"Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother's womb." – Psalm 51
"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 honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." – 1 Tim
"All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." – Luke 15
The following is written on the wall of the Epoch Coffee House men’s room. “Sailors shouldn’t go to church. They should go to Hell where it’s much more comfortable.” Apparently Anonymous – the guy’s name that wrote it – doesn’t think the church does a good job of welcoming certain people in our society. The church, he assumes, is for good people, the best people. But if you’re a sailor or a sinner – well, you can just go to Hell. It’s a whole lot better than going to church.
I just read an online article entitled, “Reasons Why People Quit Church.” At the top of the list was a sense, a feeling of not being good enough. According to the article, “The feeling of … judgment lies heavy upon churchgoers. If God ever needs help on judgment day, He need not go any further than the nearest church.” In other words, Pharisees and Scribes are still found in our pews grumbling. And so here’s my question. Who’s the church for? Good people? The best people? Or, is tonight’s Gospel true – is there more joy in heaven when the worst sinner repents than over ninety-nine people who know they’re the best? Who belongs in church? People who think they’re the worst? Or, people who think they’re the best? My answer may sound a little strange. People who know that they’re both.
In tonight’s epistle Paul says that Christ came into the world to save sinners. But then he adds something amazing. “Of whom I am the foremost,” a word that really means worst or chief. When it comes to sin, “I am the worst!” Paul says. “I am the chief sinner!” You may be thinking, “isn’t Paul exaggerating just to make a point?” Well, by reading his letters, you know that he isn’t. In 1 Corinthians he calls himself the “least of the apostles.” In Ephesians 3 he calls himself “the very least of the saints.” And notice, Paul doesn’t say I was the foremost sinner. He says I am the chief sinner. Paul is the worst. Just ask him.
Now, the devil’s advocate in you might start to wonder – is this attitude healthy? “Lighten up, Paul. You’re obviously a perfectionist. Go to therapy.” If we think we’re the worst, won’t that lead to low self-esteem? “I can’t be the worst. I thought Hitler was the worst. I’m the worst? I’m not the worst.”
In high school I was really moved by the movie American History X. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a young neo-Nazi that goes to jail for murder but then has a profound change of heart. But the movie forces you to ask an interesting question – what if I was a raised in a Neo-Nazi family and had Neo-Nazi fiends? Would I be a neo-Nazi? What if I was born in a different country? Would I be a Christian? What if I was born in Paul’s shoes? Would I persecute Christians? Is Paul the only chief sinner? Or, if circumstances were different – could that have been me?
Well, Paul uses this great word to describe himself. He calls himself a man of violence – but the Greek word is hybristes, which means deep-seated spiritual pride. It’s also the root of a word we commonly use – hubris. In other words, Paul says that behind all the violence was this hybristes in his heart – this deep spiritual pride that made him the monster that he was. And according to Jesus, we all have that same hybristes. Each one of our hearts is infected with pride. And so with that in mind, is it possible that we are the worst? Can we claim the title chief sinner?
Well, I can only answer that question for myself, but as a preacher, I am going to point out what our readings say. Psalm 51 says, “I have been wicked from my birth.” This psalm is attributed to David, who was a thief, adulterer, liar and murderer. In other words, this psalm is David’s way of saying, “I am the worst.” In tonight’s Gospel Luke holds the tax collectors up as the heroes. Why? Tax collectors know they are the worst. And I think I’ve covered where Paul stands on the issue. Each one of tonight’s readings has the exact same perspective. “I am the worst.”
Now, I don’t want you to leave here tonight with low self-esteem; there’s a second piece to this puzzle. If we understand the Gospel, knowing we’re the worst will lead us to the good news that in Christ we are the best. Think about this. Paul should have had low self-esteem. Paul killed Christians. I mean, think about this – the 1st century church was small. I imagine at some point Paul ran into Stephen’s mom and was like, “hey, how’s Stephen – haven’t seen him at church,” and then there was an awkward silence because Paul was like, “oh, yea – I stoned him.” Now, I’m kind of joking but think about this. For the rest of Paul’s life he had to work with people whose son, whose brother, whose friend, whose mother he had killed. Why didn’t Paul wrestle with low self-esteem? How did he deal with his conscience?
Well, here’s what Paul says about that. “Because I am the worst I’m the best.” Because I am chief sinner I’m the perfect example for those who believe. In other words, Paul wants his life to be the lens through which we see our own. Because I am the worst, he says, I am the best possible vessel for God’s patience, God’s love, God’s mercy. And of course in tonight’s Gospel what Jesus says is even more shocking. “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.” How did Paul deal with low self-esteem? Paul knew in his bones the one thing we too often forget. The Gospel isn’t about us. It’s about God. And because of who God is, God delights in taking the worst and in Christ declaring them the best.
Here’s what I’m trying to say. If you know you’re the worst but don’t quite get that Christ makes you the best – if you’re in constant pain because, spiritually speaking, you don’t measure up – I want you to consider carefully that you may be either proud or ignorant. Perhaps you’re proud – more focused on what you do than on what God did for you. Or you may just be ignorant of the Gospel – the Gospel that says salvation is a gift received through faith; not a right earned through works.
On the other hand, maybe what Paul said doesn’t resonate at all. “I’m not the chief sinner. Yea, I mess up – but the worst? C’mon.” Here’s what I’d say about that. If we don’t think we’re capable of doing what Paul did if the circumstances were different; we’re not just proud and ignorant – we’re naïve and dangerous. There’s only one difference between a Pharisees and a tax collector. One of them knows they’re the worst. You see the irony of Jesus’ parable is that there’s no such thing as a righteous person that doesn’t need to repent! Not knowing we’re the worst will make us Pharisees and Scribes – self-righteous grumblers who look around and see people worse than us. The same hybristes that was in Paul’s heart can be found in our heart, too.
Now, I know this all sounds strange, but God wants us to be humble – to see all people as our equal. But practically speaking, there’s only one way to live life not looking down on people – we have to take our place at the bottom. We have to be willing to name ourselves as the Chief sinner. Nothing will make us more humble than knowing we’re the worst.
But on the other hand, God also wants us to be bold, secure, and joyful. We need to know that we are the best – the Christ stooped down, brought us out of the miry clay, washed us through and through, and placed us in His Father’s presence. And nothing will empower us more than knowing that Jesus has made us the best. We’ll still be humble. But at the same, no one will intimidate us. We who stand in the presence of the King will learn not to cower in the presence of the surfs. You see there’s a strange blend of humility and confidence that only the Gospel can produce. But humility without confidence is shyness, and confidence without humility – that’s just being an arrogant jerk. You and I are the worst. We need to know that. But it’s for that very reason that Christ makes us the best.
In II Corinthians Paul writes the following. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ was the best. He lived a perfect life. No one was less deserving of Jesus’ death than Him, and yet Paul says God made him to be sin. In other words, in Christ God took the absolute best and reduced him to the absolute worst. Why? So that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. So that in Him we – the absolute worst – might be transformed into the absolute best. That’s what the Gospel is. Jesus the Best becoming the worst, so that we – the worst – might become the best in Him. “To the King of Ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”