The First of The Worst
THE FIRST OF THE WORST
I got to admit I am a big fan of disaster movies. Mainly because they tend to be so bad they are somehow good. I think I love disaster movies because they reflect the human hope that when the chips are down, when circumstances are at their worst, people will set aside their petty differences, come together, and achieve victory against impossible odds. Such films are often panned by critics for their cheesy plots and their tendency to find a way to escape disaster at the last minute. . In 1998 the movie Deep Impact would have gained the title worst of the worst Disaster movies, getting a 44% review on Rotten Tomatoes, a movie ratting site. . But it was only the first of the worst Asteroid impact movies that year. It was surpassed in outlandishness a by another Asteroid impact film Armageddon, which received a 39% on rotten Tomatoes. Deep Impact was the more scientifically accurate asteroid disaster movie, though in that movie they were trying to deflect a rogue comet. In that movie an astronomer discovered the comet over a year in advance and Russia and the United States worked together in secret to build a spacecraft to send an expert team to the comet. This team would drill into the comet to plant nuclear weapons in a hope of deflecting the object from hitting Earth. Of course, this being Hollywood, despite having a team of experts, the first attempt to deflect the comet doesn’t go according to plan and the crew of the apply named Messiah have to sacrifice themselves at the last minute to save the Earth. In Armageddon, the world has eighteen days to stop an asteroid the size of Texas. In Hollywood fashion NASA recruits a team of offshore oil drillers to drill a hole into the asteroid to plant a nuclear weapon.They are victorious at the last minute.
I think we like disaster movies because it speaks to a hope that we have that when we are at our best or at our worst, if there was a meteor hurtling towards the earth, hopefully we would know about it, that we would come together, put aside our differences, and avert disaster. September 11, eighteen years ago was a very hard day. But many of us long for September 12 where we came together as a nation and put aside our difference.
But Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good people are divided over politics and religion, we don’t see disasters coming not because we don’t have the scientific tools but because we are wired differently morally, may we be in the middle, liberal, or conservative.
In his TED talk entitled the Asteroid Club Haidt argues that five partisan asteroids that will threaten our country in the next fifty years are climate change, welfare spending, not for the poor but for the elderly, income inequality, and the rising number of non-marital births, and the national debt. Depending on where you are on the political spectrum, or where you are in life, you may have different feelings about these things. But Haidt argues in the next 50 years these issues will have as much of a profound on our society as if the empire state building sized asteroid that missed us last night had hit a major city.
In the Gospels Jesus’ main opponents were the Pharisees. And Jesus was hardest on the Pharisees because their problem was self-righteousness. And while that problem was apparent to everyone around them it was not evident to them. Jesus came to show us that the greatest threat to our faith is not the world our the devil, the greatest threat is our own sin, the greatest threat to our faith is the hypocrisy that we don’t see in ourselves. And when the Lord reveals that hypocrisy to us many of us can be really hard on ourselves. Many of us might empathize with the words of the Apostle Paul, that we are the worst of the worst.
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst.” This verse is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it seems to suggests that some sins are worst than others, and that Paul is the greatest sinner of them all. Second, it seems to suggest that beating ourselves up over our sin is what Christians mean by repentance.
On the first point, even if God considered some sins to be worse than others, which we don’t believe as Presbyterians, it doesn’t seem like Paul would be the worst sinner. Paul never met Jesus until the resurrected Lord revealed himself to Paul on the Damascus road. One could say that Paul was less culpable for his persecution of Christians than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who though Jesus stood before them in the flesh, chose to crucify him. And the book of Acts tells us that Paul never directly killed anyone. He held people’s coats as a crowd stoned Stephen, one of the first Martrys of the church, he dragged people out of their houses to be tried by religious courts, but he never killed anyone himself as far as we can tell. One could argue that Judas, who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, directly leading to his death, was a far greater sinner than Paul. Even outside of the Biblical record, there were Roman Emperors, like Nero, who was known to have been an unstable tyrant, who persecuted the church to a far greater extent than Paul, who would seem to be greater sinners.
Some scholars argue that Paul is making a subjective statement. That once the Lord revealed the error of his ways, he was overcome with grief for what he had done, and in his own eyes Paul saw himself as a greater sinner than anyone else. And while I do think that emotional grief over what one has done is part of repentance, I have found that playing up the shame and grief of sin isn’t sufficient to have a change of heart, a change of worldview, to change one’s mind about what one is doing and choose a different path. Indeed, I have found that playing up ones sins as the worst of the worst in a subjective way can produce a lot of shame which can inhibit rather than promote a change of behavior.
