortable, especially if we are accustomed to leaving church on a Sunday pretty much the same people as when we came in. It runs counter to the popular view of Christian faith. For a lot of people, Christianity is a stabilizing force. It provides order and comfort, routine and predictability. Pioneers once built churches in the center of every town, to announce clearly that God was in the middle of civilized life.

A lot of those early churches were Presbyterian churches, with an emphasis on order and proper behavior. People could look at those stirring structures with their solid foundations and tall steeples, and surmise that the Christian Gospel is about stability. That it’s about continuity, permanence, and a settled life. The assumption for years was that anybody who is anybody would go to such a church: business leaders, bankers, school teachers, attorneys. Stable people go to a stable church, and that makes for a stable community. That was the assumption; fair enough.

But this view has always been in tension with the kind of God that we have. Sometimes the Bible will say that God is a Rock, immovable and fixed, that God is our sure foundation. But the Bible also says God comes as the wind, free and unbound, powerful but invisible. We can say all we want about our long-established traditions of faith. And just when we get all of that settled, God shows up to disrupt everything we thought to be nailed down.

The pirate on the Harley shows up on Sunday to sit right next to the lady in the red velvet hat. He declares, “Jesus made me into a different person.” Some are curious what he was like before, others are worried what this might mean for them.

There is a name given to this disruptive power of God. It’s called grace. Grace is God’s good will as it plays out in our lives. God loves all of us enough to want what is best for all of us. That means God is going to do whatever it takes to grab us, to hold us, to shake us free from whatever is killing us, and then set us down to start all over again. This is what grace can do.

Grace is more than a sugary affirmation that we are nice people with a nice God who calls on us to keep being nice. That’s not Christianity. Christianity says God is on the loose, that Jesus didn’t stay nailed down, that the Spirit of God blows like a Category Six hurricane. As Annie Dillard once quipped, instead of handing out worship bulletins, “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982).

Lest you think I exaggerate, I remind you of Jesus. He was crucified because he didn’t fit in. He did not teach in safe, predictable ways. He healed unconventional people without any regard for religious rules. He talked back to people who thought they were in charge of the world. The most powerful people of Jerusalem decided to get rid of him; and then there were reports of how he came back, how he comes and goes among us, how he rearranges people’s lives. One of the last New Testament glimpses we get of Jesus shows his hair unruly, his eyes are ablaze, and he shouts, “Look, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Do we really want to mess with him? We might not have any choice.

And so we have this text from a first century letter. It comes from a time when the church was trying to hold itself together. It’s at least fifty or sixty years after the resurrection. The Christians have been at it for a while. They have preached the Gospel, but there are some people out there trying to distort the message. The people in the church were trying to live a joyful and holy life, but these were brutal times where the others around them followed whatever whims and desires caught their fancy.

So an early church leader claims the authority of the apostle Paul. He takes on Paul’s mantle as if it is own, and in words that all of us can claim, he says what he knows to be true: “The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” That’s the heart of the Gospel – so I want you to say it with me. I’ll give it to you a piece at a time: “the grace of our Lord – overflowed for me – with the faith and love – that are in Christ Jesus.” That’s verse fourteen. It’s so important that we can say it every day.

Now, everybody knows the story of the apostle Paul. At first, his name was Saul, named after the first of Israel’s kings. Saul was a Jew, a good Jew. He trained as a Pharisee, which meant he memorized a large part of his Bible. He was serious about his faith. It gave him meaning and purpose. When the Bible said “pray,” he started to pray. When the Bible said “work,” he knew what to do.

And then he heard about those Jesus-worshippers, and it upset him. He believed they were wrong, and quoted his Bible to prove it. But they would not stop. According to one report, he went house to house, dragging out the Jesus-worshipers and committing them to prison. But they did not stop. So he got permission from the high priest of Jerusalem to flush out these Jesus-worshippers from the synagogues in his hometown of Damascus. Then he started down the road to arrest whoever he could find.

But on his way, he was blinded by a great light. A huge Voice quoted from the Bible, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was the Son of David speaking to the son of Saul. The persecutor blinked and saw the very same Jesus that all his victims had been worshiping. The Lord’s eyes were still ablaze, full of fire. It was like staring at a laser beam. As novelist Flannery O’Connor once quipped, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Paul started to change in a way that he could never change back.

These moments can come to us, and they do. The baby is born, such a little bundle of joy. You take him into your arms, cradle his head in the palm of your hand. And this tiny gift means you can’t stay out late, can’t run around any more, can’t quit your job because you hate to get up in the morning. You have to change, because the gift has come.

Or there is that health crisis, a diagnosis that scares you, or the accident on the operating table. Everything you thought was firm and settled is shaken so hard you can hear the rattle. It feels foggy. Your head spins with shock, your heart is pounding. And if God gives you a second chance, you think that maybe you should start playing your hand in a different way.

Perhaps it is the lost job or a lost child. Or the call that the brother you haven’t talked to for the past eleven years has suddenly fallen over dead. We have these disruptions from time to time. Each one presents a decision – do we hang on for dear life as we always did and smooth it over if we get through it? Or do we stare through the blinding light until we see the eyes of Jesus, pledging he will do everything he can to make us new?

A recovering alcoholic told me about the night he got pulled over after eight gin and tonics. The police officer asked a few questions in a language he couldn’t understand, so he opened the car door and lost his dinner on the officer’s shoes. It made an impression. When he sobered up some time later, he said, “Every day I have to decide that I will not get up and start chewing again on the charcoal of hell. It’s hard work, but for the first time in years, I think I’m alive.” Then he said, “My mistakes were God’s invitations. My wounds became God’s opportunities.”

This is how grace works. Grace might come like a blazing light, exposing everything that we have tried to hide in the shadows. Before grace shows us any mercy, grace always reveals who we really are. It’s hard work to be that honest. But when we look through that moment, when we see within it the purging, cleansing love of Jesus Christ, I think we understand the strange words of that favorite hymn: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

Such was the experience of the apostle Paul and every generation of apostles after Paul. Whether it’s the simple affirmation each Sunday that “your sins are forgiven,” or the first-hand knowledge that you are currently being rescued from something that threatens to kill you and your spirit, behind it all is the mercy of God. Paul liked to sum it up by waving his arms, clearing his throat, and belting it out, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the absolute worst.”

Whether you agree with him and say, “Yes, Paul, you are about as bad as they come,” or whether you are in the middle of a moment when you claim the Worst Sinner Award for yourself, either way that’s not the final word. The final word is – well, let me see if you can remember it – “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ.”

You know, I’ve been thinking about that cartoon that I described. The rough looking biker-pirate, stands up in his pew, and declares to that settled-looking church crowd, “Jesus has made me into a different person.” I’d like to think that in the very next moment, in the very next frame, everybody turned to him and said, “Me too.” Because we are in this together. Christ’s grace can forgive and scrub each of us clean.

And if we keep cooperating with such mercy, he will continue to shine brighter and brighter until we take our place beside him as children of Light.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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