Two weeks ago, I wrote a devotion. It was finally sent out last Friday. It told the story of how no one in the early church was initially going trust Saul/Paul to be a disciple. Why? Because Saul had a violent past – he’d literally persecuted the first Christians. Indeed, he provoked and cheered on the execution of Stephen. As the story from Acts unfolds, no one – understandably – trusted Saul. And the point of the devotion was: How Does One Restore Their Checkered Character?
As I said, I wrote this devotion two weeks ago. But current events prompt me to share this devotion again. Why? Because of the chaos in Virginia politics – or at least one piece of the chaos. (See a comment on the second issue at the end of the devotion.) Here’s the headlines: Thirty-five years ago, both the Governor and the Attorney General of Virginia dressed up in blackface.
It was racist. It was wrong. They (and each of us) can make excuses for past transgressions like, “I was young,” “I didn’t know any better,” “It was a different era,” “I was simply dressing up to honor a musician.” Excuses may supply context, but wrong is still wrong. Yet, guess what? Those two politicians are exactly like every one of us.
How many of us have done something “dumb” in our past? Maybe it was incredibly racist? Maybe it was exceptionally hurtful to another individual? Maybe it was shockingly criminal? Sometimes we hold such things as deep dark secrets. Other times these transgressions are so public that it’s like we’ve been stripped naked, exposed, and can never get away from the reality of our past. Well, it doesn’t matter. Big or small, we’ve all done something for which we ought to be ashamed, haven’t we?
So how do we respond in our current Gotcha Culture, where every past mistake or transgression is cause for almost permanently dismissing a person? The story of Saul and the early suspicious church may give us a clue. Therefore, I urge you to re-read Friday’s devotion in this light. It started with rightful suspicion … but it allowed for forgiveness and restoration. Yet in between suspicion and reconciliation, it required what? It required that the sinner not make excuses. It required the sinner to humbly “own up” to the hurtfulness of their past, including accepting the consequences, whatever they might be. Unlike too many politicians, Saul didn’t try damage control or spin. He humbly confessed.
So … let’s focus on Friday’s devotion again, being clear that there is absolutely no justification or excuse for racism – past or present – just as there was absolutely no justification or excuse for Saul’s violently persecuting the first Christians. But the question is this: Can we be forgiven? Can we mature? Can our hearts change? Will we confess? Will we be humble? Will we accept the consequences of our sin, even if that means giving up our public status? Will we also stop the Gotcha Culture, that’s willing to permanently trash reputations for political points (whether they be of left-leaning Governors or right-leaning Supreme Court nominees)? Will we promote forgiveness and restoration (in ways that adequately fit the context)? Hear the story … and please pay attention to an even bigger issue at the end!!!!
When [Saul] had come to Jerusalem,
he attempted to join the disciples;
and they were all afraid of him,
for they did not believe that
he was a disciple.
Yesterday I told you that Saul – soon to be the Apostle Paul — had been a violent and virulent tormentor of the fledgling Christian Church. He was leading persecutions, even executions. But along the road to Damascus, Jesus knocked Saul down with a bright vision, a personal encounter, and a transformative call to ministry.
That was all going on inside Saul.
Outside of Saul, however, the members of the Early Church were still “afraid” of Paul. Indeed, when he showed up in Jerusalem the first time, they didn’t trust him. As it says in Scripture, “they did not believe he was a disciple.”
If you were Saul, how would you prove that change of heart? Words are nice. “Trust me, guys.” But words are also cheap. If you’ve been harsh before, a liar before, untrustworthy before, you could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing now. So, if we want to be trusted, we may need more words.
Two things changed the Early Church’s heart toward Saul.
- The first was a character witness, in this case Barnabas. The Christians in Jerusalem were ready to reject Saul, “27 but Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and [told them the story of Saul’s change of heart. He] described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.” Meaning, if you’ve been untrustworthy in the past and you want me to accept you now, you better have a character witness who can testify to the validity of the change within you.
- And yet, most of us are still going to be a little suspicious, aren’t we? We’ll give you just a little rope. Just enough to hang yourself if you’re insincere, right? And so words aren’t enough, you’re going to need to back up your words with actions. And in this case, Saul did. Scripture says, “28 He went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him.” After they tried to kill Saul for the third or fourth time, the Early Christians began to say, “I guess he really is sincere.”
Our character is our most valuable characteristic. We can lose our reputation. People can lose trust in us. Nevertheless, it can be built back. And Saul shows us how. God is the Father of forgiveness. And we as Christians should be both wise and forgiving. Trust but verify.
In Christ’s Love,
a guy who is realy
more concerned about
an even bigger issue
in Virginia …
Lost in the shame of blackface was an even bigger issue for the governor and state legislators of Virginia. Before the issue of racism swallowed the headlines, the governor promoted a Virginia House Bill that endorsed infanticide under the guise of abortion rights: “The infant would be delivered … kept comfortable … resuscitated if that’s what the mother and family desired …” Meaning: if the mother didn’t choose resuscitation, infanticide. Extinguishing the life. Killing the living newborn.
Racism is a huge issue in America. It has been since our founding. Why must we be concerned? Because it’s a matter of human dignity! All people – male or female, Jew or Gentile, white or black, newborn or elderly – are made in the image of God. Racism “kills” people one degree at a time. It robs innocent people one slight and one lost opportunity at a time.
All human life is matter of human dignity. And we must not excuse harming any human life – whether one racist degree at a time or one “unwanted” baby at a time. Life is life. Period. And every life demands dignity and protection. Otherwise, in big ways and in small, we are violating one of God’s greatest commandments – “Thou shalt not kill.” And we are becoming less human.