I think Paul gives us a hint of what he meant by calling himself the worst of sinners in 1 Timothy 5:24 where he says, “ the sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” Indeed, the word for “worst” in this passage is where we get our word prototype from. A prototype being the first design a factory makes to test the design before the model goes into mass production. Taking these two thoughts together perhaps Paul isn’t trying to say he is the worst of the worst but he is trying to say he is the First of the Worst. The first thing God has to do to save us is overcome our own self righteousness. And Paul is the most dramatic and obvious example of the blueprint God gives us for how self righteousness is overcome. Jesus took a Pharisee, part of the group that advocated for His crucifixtion, and turned him around in a dramatic fashion, to show us how we can overcome self righteousness in our own lives. And I think in Paul, the first of the worst, there is good news.
The Good News: When we learn from the first of the worst God’s mercy will shine through us even when we are at our worst
- The character of self righteousness
- The Keys to Conversion.
Paul says he was a violent opponent. The word here is where we get our word Hubris from. Hubris is like pride but it is when like a puffer fish we fill ourselves up with so much pride we become poisonous to others. And we cannot see that. Why do we have hubris? We have hubris I would argue because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to be out of control.
Paul called himself a blasphemer, not because he wasn’t concerned with what God had said but he didn’t want to believe that God would do something different, he focused on what God said rather than what God was saying. The Messiah wasn’t who he thought the Messiah would be.
But that doesn’t mean we should abandon any notion of correct teaching. Paul lays out what he views as true and false teaching in the opening chapter of 1 Timothy. Nor does that mean that we can live in the world in a naïve way where we never defend ourselves or our faith. I think Paul is trying to teach Timothy the difference between unity and uniformity which is sort of like the difference between safety and security.
As I thought about how to promote solid Biblical teaching without promoting inquisitions I thought about a conversation I had with a man who is a welder at a local ship yard. Some of you work in physically intense environments that require a good deal of rules and regulations to keep you safe. I learned that in welding you need someone to watch you when you weld to make sure a fire doesn’t break out. Indeed, many of you may have similar safety measures at your places of employment to prevent harm from coming to you or others. We all want safety and that is a good thing. But regulations can’t guarantee us absolute security on the job site, for our nation, or in our relationships. Indeed, to many regulations can inhibit risk taking, creativity, and our relationships in general. Risk is essential to love, life, and growing in faith. We want safety but we can never have absolute security. We want faith but we can never have absolute certainty. We want to trust God and others but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be hurt or vulnerable. When Paul met Jesus he was struck blind for three days, the same amount of time that Jesus was in the tomb. To encounter God, to encounter love, to encounter the consuming fire, probably means we will get burned as our faith is refined through love. C.S Lewis said this about love and life,
“ “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S Lewis the Four Loves.
Why do we become puffer fish? Because we are not willing to be vulnerable.
Next, we see the keys to conversion. And Paul says there are two parts. God parts and our part. God’s part in the Reformed Presbyterian tradition is always greater. Paul says God showed him mercy, when he wasn’t looking for it, when he didn’t deserve it, the scripture says God mercied him. God just didn’t give something to pay off Paul’s debt. He gave someone greater than Paul’s debt, greater than all money in the world, more valuable than every person that has ever lived, more beautiful than every star that was ever formed, God gave His only begotten son so that we might not only survive but that we might thrive.
Second Paul tells us our part. All we have to do is be patient with ourselves and with others.
There are so many aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, and so many gifts of the Spirit that I desire, but the patience of Christ is not at the top of the list. This word for patience more literally translates as long suffering, which doesn’t make the word sound any more appealing, which is why most translators go with the patience. But I am fully convinced that the primary way that Christ strengthened Paul was by helping him suffer with more grace and for a longer period of time than the average human being. Perhaps this is not the message that Timothy, who was in his thirties at this point wanted to hear, but perhaps it is the message that he needed to hear. Timothy, as the Bible describes him, was Timid in nature. . Paul is trying to warn young preachers like Timothy and myself that hubris, while the opposite of timidity, is not the answer to timidity, long suffering is. Yet, perhaps you have found as I have, that one can pray for patience more quickly and God isn’t inclined to answer that prayer.
In dealing with my own hubris I have found it helpful to learn from the first of the worst. In Galatians 2:20 Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” I know Jesus suffers beside me so for a moment I imagine that I am suffering beside him. My arms outstretched, surrounded by darkness. But the good thing is, as Psalm 139 says, darkness is as light to God. God doesn’t need physical light. As the Gospel of John declares the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. If every star should go out in the sky does that mean that God cannot see. He sees us in our darkness, and the only reason we cannot see that is we don’t have the eyes to see that yet, but we will. So I look to the First of the Worst who says to me and he says to you today, don’t give up hope, for if we hope in what we do not see we wait for it with patience.