It sometimes strikes me that the Lord sometimes picks some mightily unlikely messengers. We are all flawed in our ways, true, but it’s easy to think there are those flawed more than ourselves. In part this is the whole beam in the eye problem of perspective we find in Matthew 7. But the parable of the Lost Sheep recorded in Luke 15 suggests that some are more lost than others:
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
One of the best-known examples of the formerly-lost sheep is the apostle Paul of Tarsus. We first learn about him as Saul, a Pharisee who actively persecuted the early church. The story of the the light of heaven interrupting his journey to Damascus is really key to understanding Friends understanding of the Light as judge and instructor (it’s also the source of one of my favorite line in the Johnny Cash oevre “it’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks”!).
But I always wonder what the other Christians made of the post-conversion Paul. We get a little of their reaction from Ananias but I imagine there was lots of talk and anger, jealousy and confusion all swirling with whatever joy they could muster that another soul was saved. A man who had “slaughtered” them was soon to present himself as a major leader, taking sides in the great debates over how Jewish the Christian community needed to be.
How do we react when God uses an unlikely messenger to spread the good news? None of my blog readers are likely to have seen their brethren slaughtered but it’s safe to say we’ve all been wronged and mistreated from time to time. One of the great mysteries I’ve experienced is how God has seemingly used other’s disobedience to do His work. Knowing this requires a scale of love that’s hard to imagine. People do wrong can still be somehow acting of God. People who have done wrong are sometimes especially chosen of God. Heaven rejoices more for that one saved sinner than all the rest of us trying to muddle along in faith. Even secret anger is akin to murder.
We Friends are rightly inspired of 17th Century New Jersey Friend John Woolman’s exceptional compassion and ability to see outside the prejudices of his day, but even this “Quaker saint” considered himself the unlikely messenger, the lost sheep of the Luke story. He wrote of a dream:“Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented [Luk 15:7] and that that language John Woolman is dead meant no more than the death of my own will.”
How do we hold tight to love, even for those we don’t like? When we greet even those who have disappointed us, we need to bear in mind that they might have traveled their own road to Damascus since last we met. They might be one of those God chooses to teach.
(Thanks to Esther Greenleaf Mürer’s Quaker Bible Index for the Woolman connection.)