“The Only Credential That Matters”
“The Only Credential That Matters”
Psalm 51:1-10; 1
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
September 11, 2022
If you could put together the ‘ideal’ Presbyterian – what would it be? Baptized as an infant. Right? When we baptize infants, we name so clearly our belief that God loves us and claims us far before we can even respond. Amazing grace.
Family name – any name is great, but we’re talking about the ideal. Be pretty great if this person’s last name was Knox or Calvin – perhaps even a direct descendant of one of these great pillars of the Reformed faith.
Military Service – good to have served your country, especially a country founded by a good number of Presbyterians who were instrumental in crafting the representative democracy that we have.
Reputable College, right? – Presbyterians value education, and if we aim for our ideal type… truly great schooling.
Good Morals – Studies Scripture. Makes good decisions. Does the right thing. Works hard.
Boy, if we could just raise every child and grandchild that way?
And really, those credentials are not so different from the Apostle Paul’s.
We read in another part of the Bible, Philippians, that Paul was circumcised on the eighth day of his life, as a Jewish male was supposed to be. Paul was not only Jewish but of the tribe of Benjamin, an Israelite tribe compared to a wolf in Scripture because of its military prowess.
More, Paul eventually received his schooling under Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis of that time.
And then Paul really became known as “A Hebrew of Hebrews.” Really quite ardent in his study of Scripture and then his following of God’s way.
And now Paul is writing this letter to a part of the church facing false influences that are leading the church astray. And so Paul is starting into this letter needing to persuade the church… To listen to him. To trust him. To let his voice carry weight in giving direction, guidance, and leadership.
Fortunately, we think, it’s Paul! Remind these folks (or let them know for the first time) that when it comes to faith in God, you are as credentialed as it gets. They can, with good reason, trust you.
And yet what does Paul lead with?
“I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work. He went out on a limb,
you know, in trusting me with this ministry. The only credentials I brought to it were violence
and witch hunts and arrogance.”
Maybe some of you remember the story to which Paul is alluding.
It’s a story where the very credentialed Saul (as Paul was called then) realized that what he thought was an ardency and zeal for God was in fact directly opposed to God.
It unfolds in Acts chapter 9, which begins, “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”
And righteously so, he believed. These people who followed Jesus were wrong, were false, and he was strong enough, faithful enough to do something about it. Squash the movement.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
Saul goes blind for three days…and in this time and afterward, it becomes quite clear that what he had been taking to be his credentials, his faithfulness, his godly zeal…
Those were, in fact, expressions of ruthlessness. Arrogance. Violence against Jesus.
It’s one of the more striking stories in all of Scripture. And it is surely a striking thing to recall on this 21st anniversary of 9/11, in this year where rumors of new violence ever-
abound, that one of the single most influential voices of the Christian faith began his life believing deeply that his violence was an expression of faithfulness to God…and Jesus called him from that.
Again, The Message version of our passage: “I was treated mercifully because I didn’t know what I was doing—didn’t know who I was doing it against! Grace mixed with faith and love
poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.”
Paul is trying to gain a hearing, trying to gain trust, trying to get a seat at the table alongside other influences that are leading people astray in all these different directions. And Paul doesn’t start with his qualifications. He doesn’t make a robust theological statement to make clear he knows what he is talking about.
Paul leads with a story about his failure. blindness. Unfaithfulness.
“The only credentials I brought to it were violence and witch hunts and arrogance…I can only write to you because of what Jesus has poured over me and through me.”
And I think this point is crucial for the church today.
This past July, there was a significant Gallup poll that came out showing that our nation’s trust in institutions of every kind is at a historic low.
Specifically, our collective trust in the “church or organized religion” is at a historic low…69% of respondents said they have “some” or “very little” trust in the church or organized religion.
And while the poll does not unpack the reasons people say that, I think we can say they have good reason.
I was talking with a woman the other day who is part of a local 12-step group, and she said that recently they have all been talking a good bit about the third step, which underscores the importance of surrendering to a higher power.
And she said it is proving to be a really hard step for the group because every single one of them has experienced some kind of abuse at the hands of the church. How do I surrender to a higher power when the people who are supposedly the body of this Higher Power have so wounded me?
