Grace and Peace to you from God Our Father, and from our risen Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What sin could be considered unforgiveable? What atrocious thing could human beings do to one another that would be awarded the title of “foremost” sin? Opening up any newspaper or watching any television cable news show, well unfortunately we could take our pick. There are the governments of the world who although they were appointed for a life of service very rapidly slip into patterns of self service and greed with destructive laws and regulations that have no benefit to the people they are supposed to be serving. There are dictatorships whose key goal it seems is to continually place their subjects in harm’s way by denying those basic human rights and resources and instead hoarding them for their own selfish needs. There are those who repeatedly disrespect the legacy of their elders by refusing them access to communal relationships with others and instead lock them away so that their “annoying” habits won’t interfere with a picturesque life of perfection. There are those who have a misunderstanding with what it means to sacrifice the comfort of one’s life in order to nurture and raise a beautiful, fragile new one. There are those whose mis-education of where their own ancestral journey begins renders them blind to fellowship with those who do not mirror their own. Then, there are the sins too deep for words that wound our own souls when the pain has been brought to light because we just don’t understand how a fellow human being could do that to another. We find ourselves weeping, crying out to God, Our Deliverer “No. No! There should not be forgiveness for this!” We cry out for justice and physical retribution; this person, this man who has murdered, this woman who has tortured has the mark, the label of being the worst human being and their lives deemed worthless. Even if they attempted a poor show of trying to be redemptive, those words would fall on our deaf, closed ears.
But isn’t that just what is occurring in this letter in 1 Timothy? The writer exclaims to those who are perhaps gathered around the reader listening to these words “In my weakness, Jesus Christ has found me worthy and has given me newness of life!” This ancient call story or faith share does sound strangely familiar to us; this story of a violent man who as the letter continues goes on saying, “but I received mercy because I had acted ignorant in unbelief.”
There was probably no argument that of all these ancient sinners Saul/Paul would have his name at the top of the list because “Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example.” How this echoes our psalmst who exhorts “Against you, you alone have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Although the debate continues on to this day of whether this one of the Pastoral Epistles was actually penned by the apostle Paul, it is fitting that Paul’s conversion story whether written by Paul or retold by those dedicated to a life of living Christ-like stands as an example. An example that no matter what the transgression and sins were before God, Our Redeemer that God would not forsake nor leave them to perish.
Yet this is not a “conversion” story in the sense from one tradition religion or spiritual expression to another. Paul was not converting from Judaism to Christianity; he still remained dedicated to the faith of his fathers. Rather one could view this as a conversion from destruction and despair that he repeatedly piled upon his fellow brothers and sisters. This was about converting from unspeakable anguish he repeatedly inflicted upon his own people into the unconditional love and grace that began to pour out from his soul the moment the scales fell from his eyes. This was about taking someone who was labeled persecutor, blasphemer, the foremost sinner and black sheep and bringing them home hearing them cry out “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.” And the risen Christ echoing to all of Creation “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Is that hard for us today as brothers and sisters in Christ to fathom that happening as we stand off to the side, grumbling and complaining “This Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Don’t we scoff and refute when we hear of “prison house conversions” where inmates make public declarations that they have found Jesus that they have undergone a change and beg for second chances and forgiveness. We view these people with great suspicion and scrutiny: “You know they are only saying that because they want our pity.” We take issue with anyone who comes publically after their actions have left a loved one or community members damaged and we judge them uttering “You know they are only saying that so we will feel sorry and not demand their ouster from public office or their position” or “Do they really mean what they are saying?” They come crawling to the shores of mercy and peace but we respond by shoving them back into the unclean waters of unbelief. Our pain, our issues, our anger, our sorrow becomes the dam between who they were and the flood of forgiveness.
What about our own sins? Well, we whisper and acknowledge with some silence and shame that they were only tiny sins but didn’t Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord invite us to those shores of mercy and grace? Didn’t He welcome us to His table all the while others were muttering and grumbling and pointing at us saying “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus Christ extended fellowship and broke bread with us offering us eternal life, mercy, healing, wholeness, newness! That is the Good News, beloved. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that He, the Risen Savior of All Creation came into this world as a sacrifice for our sins no matter what they are or how big they are. In that moment of your weeping, your failing, your stumbling the risen Christ strips away all of those labels that the world places on your shortcomings and pronounces you “healed”, “new”, “revived”, “Good”, forgiven.” The Good News of Jesus Christ is that Christ came into this world and gave of himself for our sins. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that Christ’s sacrifice is for everyone and available at any time whether we have always known or whether we have wandered on this life’s journey with questions about who Jesus is and where is God in this sometimes chaotic life. It is available when we are cared into this church in our parent’s arms. It is available when we are trapped and blinded by the responsibilities in the daily throes of living. It is available when we have turned away and turned to other things, because we are human. It is available when we are sitting in that jail cell or that rehab center or that halfway house with our head in our hands trying to figure out how we got here. It is available when we cannot do anything else for ourselves, tears pouring out of our eyes, afraid and calling out to God saying we are sorry. It is in these moments that the risen Christ comes to hold our hand, to remain at our side, to never leave us or forsake us, who tells us “It’s okay, I understand, You are forgiven.” It is in these moments that Heaven rejoices because we who thought were lost, forgotten, abandoned receive nourishment at the Table, our sins forgiven.
Forgiven. Healed. Found. Important. Counted. Loved. These are labels that we would wear proudly, cradled in the Savior’s arms as He announces to all of Creation, “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Thanks Be To God.