I Corinthians 1:26-31, 6:9-11
Let me take you back to 65 AD, some thirty years after Jesus rose from the dead. A thriving church had grown in Shechem, a small town in Samaria. Shechem had a proud history that had its first association with the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 33
After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. 19 For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. 20 There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
Not only Jacob, but Abraham, earlier, had also built an altar and worshiped the Lord in this place. And although the Hebrew Bible does not mention it, Jacob had dug a well here that was still in use in the time of Jesus.
Jesus had passed through Shechem in his three years of ministry and then in the account of the early church, in the Christian New Testament book of Acts, we read of the ministry of Philip in Samaria.
Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
The apostles in Jerusalem heard about this and sent Peter and John who placed their hands on these new converts and they received the Holy Spirit.
When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.
For thirty years there had been a church in Shechem that could trace its routes back to Abraham and Jacob and then to Jesus, Philip, Peter and John. It is to the church in Shechem with this rich history that we come.
And in the streets of Shechem we come to a young girl named Esther. Esther had grown up as the second daughter in a family of three daughters and four sons. From the beginning she had been a bit of a rebel, what some would call a tomboy. While her sisters were content to learn to cook and sew, she longed to be outside, climbing trees, running through the orchard. From the beginning she seemed to be always in trouble, always getting into mischief. Her father despaired about what to do with her and finally, when she turned fourteen, he arranged for her to be married to a nearby farmer.
This marriage was an unhappy one. Esther rebelled at having to do the things she was expected to do and she disliked the man she married. Even when she tried to do what she was supposed to do, her efforts were insufficient. And so her husband, one night, in exasperation, beat her. And her marriage grew worse and worse until one day he saw her talking with a man who worked in the fields and accused her of adultery and divorced her.
Now she was an outcast. A woman of shame. Her family did not want her back. She had no where else to go and so she found a job as a servant in a wealthy home in Shechem. She hated the work she did there. It made no difference whether she did it as a wife or servant, she hated it.
But she was a beautiful young woman and so the son of the family where she worked was attracted to her and offered to pay her if she would sleep with him. Thus began her descent and when the son’s parents discovered what was happening, they threw her out in the streets and she began life as a prostitute. She abused her body, drank too much, ate too little. She became hard. If she could not be loved, she would not be hurt. And so she continued until one day an elderly woman named Miriam met her in the street and talked with her.
This was a particularly hot day and Miriam came up to her and asked her if she would like a cup of water. What was so impressive was how kind Miriam was. Esther had not seen such kindness for so long. They talked and Esther found herself opening up, which surprised her. It had been a long, long time since she had allowed herself to be personal with someone. But there was something about this woman that allowed her to feel free.
Miriam invited her to come with her to church the next day but Esther pulled back. “The church,” Esther said, “is a place for good people like you. It is not a place for women like me. God could never forgive me for all the things I’ve done. I see you, how good you are, how kind you are, how respectable you are. The church is for people like you, not for people like me.”
And then Miriam began to tell Esther her story. One day she was out by Jacob’s well getting some water when a rabbi came up and asked her to give him a drink. “I was shocked. I was a Samaritan woman and he was a Jewish rabbi. Did he know that it was wrong to be speaking to me? And did he know who I was? Why was I out in the middle of the day to draw some water? It was because the people in town despised me. I had been married five times and was living with a man who was not my husband. Respectable? Not me. Respectable people kept their distance from me.”
“But this rabbi came to me with kindness and although he had never met me, he told me things about myself. He knew I had been married five times and that the man I was living with was not my husband. He spoke to me with love and I felt something I had not felt since I was a little girl. I felt loved and valued.”
“When I ran into town to tell people about this man, the man I was living with and who has now been my husband for over thirty years, was one of those who came to see the one I thought might be the Messiah. We stayed with him for two days and he taught us from the Scriptures.”
