The Courage to Tell The Truth--April 26, 2018
[Paul said:] “...Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities." [Acts 26:8-11]
It takes more courage than most of us have--certainly more than I suspect I have--to tell an uncomfortable truth about one's actions. It takes a lot to say, "I was not 'just following orders;' I chose this, and I did this... and I was wrong." For all the ways that Paul's personality can grate on some people (many a biblical scholar has noted that he sometimes is a bit of a drama queen, so to speak), maybe the thing that is hardest to bear about Paul is that he is so very utterly and vulnerably truthful where we have gotten comfortable wearing masks and presenting false selves to each other and to the world... and to the mirror.
I mean, my goodness, we are surrounded by cases all around us of people to whom we are supposed to be able to look up and see good examples of character and courage... and instead are let down to see people throwing subordinates under the bus to avoid the appearance of being wrong or looking weak. Or we see instances of buck-passing, name-calling, and excuse-making rather than someone simply having the guts to say, "This was my fault and my responsibility. I will make it right." Or all sorts of weaselly tricks not to have to face up to the consequences of our choices. If that's all we ever saw, we might just think it was ok for us to do the same. But Paul forces us to see that it is possible--in fact, it is the power of the God who in fact "raises the dead" that makes it possible--for us to tell the truth about ourselves, knowing that God is able to raise up to a new kind of life even from our worst moments and failures.
This is Paul's gift to us--and the burden he hands us--the heavy grace of seeing that being Easter people means being truthful people. The resurrection of Christ, and the presence of the living Jesus, keep us from running away from the truth about ourselves, even when it is unpleasant.
Paul just lays it out there for the world to see--he had been responsible, not just for the brute work of arresting or imprisoning followers of Jesus, but for casting votes to sentence them to death. Paul was the one standing in the corner nodding in approval when the mob started picking up stones around Stephen, and holding coats to let them really wind up their pitches. Paul was the one who had actively sought to kill these people. And now he admits it openly--openly--not just in a Shakespearean soliloquy to himself, but in public and right in front of a potentially hostile audience who could have him punished. Paul is so very comfortable with himself--or maybe a better way to say it is, he is so completely secure in Jesus--that he can tell the truth about himself even when it is unflinchingly ugly.
And really, it is the fact that Jesus is alive--having met Paul on the road and brought him face to face with his actions as well as with a new beginning--that gave Paul the ability to tell the unpleasant, unflattering truth about himself. The resurrection of Jesus doesn't simply show us a confirmation number for our room reservations in the afterlife; it gives us the courage to face the truth we don't want to deal with yet, and to see it with eyes wide open.
That's a thought for us to spend some time with ourselves--that being truth-tellers may well make others around us uncomfortable. And we need to be clear about what Paul's example has to say to this, because you'll notice that what Paul is truthful about here is himself. It's not just that if we tell people the uncomfortable truth about them that they will get mad at us--it's when we tell the uncomfortable truth about ourselves.
That's important, because--especially for us "religious people"--it can be very tempting to use "the truth" as an excuse to beat people up; we can delude ourselves into thinking that because the truth will make us unpopular, then anything that others disagree with us about is an attack on "the truth." You don't like my political views? Well, it must really be because, as Jack Nicholson says, that YOU can't handle the truth. Your branch of the Christian tradition doesn't talk in the same jargon as mine? Well, clearly you haven't seen the light. My status as a Christian is no longer privileged? It must be part of an attack on truth. And very, very easily, we make ourselves out to be martyrs, or make others out to be cartoonish caricatures, Snidely Whiplash bad guy figures. You can justify a lot of things when you are convinced that you have "the truth" and then use it as a weapon.
But that really takes Paul's example here and turns it upside down. The issue here is not that he offends people by telling them things they do not want to hear about them--he doesn't get into trouble for telling people what he sees as wrong or sinful about them. He is making people uncomfortable by being so deeply honest about himself. He doesn't turn his gun sights on his captors or anyone around him, but rather gets himself in his scope. And this is a vital, essential point here: just being a rude, offensive blowhard to other people does not make one a "truth-teller," especially if the rude offensive things one has to say are designed to deflect attention away from the uncomfortable truths about our own failures and weaknesses. Blaming other people as a smokescreen isn't "telling it like it is"--it is being a horse's rear-end. What Paul does is not to launch a tirade against others here to blame THEM and avoid attention on his own issues--but rather, the resurrection has given him the courage to turn everyone's attention on his own failings... and the good news of being beloved in spite of them, not by hiding them.
Paul does here what none of us is very good at: he peels back the layers of his own self-deception, and the masks and errors and sins he had gotten himself tangled up in. And that kind of truth-telling--the kind that is able to say both "I am a sinner" and "I am beloved" in the same breath--makes the rest of us uncomfortable, because we want to be spared that kind of a close and honest look at ourselves. If Paul is going out there, taking a long hard look at his past regrets and sins, then we too just might be called to face our pasts honestly as well. If Paul is free--and yet still compelled also--to tell the truth about himself without passing the buck, then we will be forced to see what shams and impostors we are, hiding behind a million difference self-made masks. We will be forced to see our heroes and elected officials backpedaling and admitting to things we didn't want to believe. We will be forced to see the ways we cover up our sinful selves and put on more presentable faces to the world. And we will know that the jig is up, and our futile attempts to present ourselves as perfect peaches are all for naught. In other words, the more we read Paul's own story, the more we will be compelled to see the truth about ourselves--the ways we have turned away from Jesus, the ways we have failed to live in light of his promises, and even the ways we have chickened out from telling the truth. That will be uncomfortable for us to face, but perhaps it is exactly where we need to start.
On the other hand, perhaps we can see in this story the proof that God loves nothing but forgiven sinners and know that Paul lived through his truth-telling ordeal. God gives us hope through him that we, too, can face the truth about ourselves--and about the God who loves us as deeply as he sees into us: which is to say, completely.
The God who raises the dead is also the God who gives us the courage to face the truth about the ways we have all been deadbeats, dead wrong, and Dead Sea fruit ourselves... and how we have been called beloved anyway. May God give us such courage today.
O Christ, you who are Life and Way as well as Truth, allow us to tell the truth about ourselves so that we can soak in your Truth for the world--the same kind of Truth that wounds as it makes well, the same kind of Truth that disarms us even as it embraces us. And let us allow you to put the scalpel to our own selves rather than insisting it is ours to fix others first.