(1 Corinthians 15:1-11)
He lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Born into wealth and privilege, he was a notorious party animal. He lived a life of selfish ease. Much to the dismay of his mother, an upstanding Christian, he haunted the low-life dives of the city. He kept company with disreputable characters. He had a son by his live-in girlfriend and made no move to marry her. He was, in short, an embarrassment.
One day, this entitled young man had a change of heart. Over the years he’d heard the rudiments of Christian teaching from his mother, but it had never stuck. On this particular day he found himself sitting in the garden of the family estate, a Bible in his hands. He felt troubled by the emptiness of his life.
The young man opened the Bible and read these words: “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13-14).
Years later, the man wrote about how he felt that day: “Instantly, it was as if the light of peace was poured into my heart, and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”
Not long after, this dissolute young man surprised his friends by training for the priesthood. Ultimately, he became not only a priest, but a bishop.
It is this very man – this one-time playboy – who is now called “Saint” in many Christian traditions. His name was Augustine, and he lived in the fourth century. He was as unlikely a candidate for sainthood as any you’ll find.
God has issued some other unlikely calls. Scan the pages of a Bible or a book of church history, and you’ll find all sorts of people who have been touched by God’s spirit … who hear God calling and respond.
Such a person wrote today’s Scripture lesson. His name is Paul, although he wasn’t always called by that name. So compelling was his call to discipleship that he dropped his old name of Saul and took on a new name.
In First Corinthians 15, Paul rolls the credits for his Christian faith. It’s like the end of a movie. The final scene has been played, telling the story of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. The credits begin to roll. The names scroll by, from the mighty director to the humble best boy and dolly grip.
Paul’s credits begin with these words: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.”
Then the names begin to scroll: “He appeared to Cephas – Peter, in other words – then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters. … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”
It is only after this great litany of the faithful that Paul dares to list his own name: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
“Untimely born” is a euphemism: a phrase meant to cover up a grisly reality. The translators chose it to protect our sensibilities: Paul’s real language is more earthy than that. The Greek word Paul uses literally means, “abortion” or “miscarriage.” “Last of all,” Paul is saying, “as to a miscarried fetus, he appeared also to me.”
Paul, in other words, is not a legitimate son of the gospel. He’s not even an illegitimate heir. He’s a twisted, broken wreck of a human being.
If you grimace at the earthiness of Paul’s words, remember that Saul of Tarsus was not just indifferent to Christianity, as Augustine was. He persecuted the church. Saul was a religious bounty hunter; he rounded Christians up for execution. It was Saul who held the cloaks of the mob as they stoned Stephen to death.
“But by the grace of God,” Paul writes, “I am what I am.” Not by his own merits, but by the power of the living Lord who called out to him on the Damascus Road, who plucked him out of his hate-filled life and transported him into the light of the gospel. Paul is an unlikely apostle indeed!
Then there’s the prophet Isaiah. We don’t know nearly as much about his life as we do about Paul’s, but today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures hints at the inner turmoil this troubled believer felt.
Isaiah’s in the temple – doing what, we don’t know, but it was a common-enough thing for even less-than-faithful Israelite men to perform their duty in the temple. As he stands there, Isaiah has a vision. He sees the Lord Himself, enthroned on high, a figure so immense that the hem of His robe touches the temple walls. And Isaiah sees angels – dozens of them, cherubim and seraphim – soaring on their six wings around the throne of God. The walls shake with their voices, and the cavernous hall is filled with smoke.
Isaiah is terrified. He shrinks back into a dark corner, cowering behind a pillar. “Woe is me!” he says to himself. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
One of the seraphim flutters over, holding in a pair of tongs a live coal from the sacrificial fire. The angel touches it to Isaiah’s mouth and tells him his sins have been blotted out.
Then, Isaiah hears the thundering voice of the Lord: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
“Here am I,” the newly minted prophet cries out, surprised that the voice has come from him. “Send me!” (Isaiah 6:1-8).
A man of unclean lips, dwelling amongst a people of unclean lips. Clearly this man considers himself a huge sinner and a most unlikely candidate for the Lord’s work. Yet, who does the Lord choose to deliver the sacred message? Not the high priest and not the king, but this sinner! It is to this unlikely candidate that the Lord sends an angel, bearing a white-hot coal hissing with purifying heat, to cauterize his wickedness. Then the Lord puts holy words in Isaiah’s mouth.
The Scriptures are replete with stories of men and women who are just as sinful and equally undeserving, and yet whom God calls anyway.
Jesus’ disciples are like that, too. They’re ordinary people, not the movers and shakers, the honored professionals of their world, but blue-collar laborers. None of them has had much in the way of education. None of them has ever been to seminary. Yet, these are the ones Jesus invites to join him on a fishing expedition – fishing for the hearts and souls of people.