“We continued to meet after Jesus left and then a couple years later, Peter and John, two of his disciples, came and preached and told us about how Jesus had died and then resurrected from the dead. They spoke to us about the hope we had and we were baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
“It is Jesus who made me what I am today and he can do the same with you. Jesus asked me for a cup of water and so I like to go around offering others a cup of water. In this way I feel that I am serving Jesus once again. People might call me a saint and you a sinner, but the only difference between a saint and a sinner is that a saint has a past and a sinner has a future.”
It is obvious that I have imagined this conversation between Esther and Miriam. The Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well is not given a name but it is probable that she was part of the early church since John featured her so prominently in his Gospel.
And although the story is made up, the experience is real and has been repeated many times in church history.
The line Miriam finishes with in the story is a line I first found in a book called Primary Colors which is a semi-fictional account of Bill Clinton’s campaign to be president of the US. I looked up this quote on the internet. I did a Google search and discovered that the quote originated with Oscar Wilde. Although it comes from improbable sources, it resonates with truth.
“The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” Oscar Wilde
What makes this quote resonate in our minds is that saints often think they have no past and sinners often think they have no future. Saints forget their past and get caught up in their respectability. Saints forget that they are saved by grace and become overwhelmed by their own goodness. They dress properly, have good moral values, make good choices, resist temptation and they begin to think it is because they are so good that they are saints. They look down on people in society who are homeless, alcoholics, drug users, prostitutes. Saints need to remember their past and envision a life lived apart from God so they can escape the sin of pride and capture the virtue of humility.
Sinners are blinded by their circumstances and are caught up in despair and hopelessness. They are consumed by the choices they have made and carry no illusion that they can escape the life in which they find themselves. Sinners feel trapped with no way out but they need to be reminded of what God has done for others, sinners just like them. Sinners need to grab hold of hope and let that pull them out of their circumstances. Sinners need to be reminded that this is something God has done over and over and over again in the history of his interactions with men and women on this planet.
Let’s take a look at another church, the church in Corinth and see what Paul’s letter to them has to say to help saints and sinners. (I Corinthians 1)
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.
Brothers and sisters, saints. Paul is addressing here the believers in the church at Corinth. He is addressing saints and he reminded them to think back, to remember their past.
Why is it important to remember the past? It is important because it is in our human nature to drift from a profound awareness of gratitude for the grace of Jesus that has saved us to a false pretense that we are responsible for who we are. Jesus picks us up and guides us and helps us and we begin to think it is we who are responsible for our good, moral, respectable life. It is important to remember the past because in remembering, we are reminded once again of our dependence on Jesus.
Paul continues and reminds the Corinthians of their past.
Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
It is still true today and was even more true in the time of Paul that who a person became was determined at birth. The rulers and leaders of society were those born into noble families which meant they received an education and an inheritance. Wealth and knowledge came to those who were born into the right families.
If someone wanted to start a new organization, a new movement, the logical thing to do would be to go to wealthy, influential people and convince them to join with you. That is the way the world goes about it.
But that is not the way God built his church and it is not how God has continued through the ages to grow his church. The history of the church is that God has taken ordinary people and done extraordinary things through them. And the reason God does this is so that the church will continue to rely on him, trust in him.
It is like the story of Gideon in the book of Judges. He came to do battle against the Midianites with 32,000 men under his command. God said he had too many men and through a series of tests, reduced the number of men to just 300 and with these 300 men, the Midianites were defeated. Over and over again in the history of Israel, God worked to help Israel realize their fate was dependent on faith in him.
God desires that we rely on him, trust in him, depend on him. And so he wants us to remember our past, remember how it was without him. He wants us to remember what difference he has made in our lives. If you have always been a Christian as long as you can remember, he still wants you to remember the lessons he has given you that made you realize you need to trust in him, depend on him.
30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
It is important for saints to remember they have a past so that when we boast, it is in the Lord that we boast. It is God who has made us what we are and who is continuing to work in us to transform us.
