Luke 15:1-32 15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Timothy 1:12-17 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 Sovereign of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Last week we talked about the calling of disciples Philip and Nathaniel- how they said "yes" to the call of Christ; Philip so excited when Jesus said follow that he gave a big "Yes" with and exclamation point! And Nathaniel, after realizing that Jesus was truly the son of God, gave a "yes" with a period. His 'Yes' was matter of fact- definite. But then we talked about the possibility of saying "yes" with a question mark- that maybe you're not sure about all of this God stuff, or maybe not sure about whats to come, or what will happen if/when you do say yes?
The scripture we just read talks about the Apostle Paul- someone who said "Yes" with a question mark. Paul was first a foremost, a Jew. meaning, his religion, his worship, his life, was all about doing the right thing for God. The rules were clear- black and white. There were things you did as a believer, and things you didn't. Paul was so passionate about his faith, he felt the need to 'correct' anyone who didn't have it right. Specifically, there was a group of Jews who believed that the man Jesus, executed just a short time ago, was in fact, the messiah- the long awaited savior the Jewish people had been waiting for for generations. So one group of Jews believed that Jesus was just a man. The other, that he was the messiah. And they both still considered themselves jews. So, there began a movement to excommunicate Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah from the temple. If they wanted to believe that the messiah had come, fine, but they couldn't be a part of the jewish faith any more. As you might have guessed, that didn't sit very well with the Jews who believed in Jesus. It was there temple too, after all.
So, as the believers resisted, the Jews began a campaign of persecution against them. They enlisted men like Paul- fervent, strong believers, to go and round up these rebels, these Christians, as they began to be called, and punish them. Paul excelled at this work. He was especially good at physical punishment, and as word spread, even the mention of Paul's name evoked fear in the Christian community.
So when, as Paul was walking down the street and came face to face with the light of Christ, and heard in his heart, "Stop persecuting my people" Paul's knees buckle and he falls to the ground and doesn't know what to say at all. In fact he was so confused, the scripture says he went blind! I get that, don't you? Think about it, Paul really believed that what he was doing to Christians was right- and that he was following God- that he was being true to what the law of God said- he prided himself on it- more than that, he staked his life on it! So when he is confronted by Christ, it rocks his whole world- his whole identity- everything he was raised to believe and practice.
He has no choice of course, but to say Yes, I mean, Christ is standing right in front of him- but he says yes with a question mark. Paul had no idea what this meant, except that everything was about to change- big time. Paul needed to leave behind not just old habits, but also his theology! God was popping open the top of that box of "truths" Paul had relied on for so long- and offered him transformation to a life in God bigger than he could imagine. The thing is, this transformed life wasn't so neatly typed as the file cards in his God box... there was not a lot of black and white about it- it was more about people than laws- it was more about kindness than rules- more about love, and mercy, and fairness, and inclusion.
And I take so much time on Paul's story because it is the story of so many of us. We spend our lives thinking- knowing- we're doing the right thing. We are accustomed to living one way. We believe what the cards in our file box say about God. And then one day we have an experience that leaves us confused. Yes, with a question mark. In order to follow God, in order to receive the transformation God offers, we need to leave some things behind. But that's not exactly easy, is it? After all God doesn't love us based on what we do or dont do, right?
In the passage Matthew read for us this morning, we heard about God seeking the lost. A woman who loses a coin and turns on every light in the house and sweeps in every corner to find it. A shepherd who has 100 other sheep leaves 99 of them on their own to go find one who is lost. The lost are found and there is party. What's not to like about these stories? Who doesn't love the idea of God tearing the house apart to find them? Or searching the wilderness when we've wandered off and can't find our way back? It's beautiful- we are cherished, loved beyond measure, accepted exactly as we are no matter what- God searches us out to keep telling us that, no matter how lost we become... and... we could stay exactly as we are and still be loved and cherish. God's love is unconditional. If Paul never stopped persecuting Christians, God would still have loved him and cherished him and accepted him exactly as he was.
But God offered Paul, and offers us a way to go forward- to live into everything God has for us to do and be- to live transformed through Christ. So maybe for some of us that does mean a change in behavior. You can't live a transformed life acting the same way as you always have. So maybe it means giving up something, or moving on from someone, or accepting a new situation. For some it might mean leaving behind a theology where God's love is earned, or by our actions, God's love is kept. It might mean leaving behind the assumption that you're the one who has it right, or that, because we believe one way we are somehow above everyone else. For all of us it means leaving behind judgmentalism, letting go of slapping a label on people or putting them in categories, even when they disagree with us. For all of us it means leaving behind violence, and shooting from the hip, and acting in anger. For all of us it means leaving behind seeing things through the constructs we have set up, and seeing things through the eyes of God.
You know when Moses asked God to see what God looked like, God said, I'll tell you what- "you stand over here against this rock and hide your face and I'll pass by you, and then you can look at the back of me." You know what happens when you look at someone from behind? You see what they see. You see from their perspective. Moses needed to see how God sees the world instead of interpreting God's appearance. Maybe we need to try that. Maybe we can leave behind the need to explain everything about God and just see the world through the lens of God's unconditional love...
What do you need to leave behind today? You've said yes- or maybe you're about to say yes- or have been thinking about saying yes- what are the things you need to leave behind so you can walk forward with Christ? Reflect