Or we could simply look at the headlines that seem to come out with regularity about a beloved church leader or church figure a huge ministry doing so much good…and then this abuse of power or misconduct or worse.
For many, trust in the church is low – and not without good reason for – we must be honest – amid all the ‘good’ credentials, violence has been done.
And at the same time, we readily see false teachers and influences pulling people in all directions in our time, right?
• Influences that keep fear at the forefront of our mind – ever-underscoring the next threat, the growing problem, the thing that is going to take us down.
• Influences that make us believe its either us or them. This or that. It’s all lines and sides.
• Influences that make us believe the thing to do is look out for number one. You’re an island. I’m an island. I do my thing. You do more thing and as long as we don’t bother one another then we have no mutual obligation or connection or otherwise.
• Influences that make us believe we need to look Instagram put-together, we, our children, our grandchildren. We need to present a good front, attend the right functions and schools and do the right activities.
I imagine you can think of a few more strong voices, influential pulls on our hearts and minds…
And on our better days we think, ‘Wait! In the midst of all those voices of fear and division and perfectionism and hyper-individualism …
Where is a message of love?
- The kind of Love that is stronger than fear.
- The kind of love that crosses lines.
- The kind of love that shows forth in surprising unity and connection.
- The kind of love that embraces people right there in the mess.
“The church,” we begin to think, “the church needs a seat at the influence table to proclaim and live a message of Love amid all these voices and…nobody trusts the church?”
Perhaps that thought tempts us to then send forth ideal Presbyterians from these four walls. Well-studied, well-credentialed good people from glowing, growing congregations who don’t lie, cheat or steal.
Here is the truth on display in our Scripture today: We want a seat at the table of influence in our society today? In our workplace? In our families? With our youth?
Tell the stories of brokenness. Of failure. Of missing the point.
- The ones where the rains came and would not stop pouring…
- The ones where tragedy struck and left an impossible void…
- The ones where great confusion and hardship overwhelmed…
- The ones where doubt was the only thing we were sure of…
- The ones where we were far more complicit than we realized…
- The ones where your past just kept tackling every moment of forward momentum…
The ones where the only thing that carried you or covered you or saved you…was the sheer mercy of Jesus. A love that met you in the mess.
In biblical language…lead with the valley of the shadow of death stories.
What if the church became known as a people who just tell the truth – starting with themselves, however messy and incomplete?
Again, listen to the Message version, which makes so clear how Paul leads with his failure and therefore places his entire credibility on who Jesus is and what Jesus does.
“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he
shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.”
Queen Elizabeth II reigned long enough that her lifetime overlapped with that of CS Lewis, who as you all know preachers love to quote…and it turns out he was present for the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II.
“You know, over here,” Lewis wrote at the time, “people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) — awe — pity —
pathos — mystery. The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said,
“In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and
responsibilities beyond your understanding. Do you see what I mean?
One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.” ((Letters, 3:343): 1953)
We are crowned to show forth the love of God unto the ends of the earth…but that crown of grace is placed not upon the well-credentialed, but overwhelmed and broken people.
Can we be honest about our stories? Can we simply be who we are and where we are with the mess that we are…and recognize that is who Jesus crowns with sheer grace…and lead with that inexplicable story?
And what would be the evidence…What is the evidence that someone – or a church – really knows their valley of the shadow of death stories that are really all about God’s sheer mercy?
Did you notice how Paul begins this entire section? “I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work.” A genuine sense of gratitude grows foremost upon
- Not resentment because no one is recognizing our credentials or what we deserve…
- Not suffering shame because nobody would understand…
- Not anger because we are right and they are wrong…
Not that all of those don’t come and go in various flavors, sure.
But predominately and more and more…if we have encountered Jesus in the valley, if sheer mercy has called to us, carried us, held us…and we know it…a profound, humbled gratitude is the thing that takes hold.
Increasingly it becomes our first sentiment. And because we recognize the source os that gratitude, our final sentiment becomes not too different from the final portion of Paul’s reflection today: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”