Good news for saints is that you have a past and because you have a past you are blessed to know that you must trust in God, depend on him, have faith in him.
But there is good news for sinners as well.
I Corinthians 6
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Who are these sinners that Paul speaks of? We read through that list and it passes without having time to reflect on the pain and damage caused by those listed. Sexually immoral. This is a reference to a situation Paul addressed earlier in this letter in chapter 5. A man had taken his father’s wife to his own bed. This form of incest was strictly forbidden and even today would be viewed with dismay. This action caused an uproar in the church and threatened the health of the whole church.
Idolaters. These are those who replaced the worship of God with the worship of a pagan idol. Feasts were held, eating food that had been sacrificed to the idol. God’s blessing was withheld from people in need because they chose to worship idols.
Adulterers. This sin does not need a lot of explanation. Adultery means that a man or woman has a sexual relationship with someone other than their spouse. Adultery means the destruction of a marital relationship. It means hearts are broken. Families are destroyed.
Male prostitutes. These were young men who took the subservient, female side of a homosexual relationship, often in the course of pagan worship and did this as a means of earning a living. Prostitution is an ugly business and despite the attempt in books and movies to glamorize this profession, any study of prostitution reveals the horrendous misery and suffering that is part of that lifestyle.
Homosexual offenders. These were those who indulged in homosexual relationships. Homosexuality is a denial of family. It is a denial of God’s design for creating men and women. It is a denial of the blessings God intends for those who follow his plan.
Thieves. Those who broke into homes and stole the possessions of others. Those who picked the pockets of unwary travelers or shoppers in the market. How many lives were ruined because of the action of these thieves? How many hearts were broken because of what was taken?
Greedy. Those whose God was wealth and were never content with what they had. These were people who cheated and defrauded others to get what they wanted. They stole the inheritance of others, perhaps through legal means, taking advantage of innocents. As a consequence of their actions, families were reduced to begging, thrown out on the streets.
Drunkards. These were those who brought ruin to their families. Spouse and children suffering, being forced to beg for a living because all the money of the family was being spent on alcohol. Families suffering because the father was not earning money they needed to live on. Wives and children suffering because of physical abuse of the father when he was drunk.
Slanderers. These were those who ridiculed and mocked those who were followers of Christ. They insulted and spread false rumors about those who were in the church. These people destroyed the reputations of innocent people.
Swindlers. These were those who cheated others out of what was theirs. They devised schemes to cheat honest people. They brought ruin to those who fell victim to their schemes.
Do you see how hurtful this list is? Do you see the suffering that results from these actions? This is a list of people who behaved in a way that brought ruin and destruction to others.
But then comes this most amazing verse.
11 And that is what some of you were.
Paul is addressing the saints of the church in Corinth and he reminds them that this list of despicable behavior is the behavior that was the life of some in the church. The saints in the church included the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexual offenders, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers. If you visited the church in Corinth to worship God, to hear the word of God read and preached, you sat next to these people. When you went forward for communion, you received communion from people like this. When an offering was taken, the treasurer was a former thief and the counting of the money was supervised by a swindler and a person who had been greedy.
Do you hear the good news? That is what some of you were. Not “are” but “were”. Each of these sinners were forbidden to enter the kingdom of God. But the good news is that something happened that changed their status from being those forbidden to enter the kingdom of God to those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God. And what changed is this.
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
No matter how badly you feel about yourself, you have a future. You have hope.
When you go to a doctor for an operation you want to know that this is not the first time the doctor has performed the operation. You want to know that the doctor has done more than read a book and gone to a lecture and thinks he can do it. You want to know that the doctor has done hundreds and hundreds of these operations and is confident there will be no surprises.
Sinners need to know that their circumstance is not unique. They need to know that they have not done anything God has not seen before. They need to know they can trust God because he has rescued not just hundreds, not just thousands but millions and millions of sinners in the past and he is ready to do it once again.
