Mercy for the Ignorant 14th Pentecost
Psalm 14 1 Timothy 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10
Every now and then I see a comic strip posted on Facebook called “Coffee with Jesus.” There are a variety of characters who have “conversations with Jesus” over a cup of coffee. It’s an interesting way to explore what it means to live out our faith. Just the other day, I saw this one: A man named Carl says, “I’m such a mess-up, Jesus. Bad husband, lousy father, horrible friend. I’m always falling short.”
Jesus responds, “Go a little easier on yourself, Carl. Did you think you’d be perfect by this point?”
Carl says, “Well, not perfect, Jesus—but much farther along than I am!”
In the final frame, Jesus gives this insight: “Ya know, ‘Carl from five years ago’ would’ve never given these things a second thought!”
This imaginary conversation popped into my mind as I reflected on Paul’s words to Timothy. He candidly says, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” In other places in scripture, we read about Paul’s previous life. In Galatians, he says, “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But God called me through His grace. He was pleased to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach among the Gentiles.”
This truly dovetails with the account in the 9th chapter of Acts when Paul is confronted by the Resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, and is diverted from his former life into his new calling! In today’s text, he explains that he received mercy because he had acted ignorantly in unbelief! He was rescued because the GRACE of our Lord overflowed for him with the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus!
Paul describes himself as the foremost or the “chief” of sinners!
Years ago, I was watching an interview with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The young reporter from the BBC was obviously in awe of this amazing woman, and she was aghast when Mother Teresa described herself as a “sinner.” “Oh, surely, YOU are not a sinner?!” Mother Teresa just laughed and said, “Oh, I am the chief of sinners!” Now, whether we give that title to her or to the Apostle Paul, they would both say that God has displayed the utmost patience with them in order that they might be an example to those who came to believe in Jesus for eternal life. Utmost patience=MERCY!
Just a side note here, folks. Trusting our lives into the hands of Jesus will do a number of things—including giving us a heightened sensitivity to our sin. Just like Carl in the “Coffee with Jesus” comic strip I began with—you and I will become more acutely aware of our sinfulness AND more deeply grateful for the mercy of God! It’s always a good thing to remember how much we need a Savior! (Humbling)
How Far God Is Willing to Go
Our Gospel reading for today gives us an idea of just how far God is willing to go to save us. Jesus is responding to the grumbling of the “holy people” of his day, as they complained, “This fellow welcomes sinners and EATS with them.” [There’s something you need to know: in those days, there was a belief that if you spent time in the presence of a sinner, especially if you ATE with them, then their sin would “rub off on you.” These holy people thought that they were sin-LESS, and they believed that truly righteous people AVOIDED those who could “pollute” them with sin! They thought that being Godly meant staying away from ungodly people.]
So Jesus needed to teach them something about how far God goes to find the lost. He told them about a shepherd who goes looking for a lost sheep until he finds it, then rejoices when he brings it home. He told them about a woman who loses a coin and turns the house upside down until she finds it, then rejoices with her neighbors.
“In the same way,” Jesus says, “there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
These two parables were followed by the familiar story Jesus told about the father with two sons, and the younger son takes his half of the estate and goes to a far country, where he wastes it in wild living. And when that son finally comes to his senses and comes home, the Father is waiting…with open arms. Don’t forget the older brother in the story: HE was acting just like the Pharisees and the Scribes, NOT wanting to see the Father have mercy on those who have strayed.
All three of these stories were told to illustrate just how far God is prepared to go to reach God’s children. And Jesus made it clear: God welcomes sinners. Another interesting text that sheds light on this idea of how far God is prepared to go is found in 1 Peter 3. It’s one of the texts that moved the early leaders of the church (the ones who crafted The Apostles’ Creed) to include the line “He descended into Hell.” Here’s the passage: Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh BUT made alive in the spirit; in which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient…
Peter is telling us that, in order to bring all of us to God, Christ even took the gospel to the spirits in prison (sheol, hell).
This passage is still something of a mystery, but it makes one thing clear: no matter how dark, mysterious, and difficult life gets, Christ is there. After all, what can separate us from the love of God?! Paul says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
To finish today, I want us to reflect on how we pray for those who oppose us, for those who would destroy us. Are we praying for God’s MERCY for them? As I’ve said before, I like to think of the Christians in Damascus who heard that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” I am convinced that they got busy praying that God would save them and deal mercifully with Saul. Let’s keep in mind that God is ready to go to any lengths to reach those who call themselves our enemies.
Paul says “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And on the cross Jesus demonstrated that there are absolutely no limits to how far God will go in order to 1. Get us; 2. Grab us; 3. Find us; 4. Save us; and 5. Take us home. It is true that “all we, like sheep, have gone astray.” And we have a Good Shepherd who loves us enough to rescue us—while asking that you and I WELCOME any lost sheep back into the fold!
Prayer: God, we thank you for reminding us of our sinfulness, and your MERCY that reaches out to us. We pray for all those who are ignorant of your love, your welcome, your ability to heal us and to restore us to each other. Savior, like a Shepherd, lead us. Make us instruments of your love, we ask in the name of Christ. Amen.