Sermon for the Fourteenth Pentecost, Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 11 September, 2022.
Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But 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. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Before there was Paul, there was Saul. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but before I do, let me ask you this.
Who were you formerly, before you were you? Were you not always a believer? Were you not always a nice person? Did you do things you regret? Maybe some of you have lived blameless lives, and if so, God bless you, but if your life wasn’t always blameless, it’s ok.
In fact, if it’s any reassurance, you should meet the person I formerly was. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that there are some people out there from my past who would be amused and/or deeply sceptical to know that I call myself Father Michael these days.
Before Paul, there was Saul. Before there was you and me, there was the former us. And here we are. The fact that we’re all sitting here today is testimony to the love and patience of Jesus the good shepherd, who keeps going out to look for the lost sheep and bring them home, who has brought us home.
Our second reading today comes from the opening of the epistle known as First Timothy. Once thought to have been written by St. Paul, it’s now widely believed that First and Second Timothy, along with Titus, were written early in the Second Century, when the principals, Paul, Timothy, and Titus, had passed away. By this time, Paul had become a hero of the emerging Christian faith, so his name gave authority to the letter and meant it would receive a wide audience.
But notice what kind of Paul the author of this letter uses to gain his credibility. “Paul” says that he is faithful and was appointed by Jesus to do good work for the church, but he never tries to hide or conceal his past. “.. I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”, he admits, and while he makes a little self-defence by saying that when he did these things he “acted ignorantly in unbelief”, he doesn’t let himself off the hook. He was forgiven because he received the “grace … faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1.14).
This opening tells us that whoever wrote this letter knew the book of Acts and the story of how Saul became Paul (Acts 9). “Paul”’s telling of his conversion story also tells us that by this time, several generations after Jesus and the first disciples, Paul had become an icon of forgiveness, a robust example of how God’s mercy can change us and make us new, fit for God’s purposes. Indeed, this idea of forgiveness and transformation is so important to our faith that the very next line of our second lesson was gathered into the old Book of Common Prayer as part of the Comfortable Words:
“This is a true saying, and worthy of all … to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (BCP p. 78).
Is Saul/Paul unique in receiving this mercy? Not really. The letter says that Jesus “appointed me [Paul] to his service” (1 Tim 1.12), a service of tireless evangelism and teaching that would lead to a martyr’s death, but Paul did not receive mercy just because Jesus had a special purpose for him mind. Today’s gospel reading from Luke, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, teach us how persistent God’s grace is, always out there searching to bring home the lost, because each of us is precious in God’s sight. Yes, God may have a purpose for you, some ministry that you didn’t always know you were called to, but first, Jesus had to find you and bring you home.
There are two final things I want to say, the first brief, the second a little longer. The first is that if you are haunted or anguished by things that old you, Saul you, might have done in the past, you need to let them go. Were you not worth saving? Of course you were. Did the good shepherd who guided you back the flock not really love you? Of course he did. As God says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Isa 43.19, Rev 21.5), so enjoy your new life in Christ, revel in it, and take comfort that you’re the person God always dreamed you would be. It wasn’t that old you was bad, so much as old you was distorted, out of focus, and God has sharpened you, brought you into light and brought you into focus, like a beautiful photograph.
The second thing I want to do is point out is that just as there isa the danger of over-focusing on the guilt of our old lives, there’s also a danger of taking God’s work in us for granted. We may think that we’re pretty good at this faith business, especially if we’ve been at it a long time. No doubt some of those 99 sheep who did what they should and stayed where they should looked askance at the one who wandered off. Remember that our gospel parables are told for the benefit of pious, self-congratulatory religious people who sneer at the sinners Jesus wants to bring home. Remember that the woman who finds her coin calls on her friends to celebrate, just as the prodigal son’s father does. There are no places for dour, pinched faces in the kingdom of heaven. Some of us lost sheep just got led home sooner than others, is all.
Today I watched, and it feels very strange to write this, our new King speak to us with humility and grace. King Charles promised to continue the Queen’s example of selfless service, and he said that the same Christian faith which guided his mother would guide him and his beloved wife, Camilla, the Queen Consort. Now at this point, a certain amount of history is likely to intrude, for those of us old enough to remember Charles and Diana’s supposedly fairy tale wedding, the sad ending of their marriage, and Diana’s tragic death. History can be a remorseless spectre at the feast, if history is all we see and God’s providence is forgotten. All of this merely to say that if the royals are flawed figures, then their flaws are our flaws, their sins are our sins, only written in large type by the infinitely greater and crueler focus turned upon them. And yet the same grace is given to us all.
As a man, I see in Charles’ flawed life some of my own history and flaws. As a Christian, I recognize a fellow sinner, who like me has known the same rescuing love of Jesus. From Saul to Paul, from old Charles to King Charles, from old Michael to Father Michael, from old you to new you, and so on for all of us in the dance of grace that Jesus leads us in. So I recognize some of myself in Charles, but I also recognize that his duties now are infinitely heavier than mine, and so I will pray for him, as we should we all. May our prayers be of love and concern for our earthly King, as he is called to wear an earthly crown, and may they be prayers of gratitude for all of us, who have been saved and called one day to wear a heavenly crown.