Some say there’s an ancient scroll, discovered in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. They say it was written on papyrus, or maybe sheepskin.
At the top of the letter – it’s hard to read, because it’s so brittle with age – y0u can make out the shadow of a letterhead: “Jordan Management Consultants.” It reads as follows:
Jesus, Son of Joseph
Woodcrafters Carpenter Shop
Nazareth, State of Galilee
Kingdom of Herod
We are pleased to have reviewed the resumes of the 12 men you have picked for management positions in your organization. They have taken our battery of psychological tests, and our vocational counselors have interviewed each one.
It is our staff’s professional opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the enterprise you are undertaking. They are not team players. We recommend that you continue your search until you find better-qualified candidates.
- Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.
- Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership.
- The brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty.
- Thomas demonstrates a skeptical, questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.
- Our investigators have discovered that the Jerusalem Better Business Bureau has an inch-thick file of ethics complaints against Matthew concerning his former employment as a tax collector.
- James, son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus definitely have radical leanings, and both register a low score on tests of psychological stability.
- Only one of your candidates shows high potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness. He meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in the highest places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. Therefore, we recommend Judas Iscariot as your chief operating officer.
Wishing you every success in your new venture,
Jordan Management Consultants
You get the point. Had Jesus set out to found a smoothly functioning global nonprofit, He surely could have picked better people.
But Jesus didn’t set out to create an organization. He came into the world, like His cousin John, “as a witness to testify to the light” (John 1:6). Those who saw divine light reflected in His face followed Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, those feeble disciples did the most astounding things, amazing even themselves.
God always calls unlikely people. Take Abraham, for example, a man who hears God telling him, face-to-face, that his wife will bear a son, and who disbelieves.
Then there’s Moses, a murderer on the lam, working odd jobs amongst the sheepfolds.
Rahab is another unlikely recruit: a temple prostitute of a foreign religion, who saves Joshua’s men from their enemies.
Samuel is a boy so dull that God has to call him three times, and then Samuel needs someone else to tell him who’s calling.
David is a mighty king – and a mighty sinner. He seduces Bathsheba, then has her husband killed so he can marry her. But his repentance is real, and he never stops loving the Lord.
Ruth is a widow from a foreign country, a worshiper of other gods. Out of love for her mother-in-law, she follows her to Israel, finds a husband and becomes Jesus’ ancestor.
Jeremiah responds to God’s call with hesitation, saying, “I cannot speak, I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). God makes up the talent deficit.
In the New Testament, there’s John the Baptist, the wild man of the wilderness given to outbursts of irrational anger.
Then there’s the tax collector, Matthew: a man so despised that when Jesus visits his house, the people complain. Jesus has to respond, “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
They’re unlikely disciples, every last one of them. Yet these are the ones God calls. If nothing else, God has a sense of humor!
There’s only one requirement for discipleship, in the last analysis: a willingness to submit to God’s call. You don’t have to be smart, strong, healthy, or even particularly religious. All you need to do is listen when God calls, and then get up and do what’s needed; the only ability is availability.
You don’t even need to respond immediately. The Bible is full of people like Jonah, who – as soon as they hear God calling – run off in the opposite direction. Yet, one thing you must admit about God’s call is that it’s persistent. God will stick with it, until finally we cease our resistance and give in.
There’s so much in us that would block God’s call – as if that were possible. There’s so much pride, so much determination to seek glory for ourselves. It’s only when we can heave a great sigh, like Paul, and turn ourselves over to God, that we can say, with him, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Only then can we take those first hesitant steps in the direction of our calling.
So today, in light of the surveys that you all recently returned (you did return them, right?) and just ahead of our annual Congregational Meeting, I need to ask: Has there been something you’ve been meaning to do recently, but haven’t. Maybe there’s some volunteer effort where you know you can be useful, some lonely neighbor who could use some companionship, or some task in the church no one else is doing.
Maybe you’re feeling restless in your occupation – or even in your retirement – and you sense God tugging you in a new direction. Maybe you’ve even wondered if God is calling you to a new ministry.
We’re all unlikely candidates for discipleship, every last one of us. Just look around the typical church sanctuary. There are no super-Christians – only ordinary people, hesitant in their faith, sometimes wavering in their commitment, oftentimes difficult to live with. As a collective group, they’re sinful, hypocritical, stingy, short-tempered, insecure – in short, no different from any other gathering of human beings on this globe.
Yet haven’t we all – somewhere, sometime – heard something of God’s call in our lives? Each time we reach such a vocational crossroads, we have a choice. We can say yes to God’s call – however hesitantly – or we can go our own way.
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” demands the voice of God. Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me.”
What do you say?