I Am What I Am

This is the sermon I gave yesterday at chapel. It comes from 1 Corinthians 15.

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters,* of the good news* that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

3 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, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters* at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.* 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

What strikes me with this passage is the emphasis that Paul places on the appearance of God. It’s almost as if he mentions the crucifixion in passing. What he really wants to tell the church in Corinth is that Christ was resurrected. Not only did he appear to Peter, and the twelve disciples, he also appeared to a great crowd of people, and to James and to the apostles.  Then Paul gets to the kicker. Christ appeared to me. The least of the disciples. One unworthy of bearing this name. One unworthy of sharing company with Christ. And yet Paul then says what I think captures the essence of this passage and maybe letter and the rest of his literature. “But by the grace of God, I AM WHAT I AM.”

I am what I am. What does Paul mean when he says this? In some of his other writings, we learn more about the identity of Paul.

Paul writes to the church at Philippi: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3:4-6) Paul was a BAMF Jew. The Jew of all Jews. People probably looked up to him. Admired him. Wanted to be just like him.

But also sees himself in the other extreme: completely sinful through and through. He calls himself the worst of all sinners and writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:18-19)

So who is Paul? The most righteous of all righteous? Or the sinner of all sinners?

The resurrection gives shape and direction to who Paul sees himself as being. Paul sees himself in light of this transformative event. Not only did the resurrection hold connotations of the world to come, specifically heaven, or the bodily resurrection, but also for the current world. The resurrection was the new heavens and the new earth piercing our world. It was the already/not yet moment. We are saved, but not yet resurrected. We are in the tweener stage – adolescents, not fully adults, but not simply children anymore either.

The resurrection sets up boundaries for us to live in a truly human manner. The resurrection provides us with a working model, where we as humans live somewhere in between two poles. Karl Barth, the brilliant Swiss theologian, would say these extremes are divinization and secularization. On the one extreme, divinization, we have humans striving to become gods. On the other, secularization, we have humans being hell-raisers, void of any sort of morals. Either extreme should be avoided. We are not gods. We are not hell-raisers. We are humans. Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician/scientist/theologian utilizes different terminology that may illumine this concept a bit more. Pascal says that we are not angels and we are not beasts. We are not some sort of celestial, heavenly being. Nor are we some sort of animals. We were created distinctly as humans. Rob Bell has popularized this concept in his book, Sex God. Pascal goes on to state that humans’ greatness is found in their ability to recognize their wretchedness. Animals cannot do this. Angels do not have a wretchedness to recognize in the first place. Humans fall in between these two extremes.

But the resurrection shifts the perspectives of how we define ourselves. Living in light of the resurrection allows us space to be humans. It gives us soil in which humanity is able to grow and flourish. By the grace of God, we are able to be what we were created to be. Humans. And in being who we are created to be, we are glorifying God. Barth says that when creation fulfills its purpose by being itself, it is witnessing to the light of God, and the Word of God is revealed in the act. It echoes the resurrection story through all creation. The resurrection frees us from any notion that we can create the new heavens and the new earth. It releases us from the bonds that we control our futures and our lives. It frees from notions that we always have to be doing something, that there is always work to do, and that we can always be better.

But the resurrection does not allow us to stand by and do nothing. It does not give us permission to sit around and wait until we go to heaven. The resurrection implores us not to sit around passively. The apostle Paul would be up in arms at such a claim. He ends chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians exhorting the community: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” In the choices we make, we either sow seeds of heaven or hell, of the world that is to come, new heavens and the new earth, or the old way of life, living according to the flesh. We are witness to the resurrection both in word and deed. So when we allow space for humanity to thrive between the poles of divinization and secularization, the future is breaking into the present. But when we dehumanize others, when we do not respect the image of God in another, we are fostering the desires of the flesh, the pre-resurrection story.

We are humans, bearing the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are humans, yearning for the world to come, exemplifying the new way of life that Christ initiated. We must not mistake ourselves for the kingdom of God. But we must also resist conforming to the kingdom of the flesh.

On Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent, the season of looking ahead to the central event in the Christian faith – namely, the resurrection. In Lent, we participate in the depletion of ourselves. We empty ourselves. When we give up chocolate, or snacks, or video games, we are creating space for something else to fill it. And in the case of Lent, we hope that the resurrection will fill the empty space. That the resurrection story will be our story. That the resurrection story will take birth within us.

May we not confuse ourselves with angels. And may we not mistake ourselves for beasts. May we be ourselves – that is, may we be humans. May we be what God created us to be. May our lives be lived in response to the resurrection story. Because the resurrection story provides the boundaries in which we are capable of living as truly human. By the grace of God, may we fall into the resurrection story. By the grace of God, may we be enveloped and immersed in the resurrection story. And, by the grace of God, may we embody the resurrection story and live accordingly.

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