Summary: Paul’s life change reveals the transforming power of Christ
Lectionary Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
For about 10 years I was the Camp Director for Chi-Rho (7th and 8th grade), CYF (Christian Youth Fellowship – High school) and College camp. I loved camp weeks – they were exhausting, emotional and amazing. The CYF camp ended their week with a dance and a “last campfire” where the kids were allowed to stand up and “give testimony” about what God had done for them. Unfortunately, amidst the heartfelt praises and prayers, some young folks felt a need to compete for the spot of “worst life/sin/trauma and by the end it seemed like a contest of who had the most hideous experience that God had redeemed them from. One year, a shy senior named Rikki changed all that.
In her three previous CYF years she had never given testimony. She was a smart and quiet girl with the gift of listening and a great sense of humor. At the AYC planning meeting she remarked dryly, “I hate testimony night. In one hour I realize all the kids I respect are needy, drug addicted psychos with bad families and it makes me think the laughter I have shared with them all year was a lie.” Thus, I was surprised when after 2 kids who had tried drugs, one who was “sexually tempted” (3 years running), 2 ugly step-parent stories and 1 suicide of a friend (whom no one had ever heard of before), that Rikki stood in the testimony box. To this day I remember what she said:
“I never gave a testimony before, because I felt like I didn’t have one and I feel guilty for my blessings. My parents love each other and they love me. I grew up in church and I did the very best I could to please my mom and dad and make them proud. I fought with my brother sometimes but I love him, and I know he loves me. I got good grades, never tried drugs, don’t care about sex, and know Jesus died to forgive the sins I have committed, even if they weren’t very big. I guess my testimony is that you don’t have to fall apart for God to be in your life.”
I was in awe of Rikki and her simple honesty, and respect her to this day for it. For the first year in my camp memory, testimony night was really about God.
In the first epistle of Timothy Paul seems tempted to tell people of the extremes in his conversion. He begins talking about himself and his sins. The letter becomes like a TV confessional. Paul: Extreme Makeover. That fact that he refers so much to himself is what makes many bible scholars say this epistle wasn’t written by Paul, but by one of his students who is using his name and authority to keep his traditional message alive. No matter which side of the scholarly “Did he or didn’t he write this?” you fall on – there is a message here all of us.
Paul was a Pharisee, scholar, and zealot for the cause of legalistic Judaism. He wasn’t just some Rabbi on a street corner; he was a political up-and-comer with a fantastic mind, good credentials and Roman citizenship. He had “leader of the San Hedrin” written all over him. He wasn’t just holy – He was the holiest. So holy, in fact, that he was willing to kill Jews who followed Jesus, just to preserve the purity of his faith.
Then he hears God, goes blind, and opens his eyes to Jesus Christ. Suddenly, and with great shame, he realizes all he had told himself was right, was wrong. Suddenly, he discovers he was on the wrong side of good.
Imagine the guilt he must have felt. How would it feel to make a stand for traditionalism, harm the spiritual heart of people by telling them they are outside of God’s plan and condemn them to death only to discover that you were wrong? Imagine Paul’s testimony night as he stands before the campfire recounting the lives he ruined by thinking God didn’t want them.
Our first thought is to say: Well, he made up for it! He started churches all over the world. He taught Christ to countless generations and he was whipped, tortured and killed for preaching Christ. For every one person he killed, there were 50 more he helped find eternal life! But in Paul’s head – the scales weren’t balancing. In Paul’s head (human heads are always the hardest place for forgiveness to reach) -he was the worst sinner ever. What does God give Paul to help him get through the guilt and to the grace? Education, Eternity and Example.
Paul admits his error was not one of malice, but of ignorance. He thought he was doing good! He crossed the line from discernment into judgment. He sat in God’s chair by accident. “Not everything is permissible or good”, Paul himself will later tell us. However, the idea isn’t to go around judging people, but discerning God’s desire. Discern is a Greek word – (discere) – it means “to seek what is hidden”. When we are trying to discover what the right side of good is, we need to look for what is hidden –God’s will - not our opinion (our opinions are rarely hidden). God teaches Paul, and reclaims him.