If you are trapped in the circumstances of your sin and you are filled not with hope but with despair, then take heart this morning. You have the opportunity to surrender your life to an expert healer, an expert restorer of human life. God will take your life and redeem it. He will bring change in your life and do what you think is impossible.
If you know of someone who is full of despair because of their sin, bring them some good news this week. Take them a cup of water and let them know of Jesus, the expert restorer of human life. There is no one whose life cannot be redeemed. There is no one who can not have hope.
Every saint has a past and every sinner a future and for those of us in the church, we have double good news because we are both saint and sinner. We are blessed because our past reminds us of our dependence on God and we are blessed because we are given assurance that no matter how bad our present condition, we have a future. We have hope.
Tony Campolo tells a story of a trip he made to Hawaii. Tony is a professor of sociology and a well-known Christian speaker. He was in Honolulu and at 3 in the morning found himself unable to sleep because of the six hour time difference between his home state of Pennsylvania and the island of paradise, where he was attending a conference. Since he was restless, Campolo left the hotel in search of a place to get something to eat. Eventually he found a tiny coffee shop. He walked in and sat down. Here is his description of the events which followed.
“The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut. As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door suddenly opened, and to my discomfort in marched 8 or 9 provocative and rather boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was garrulous, loud, and rather crude. I felt completely out of place. I was just about to make my getaway when I heard the woman sitting next to me say, ‘You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be 39.’ Her friend responded in a rather nasty tone, ‘So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Do you want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?’ ‘Come on,’ said the women next to me, ‘why do you have to be so mean? I’m just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you that it is my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?’”
When Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He talked with the man at the counter and asked if these women came in every night. When the man said they did, including the woman, Agnes, whose birthday was tomorrow, Tony said he wanted to throw a birthday party for her. The man thought that was a great idea and insisted on baking the cake himself.
Two-thirty the next morning, Campolo was back at that diner. He writes, “I picked up some crepe paper and other decorations at the store, and made a sign of big pieces of cardboard that read, ‘Happy Birthday, Agnes!’ I decorated that diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking great. The word must have gotten out on the street because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place. It was wall to wall prostitutes – and me.”
“At 3:30 on the dot the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. Everybody was ready. When they came in we all jumped up and screamed and we sang, ‘Happy Birthday, Agnes!’ And you know, I’ve never seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken. Her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, her friend had to offer her arm to steady her.”
“When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that’s when she just lost it. She started sobbing. Harry, the guy behind the counter, gruffly mumbled, ‘Blow out the candles, Agnes, cut the cake.’ Agnes looked down at the cake, and then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, ‘Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I… I mean, if I don’t… what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?’ Harry shrugged and answered, ‘Sure, Agnes, that’s fine. You want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want.’ ‘Oh, could I?’ she asked. Looking at Campolo she said, ‘I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that OK? I’ll be right back, honest.’ She got off her stool, she picked up that cake, and she carried it out of that diner like it was the Holy Grail. When the door closed behind her, there was stunned silence in the place.”
Not knowing what else to do, Campolo broke the silence by saying, “What do you say that we pray together?” Looking back on it now, Campolo remarks, “It seems more than a little strange that a sociologist from Eastern PA would be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her. And when I finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice he said, ‘Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?’”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Campolo answered him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry thought a moment, and then almost sneered his answer, “No you don’t; there is no such church like that. In fact,” he concluded, “if there was, I’d join it.”
Well there is a church like that and we are it. We are a church full of saints and sinners. I call you this morning to action. Remember your past. Grow in humility. Grow in gratitude for what God has done for you and then go out and bring this good news to those who live in despair. Bring them a cup of water in the name of Jesus. Throw birthday parties. Be one who brings hope, not condemnation. Be one who eases the burden of others, not one who adds to the burden others carry.
Saints and sinners, isn’t it wonderful to be loved by God? I pray you will grow in your experience of his grace in your life and that you will have the delight of passing on that experience to those who think they will never be loved again.
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.