I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
I want talk about change. In this passage, St Paul wrote that he was 'formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence'. The key word here is 'formerly'. Too often, especially in our culture today, we don't want to talk about personal change. That is, we don't want to admit that we might need to change; that we might be wrong about things in our lives; we might be wrong about our lifestyles; we might be wrong in our attitudes. In our Men's group, there is a gentleman who often defines 'sin' as 'something that (physically) harms someone else'. Yet, St Paul stated that he was 'formerly a blasphemer'. Blaspheming doesn't hurt anyone else. And yet, he used to be that way. This is important. It reminds me of another passage. In Colossians, St Paul wrote:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Here, again, we see that the Colossians used to be a certain way and do certain things. But now they don't. Why is that? The reason is pretty clear. When someone becomes a Christian, Jesus changes us. You can't come to the table and not be changed. However, we must realize that change does not come all at once. It is a process. On the other hand, as we can see from both passages, there is an understood change that takes place within a person's life that manifests itself in actions. Paul wrote the he used to be a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. But we don't see any of those things continuing on after his conversion. It is the same in Colossians. Some of them, before Jesus, used to be fornicators, impure, etc. These things were not acceptable behavior for someone who claimed to be a follower of Jesus. But as the next verse shows, they still had some changing to do. And these things, primarily, didn't have anything to do with physically harming other people. They were attitudes and intentions. I can almost hear some people saying, 'God made me this way.' Yet St Paul is clear. You must change those things. New Creation has taken place and that must permeate the old creation. This is not just limited to our actions but includes our attitudes and intentions and desires.
My question is where are the people who are speaking out on these matters? Specifically, where are the church leaders who are speaking out on these issues?
'Sin' has been classified as separation from God. But it is also (or should be) separation from each other, as well. We can't live any way we want. There are behaviors that are acceptable and some that are not. Again, St Paul was very clear on this matter. In 1Corinthians 5 (the whole chapter), St Paul condemns the actions of both the church and the church member living in sin. He wrote:
I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship.
He goes on to write that if this behavior continues in the church it will spread like yeast in dough; pretty soon the whole church will be contaminated. He wrote that, when he told them to not associate with sexually immoral people, he was not talking about people outside the church. 'God will judge those outside' the church, he wrote (v. 13a). But we, that is, the Christian community, are supposed to judge those inside the church and 'remove the evil person' from among us. There seemed to be a 'moral code' among the early church. There was an morality that people in the church 'must' live by. And if someone doesn't, the the church is to remove such a person from the community.
I know that this is hard. But that is the way it has to be. We must stop looking at Christianity as a 'religion' and realize what it actually is -- the new way of life. The new way of life in the new country. The new way of life, in the new country, in the New Creation. It is the way of being truly human. The old way of being human is not to be here. That life, that way of acting, thinking -- and yes, evening being -- those ways are to be done away with.
When we come to faith in Jesus, we are not to remain the same. There are things in our lives that need to, nay, must change. It is the responsibility of the church to step up and tell their communities that we must change. That there are things that are not acceptable within the church.
Now, the question is, from where do we get this 'moral code'? Do we get this from the culture around us? Do we get this from within ourselves? Or is there another source of 'authority'? The Episcopal Church, to the shock and dismay of some without and within, sees the Bible as this authority. But it is not alone. The Bible, together with Tradition (church history) and Reason (based on the Bible and Tradition) are to be used in concert together to address these issues. And here is one way of looking at the issues of personal change: What does society accept? If society accepts something, we need to look long and hard at it within the New Creation of God. Just because it is accepted in our culture does not automatically mean we should accept it within the church.
Now, let me say something else here. Jesus is all about bringing in the people that society kicks to the curb, as the saying goes. He seems most particularly drawn to the people that are the outcasts. These people are often looked down upon by society -- prostitutes, people with chemical addictions, the homeless, the homosexual, et al. And it is these people with whom Jesus was often associated. Heck, he even ate with them! That equated to those people being accepted as members of his family. But, and here is the rub, they were not to stay that way. That is, just because someone was accepted just as he or she is doesn't mean she or he was expected to stay that way. Jesus changes people. He has to. He is all about bringing his New Creation to every part of creation, including the human condition. He told the woman caught in adultery, 'Go and sin no more' (John 8.11). He didn't condemn her, but he told her she must change. That is hard to hear. That is something that the church needs to tell its communities. Again, not those outside the family of God but those inside it need to know that there are somethings that should not be accepted or allowed.
Lastly, I am not posting all of this to sound 'holier that thou'. God forbid. I, too, am a sinner saved by God's grace alone. But I have changed a lot. But I have a long, long way to go.
Peace be with you.