Today’s passage: Acts 9
Grace is wonderful. God shows us such kindness and love and gentleness. Even though we don’t deserve it, God invites us into a relationship with himself. Having shown us mercy – taking the penalty of our sin onto Himself – God graciously invites us into his family, adopting us by the blood of Jesus through the Spirit of God.
I like the idea of grace. I love the fact that there are countless second chances. Every time I mess up, God’s grace is still there, telling me that my mistakes don’t define me – that God does, and that He is slowly transforming me into the likeness of His Son.
But if we’re honest, I wonder if we don’t in practice suspect that there are some people who are too far gone for grace. Oh, we might not say that. But we live on the assumption that leopards can’t change their spots.
In my research this week, I read a story by Matt Woodley, adapted from the CNN Religion Blog article, “South Korean pastor is also a trained killer,” from 2010-09-08. Matt writes:
Kim Shin Jo, a gentle pastor from South Korea, used to be a trained killer.
In January of 1968, Jo and a team of assassins descended from North Korean, slipping through the woods in a daring attempt to kill the president of South Korea. The team of 31 commandos made it to within a few hundred meters of the president’s residence before they were intercepted. A fierce battle ensued, killing 30 South Koreans. All of the North Korean soldiers were killed, except one who escaped and Kim Shin Jo, who was captured.
After months of interrogation, and through a surprising friendship with a South Korean army general, Kim Shin Jo’s hard heart started to soften. Later he would confess, “I tried to kill the president. I was the enemy. But the South Korean people showed me sympathy and forgiveness. I was touched and moved.”
The South Korean government eventually released Kim Shin Jo. Over the next three decades he worked for the military, became a citizen, and then married and raised a family. Finally, he became a church minister.
Today Jo’s life serves as a symbol of redemption for the entire country of South Korea. Reflecting on the day of his arrest, Kim Shin Jo commented, “On that day, Kim Shin Jo died. I was reborn. I got my second chance. And I’m thankful for that.”
Kim Shin Jo found a new birth and God’s grace through the power of Christ. But his encounter with Christ came through the unexpected, surprising love of other people. Despite his betrayals and sins, an army officer accepted him, befriended him, and believed in him. At one time he was the enemy of the South Korean people, but in the spirit of Jesus Christ, they surprised him with the startling gifts of belonging, forgiveness and even citizenship.
Matt concludes that,
In the same way, the church is called to extend the gift of acceptance so others will find Christ’s “second chance.” God unleashes tremendous power for good when his people surprise the world, especially unlovable people and even our enemies, with unconditional love, friendship and forgiveness.
This weekend, we’re looking at someone who made a trained assassin look tame. Saul – later to become Paul – had made a reputation for himself of destroying anyone who claimed that Jesus was the Christ, raised by God from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God. Saul’s whole life was predicated on the need to be good enough for God. He was a Pharisee, committed to making sure that he ticked all of God’s boxes. And he was good at it. According to Philippians 3, he could hold his head upright and declare that he was faultless before the law.
But why was Paul so zealous in ferociously fighting against Jesus and his church?
It’s possible to stay within the law and yet be totally outside of God’s will – as Saul soon found out. But – and here’s God’s grace – God doesn’t smite Saul for his actions. It’s not that God wasn’t affected by what Saul was doing – Jesus so identifies with his people that when they are persecuted, it is actually Him that is being persecuted. And yet, rather than knocking Saul flat, Jesus simply shows up and talks with him. Rather than returning an eye for an eye, Jesus offers the challenge of grace: ask yourself, Saul, Why are you persecuting me?
And Saul does. For three days he fasts and prays. He’s blind. He has proof that this encounter was more than just a psychological breakdown. He knows that God is powerful. And he reassesses his life. He’s been given a second chance – and he’s going to take it. The same zeal that drove him to destroy Jesus’ people, tamed now by God, would be used to invite others into the people of God.
But those who were already Christians took some convincing… Surely this man was too far gone for grace? And if so, who else do we think is too far gone? We like grace for ourselves – but who are we tempted to think God is powerless to change and bring into the family?