12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The reports were horrific. The buzz was unnerving. The images burned into memories like the fireballs burned through those World Trade Center twin towers. What kind of people could do such a thing? Who could hijack a plane and fly it, with innocent civilians, into a building like a bomb? How could this happen?
As the events of 9/11 played out, we learned the shocking and sad answers. It was a group of Islamic extremists called, al-Qaeda. They were angry with American involvement in the Middle East. They could not stand how Muslims were being treated around the world. The teachings and confessions of their Muslim religion only added fuel to the fire. They wanted to show the world what happens to enemies of their god and his followers.
It’s still sobering to remember that day 15 years ago, that some could be so evil. But it’s not the first time terror has been unleashed in our world. It’s not the first time that politics and religion mixed into an explosion of hate and terror. History is littered with this kind of thing. Today we are listening to someone we know, appreciate and love, who knows a thing or two about being so obsessed with fighting for his religious viewpoint and taking it to the next level of extreme.
Now, you might think that I am embellishing the truth a bit, but listen to him as he explains his life: I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. This is none other than the Apostle Paul. Once known as Saul, he was a student of the Old Testament in the tradition of the Pharisees. At that time he thought he had it all figured out. He thought he knew what God was like and what God wanted. He was all about laws, traditions and being good. As Paul studied and learned from his teacher his passion only grew. He became the cream of the crop among his peers. His zeal and feistiness was second to none. It got to the point where he could not stand hearing about Jesus from his followers. Paul knew how hate can boil in the human heart. He knew what it looked like when the hate could not stay hidden anymore and came lashing out at innocent people. He knew what it was like to spew venomous words at people who were not like him. He knew all of it so well. And he did it all in the name of God – who he thought God was, anyways. His self-fulfilling work at that time, was to find Christians and shut them up. Whether that meant in prison or lifeless in a pile of rocks, he was all for it.
It’s shocking when you think about it: Paul’s life wasn’t all that far off from these terrorist groups. How could Paul be so bad? A blasphemer? A man who spoke slanderous and defaming lies against the message of Jesus and his followers? A persecutor? A man who loved to see Christians suffer? A violent man whose passion was to get his hands dirty with the blood of those who were not like him? How could it happen?
I think I know. This week, I went on YouTube to watch some of those 9/11 reports and interviews. One of them was a tell-all interview with President Bush, recalling the events of those days. A couple things that he said kind of hit the nail on the head. As he visited Ground Zero he recalled that “there was a palpable blood lust from the workers at the site. They were interested if we were going to find the enemy and bring them to justice.” And I know exactly what that feeling is like. You probably do, too. When President Bush spoke from Ground Zero only a few days after the attacks, I was cheering, too, as he said, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” A few years later, as I saw the reports and videos of the “Shock-and-Awe” bombing campaign of Baghdad along with all the other steps our nation took to defend our freedom and bring justice on our enemies, I was watching in approval.
It’s really not that hard to see myself as a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man. I’m not in a better category because these hands have never been responsible for another person’s death. When I have that same “palpable blood lust” as the workers at Ground Zero, that makes me just like Paul, who wanted to get rid of Christians. It doesn’t matter if we call it terrorism or persecution or hatred, do you want to know what God calls it? Murder! Plain and simple. “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.”
And do you know something else? It doesn’t matter if it’s rape, or having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or looking at pornography, God calls it adultery. It doesn’t matter if it’s stealing from a store, forgetting to return something you borrowed, selfish jealousy, or discontent with what you have, God calls it theft and coveting. Or maybe this summarizes it the best: “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” In other words the problem is not only the terrorists from al-Qaeda or ISIS. The problem is not only with the blasphemers, the persecutors, and the violent people out there. The problem is in these sinful hearts of ours. The problem is me and you. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth: terrorist, violent persecutor, and pastor are all the same.
Maybe you’re shocked and stunned by that. Maybe it’s hard to connect these dots just like it was September 11, 2001. Maybe you’re realizing that it’s impossible for people like us to adequately care for this ministry because we are consumed by things like selfishness, slander, and hate. Maybe you’re realizing and have realized for a long time now that the only thing that is really easy for us is sin.
