One of my favorite movies is The Natural starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close. For those who haven’t seen the movie or remember the premise, it’s about a star baseball player who didn’t start playing professionally until he was at an age when most players were retiring. Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, had that natural ability to effortlessly play baseball. Due to an indiscretion with a mysterious woman that led to him being shot and she falling to her death from a hotel window, his early career was cut short because, at the time, the incident was too scandalous, and no team would touch him, so he dropped out of sight until his return in later life. The female lead was played by Glenn Close who had been his girlfriend before the unfortunate lapse in judgment. As they were trying to reconcile their relationship that, unbeknownst to Redford, had produced a child, she utters this great line. She said: “A person has two lives. The one they live and the one they live with.”
For most of us, that life we live with is the one with all sorts of baggage. Some of us have small bags that are light and easy to carry, while others of us are toting some pretty heavy bags which weigh us down. For those who can’t let go of the heavy baggage, it negatively impacts the life they live. A major part of my past life and career has been devoted to dealing with people dragging heavy baggage behind them. As a criminal defense attorney, I spent countless hours counseling my clients on not only their current legal entanglements but also the baggage that kept getting them crossways with the law, i.e., their destructive lifestyle. I also did some divorce work and some of my clients had a whole cart of heavy baggage that was or had destroyed their marriages. My time as a drug court prosecutor exposed me to people that had more baggage than any one person should ever have which, more often than not, created in them a sense of self-loathing and a feeling that they weren’t worthy of a better life. We would often witness them self-destruct when things were getting too good, as if they were afraid of success and had resigned themselves to a life at the bottom of a pit too deep to climb out of. Like many of us “normal” people, they felt that what they had done, the lives they had led, were so shameful that they weren’t worthy of forgiveness or of a new life, a second chance.
Convincing someone that no sin is too big for God to forgive is where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for this morning. The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to his protégé Timothy around 64 A.D. prior to his final imprisonment in Rome. Timothy was one of Paul’s closest companions and Paul considered him his true son in the faith.
As we grow older and wiser, we desire to impart some of our hard-earned and bitterly learned life lessons to our own proteges in hopes that they will learn from our mistakes and not walk that same path, and that there is still a meaningful life to live in spite of our failures and wrongs. This is what Paul is doing with he says to Timothy; 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. Paul is referring to his former life, the one he lives with, when he was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was one of the Pharisees who worked so hard to discredit Jesus and his followers. He was there at the stoning of Stephen and held the cloaks of those who hurled stones at Stephen who was killed for the mere reason that he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. When the believers fled from Jerusalem to the safety of the countryside Paul, in his zeal, obtained letters from the leaders of the synagogue to travel to Damascus to round up believers and bring them back to Jerusalem to be thrown in prison for their belief in the Messiah. He then says; 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. Paul is referring to his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus when he was blinded by the light and asked by Jesus why he was persecuting him. Once in Damascus, Jesus sent a disciple named Ananias to restore Paul’s sight and baptize him. Paul spent time in Damascus with the disciples as they taught him about Jesus as God had a plan for Paul and was the perfect one for the job, because of his baggage. It was God’s plan to use Paul as a shining example of his mercy and forgiveness and to show that even the worst of the worst can be used to fulfill God’s plan for his people. Paul underscored his point to Timothy when he said; The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. Paul is saying that one would have to try really hard to be a bigger sinner against God than he was. And he said that it was for this very reason that he received mercy, so that in him, at the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making him an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. Paul knew he had some pretty serious baggage, but he also recognized that God was going to use him as a beacon of hope for other sinners to show them that God is all-forgiving and still sees their value, even if nobody else can. Paul was going to be God’s example to those people who feel so guilt-ridden by their past that God can forgive them and accept them for who they are and what they can be.
What Paul has done is to summarize the Good News that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and that no sinner is beyond his saving power. No sinner who repents will be left behind. To illustrate we just have to go to Luke 23: 39-43, which is the part of the crucifixion story where one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus is hurling insults at him as they suffered their excruciating execution. The unrepentant criminal exclaims; “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him saying; “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turned to Jesus and said; “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him; I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. No sinner left behind.
Jesus tells us in Luke 5: 31, 32 that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. He said he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Jesus chose to be with people who sensed their own sin and believed they weren’t good enough for God. In order to come to God, we must repent; in order to renounce our sin, we must recognize it for what it is. Jesus didn’t come merely to show us how to live better lives or challenge us to be better people. He came to offer us salvation that leads to eternal life. All you have to do is accept his offer.
The Apostle Paul was not nearly as interested in creating an image as he was in being an example. He didn’t hesitate to share his past, because he knew his failures would allow others to have hope. At times we hesitate to share our past struggles with others because we are afraid it will tarnish our image, that people will think less of us. Paul demonstrated that lowering our guard can be an important step in communicating the gospel. People will not believe the gospel is important if they can’t see that it is crucial in your life, the one you live now in spite of the one you live with.
To fully understand how God has forgiven you and how He is using you for His purpose you have to ask yourself the following questions: 1) How has Christ shown patience with you? 2) Did he stay with you when you doubted and rebelled? 3) Did he remain faithful when you ignored his prior claim on your life? 4) Did he love you when you disregarded his Word and his Church?
Remember that his patience is unlimited for those who love him. Don’t be afraid to let others know what Christ has done for you because one day, you too, will be with him in paradise.
Please pray with me.
Most merciful God, we come to you after having put the world behind us and the cross before us. We know that often times none will go with us, but still we will follow your Son, our Lord and Savior, because there is no turning back once we’ve made that commitment. We rejoice that you sent your Son into the world to save sinners just like us and that if we just repent and turn to you for your infinite grace and mercy that you will not forsake us, you will not leave us behind, and that one day we will be with you in paradise. In the name of your most loving Son, we pray, Amen.