In the Name...
A woman once confessed to a priest that she thought she might be guilty of the sin of pride. "Whenever I look in a mirror", she said, "I can't help admiring myself and thinking how stunning I look." "Oh, no, my dear", the priest replied, "That's not a sin. That's a mistake."
Last Sunday, we heard the famous parable of the Prodigal Son. A story of two brothers. The elder was faithful and obedient. The younger was faithless and disobedient until the day he repented. Today, I want to ask to which of these two brothers should we compare Saul, who later became the apostle Paul?
It’s not so easy, but many quickly answer, “the younger brother.” After all, the story of what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road is famous and, in the New Testament, Paul never misses an opportunity to witness to Jew and Gentile alike of his life-changing experience.
So, then, does that mean Paul was an immoral sinner, who converted from the ways of the world to the ways of God? Heavens no! Paul didn't have a worldly bone in his body. He lived a godly, righteous, and sober life. As he boasted before the tribune in Jerusalem, “I am a Jew ... brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel" - in other words the protégé of a renowned elder - "educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God.” No, Paul was no drunken, lustful carouser. He was a religious Jew of the most highly disciplined observance. Indeed, he was very much like the older brother in the parable, the one who was law-abiding, committed to tradition.
But, Paul was converted. Not from a life of wine, women, and song, but, from a life of arrogance, ego, and conceit. Not from self-indulgence, but, from self-righteousness.
In today's passage from his letter to the Philippians, we heard Paul say that, despite all his religious credentials he had come to realize that the most important thing in life was Christ. You can almost sense his passion when he says, "I want to know Christ.” And he used this phrase, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but, one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
The younger brother in the parable needed what we call the conversion of the unrighteous. He was living waywardly and needed to admit his sins and seek forgiveness for doing wrong. This is what we traditionally consider a "conversion" as in the hymn "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but, now am found, was blind, but, now I see." Those words were written by John Newton, a former slave-trader, a man who had had no religion except money and power. A sinner, par excellance, who came to Jesus.
But, there is another kind of conversion, and both Saul and the elder brother needed this one - the conversion of the righteous - from self-centred to God-centred. The elder brother thought he knew better than his father. He had no faith in the father's judgment. That's why he wouldn't welcome his brother home and stayed away from the feast. In his, not so humble, opinion, his brother didn't deserve a second chance. And so, he needed to learn, just like his younger brother, to respect the father's will.
This is the kind of conversion that Paul had. He needed to learn that his idea of who was acceptable to God might not be the same as God's. The Father invites whom He chooses to the feast. We don't make the guest list. We just get our invitation. And that's a lesson we need to hear, as well.
There's a bumper sticker you may have seen: "Jesus, save me - from your followers."
I know a priest out in California who tells the story of a young man who did something really sinful, really bad, and went to talk about it with his minister. The minister gave him a lecture telling him he had done something really sinful and really bad. But, the young man already knew this and he ended up feeling worse than ever. He never went back to his church and he became anti-religious and depressive. Sometime later, though, an Episcopalian friend convinced him to talk about it to his priest. Reluctantly, the young man agreed and admitted the sinful and bad thing he had done. The priest simply replied, "Oh. How many times?" And that began the healing process.
When we do a bad thing that hurts others most of us don't feel very good about it. It's when we hurt others and feel good about it that there's a problem. The minister who lectured that young man probably went away feeling he had done a good thing. He brought a sinner to judgment. Pity he forgot to mention mercy and grace.
We all know the "I'm right, they're wrong" attitude and the hardest part is that sometimes that's true. Yes, I can be absolutely right when others are dead wrong. The struggle is in how I behave when that's the case. How do I, how do any of us, avoid getting tangled-up in that sinister web of self-righteousness? The test is really quite simple. Ask yourself, how tolerant are you of those you consider to be sinners? And not just against God. How do you treat those who have offended or hurt you, personally? Are you an easy person to be around?
This is not relativism. This is not saying that anything goes. Jesus had to live every day with people who offended and hurt him - and he was God - but, he was still an easy person to be around. If he hadn't been, nobody would have followed him down the street. He didn’t approve of what tax-collectors and prostitutes did. How he treated them, though, is why they listened to him.
That's the hardest part about being a Christian – and I’m going to say something very strange now - there are no rules to follow. That's what I said, no rules, no checklists. Instead, we have been given a life to imitate - Jesus' - and we are called to live Jesus-like lives. You see, anybody can follow rules and not make any changes in his or her attitudes. But, to imitate Christ, to conform our lives to his, changes our very being.
Yes, we are to be godly and righteous in all our thoughts and actions, but, when we judge ourselves to be righteous and everybody else to be ungodly, then, we need a conversion. Like the elder brother, like Saul. We need to be reminded that we're not as stunning as we may think we are when we stare into a mirror. We can be mistaken.
In the Name...