And yet this blasphemer, this persecutor, this violent man Paul says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.” How could God do that? How could he give Paul strength? How could he consider Paul trustworthy? How could he appoint a man filled with such hate and cruelty into his service? How could God make Paul a missionary to reach others? I mean, there had to be better options?
But there is no better. There is only best and worst. And here’s the reality for all of us who are with Paul lumped into that same category. This is the part where Paul wanted every ear to perk up. This is the part where you pay attention because God is about to blow your mind. This is the part where you elbow your husband and tell your kids to sit up straight. Here’s a trustworthy saying: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” God looked down at a world filled with terrorists, murderers, rapists, thieves, racists, gossips, and liars. God looked down at a world of disrespectful, selfish, arrogant, and sometimes just dumb people. God looked at Paul and he looked at you and me. And he had mercy. He could have and should have burned us all in a fire that is much hotter and much more eternal than the fires that brought those towers down. But he showed mercy. He looked at the worst and gave us his very best.
It’s not that you and I had some spark that set us apart from the rest. It’s not that you and I had a something great to offer God. It’s not that our works are better than others. What happened is that there is a God who loved the unlovable. Jesus longed to give us what we could not earn for ourselves. Jesus saw lost people like us and went on a mission to find us. It’s all because of him.
For the times when our hearts will filled with hate, Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For the times when we lashed out with blasphemy against our God or those around us, Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For the times we persecuted people who are not like us, Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For the times we broke God’s law and his heart with our sins, Jesus came into the world to save sinners…of whom I am the worst. That’s why it’s called mercy.
Mercy is what changed Paul so much. He didn’t deserve any of it. He’s not the shining example in this section. Jesus is. Jesus was willing to look for people who didn’t want to be found. And he never stops. Paul says, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” Paul had a Savior with never-ending love who found a violent, blasphemous, persecutor of the Christian faith and actually turned that man into a Christian. He had a Savior who not only brought him to faith, but also then enlisted him into his service. Paul was unworthy for such a task, but the Lord made him worthy. Paul was powerless to serve with the kind of heart and help that was needed, but the Lord gave him the strength.
Paul’s Savior is also your Savior, and so what changed Paul so much is also what changes you. You may look in the mirror and see an ugly sinner, but your Savior sees someone for whom he died to save. You may see someone who is worthless and powerless, but your Savior sees the limitless power and heavenly worth he has given you.
This series about ministry could not begin on a better note. When it comes to taking care of a church you and I aren’t the focus, but it’s the mercy of our Lord. When all common sense said not to, he went out to look for the rebels and the rejects, the haters and the blasphemers, the violent and arrogant, the lusters and the liars. His unlimited patience showed mercy to us. We are no longer lost. We are saved.
It’s that kind of mind-blowing mercy that changes our ministry. The job of taking care of our church is not hard when we realize God’s mercy is taking care of us. It’s not hard when we realize, we aren’t touting our own names around town, but his. It’s not hard when we realize his mercy is producing the results. It’s not hard when we remember that his mercy is unlimited.
You know, there are a lot of motivators out there. On September 11, 2001 it was hate and evil. I’ve been there before, so have you. Other motivators are rewards, if you do a good job you will get something in return. Guilt is a motivator that we use too often. I feel bad about something I did or said, and I’m trying to make up for it. The list goes on. Well, today God says you can throw that list out of the window. He’s got one thing that will motivate you. It’s called mercy. Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. You are not lost anymore. You are not bound for hell anymore. You still struggle with sin, yes, but your sins are all taken away from you – past, present, and future. Christ came to change the worst into the best.
That kind of mercy motivates us to do one thing – thank the Lord. That’s really what ministry is, it’s finding ways to say thank you to a God who saved you. Not everyone is a Paul. Not everyone will be able to travel around talking to any and every one about Jesus. Not everyone will start churches wherever they go. God used a persecutor and violent man to do that work. So God will find ways to use you. He’ll use you to plan projects. He’ll use you to say “Hello, welcome to our church.” He’ll use you to make food for others. He’ll use you to listen to someone who needs an ear. He’ll use you to fund new activities. He’ll use you to show mercy to someone who is lost. How mind-blowing is that!
There’s really only one response that seems fitting, and Paul wrote it down for his young colleague, Timothy, and for us so that we wouldn’t forget it: Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.