In Rite One there is a short section right after the confession/absolution and before The Peace that is not in our Rite Two, which is called the Comfortable Words and consists of four very short passages of Scripture which are read by the priest to remind the worshipper of the grace, mercy, and power in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The third saying from the Comfortable Words is from our reading today from 1 Timothy: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
It reminds us that we don’t have to climb up some ladder of perfection to find God, because Sovereign God comes to us in Christ Jesus to rescue sinners.
And who are sinners? In our day, we may think a sinner is an unbeliever who lives a life full of hot or cold sins—like a lustful man who cheats on his wife or a hard-hearted woman who judges everyone.
But this doesn’t describe Paul’s experience of being a sinner. Before the Risen Christ explodes into his consciousness on the road to Damascus, Paul deeply believes in God. He studies Torah under Gamaliel, the leading rabbi in Jerusalem. Paul knows his Bible, our Old Testament, backwards and forwards. He follows the commands of God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. His only goal is to love God and serve God.
Paul describes his early life in Philippians 3 this way: I was “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee…as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
But in his zeal for God, Paul says he was also a “persecutor of the church.”
He’s done everything he knows to be right, but his assessment of Jesus as an enemy of God leads him to attack the followers of Jesus.
This always puts a chill in my bones, because Paul is proof that it is quite possible to be a faithful churchgoer, doing one’s best to follow Christ, and yet wake up one day and find you are living contrary to the will of God.
Those who practice Slaveholding Christianity do precisely that. Even if today they don’t own slaves, they are in the grip of a racist ideology that they believe is the will of God.
Father Richard Rohr tells of a neighbor of his in Albuquerque, who goes to mass every Sunday, has a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in his front yard, and hates Jews.
The human race is in the grip of unconscious forces that lead us into attitudes and behaviors that are outside the will of God, no matter how careful or correct we think we are.
If nothing else, most of us are tempted in this toxic political environment to demonize and then hate those in the other party.
My only point here is straightforward: when Paul says Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, if we think he is only talking about other people and not ourselves, we are living in denial and delusion.
The Pharisees’ mistake in the reading from Luke today is that they do not see themselves as “sinners.”
So, Paul’s personal experience and confession of being the foremost sinner helps us be more aware of the darkness in our own hearts.
This is important, but it is not Paul’s main point: His main point is that no matter what kind of shadow is being thrown by our inner light, God sent Christ Jesus to save us.
But what does “save us” mean?
Unfortunately for many Christians, salvation only means being taken to heaven when we die, which is not a bad thing to be sure.
But for Jesus and the early church, salvation is, first of all, being connected with the Life and Love of God through Jesus; and this connecting is in the present moment.
+Jesus’s many healings are signs that we are now living inside the Kingdom of God where physical and mental disease are replaced by the wholeness of being a child of God.
+Jesus’s meals with tax-collectors and sinners are signs that we are now living inside the Kingdom of God where forgiveness and transformation are possible for every person on the planet, no matter how egregious their sins.
If what we hope for comes only in the next life, then we miss the power of Christ in the here and now.
On the other hand, when we experience Christ as healer and forgiver in our own lives now, we become joyful agents of healing, forgiveness and transformation for others.
So, in order to create in us the ability to believe we are inside God’s Realm where there is healing of sin and sickness, Jesus mostly avoids using pious abstractions like “God loves everyone”. Instead he uses powerful images that can grab our minds and replace the debilitating images that create fear of disease and death, which keep us hopeless and joyless.
One powerful image he uses in several places is that of the Shepherd: Jesus says God is like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep unattended, in order to go deep into the desert to find the one that is lost. In John’s Gospel Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep in order to defeat the wolves of sin, disease, and death.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who finds us when we are lost and protects us from the wolves. When this image becomes active in our imagination, we experience the Shepherd who saves us, saves me, and we are filled with a new energy that heals those around us.
Some of you will remember the old story about a small dinner party at a house on Beacon Street, in Boston. After dinner, the host suggests each person share a favorite poem with the group. This of course is back in the day when people not only read poetry, but also memorize it.
So, they go around the table, and come to an actor who had been famous back in the 1940s. He recites the 23rd psalm in a deep voice that impresses and moves everyone. The last person is an elderly woman who says she doesn’t know any poetry other than the 23rd psalm which has already been so well done, so she chooses to pass. But the host insists that she recite it anyway.
So, in her quiet voice she says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul….”
When she gets to “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”, people are nearly in tears.
As the party breaks up someone asks the actor why the woman’s psalm was more moving than his own more professional rendition.
He says: “I know the psalm; but she knows the shepherd.”