I’ve been on a superhero movie binge lately. I blame Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. If they hadn’t taken on the X-Men franchise I would probably be blissfully ignorant of the incredible number of superhero TV shows and movies that have come out in the couple of decades. I did read superhero comics when I was a kid; I read anything that could be found lying around the house, from my Dad’s Louis L’amour books to my Mum’s gothic romances – and of course, my brothers’ comics. My favourite superhero was “Black Canary” because a) she’s blonde, b) her superpower is her voice and c) she’s tough as nails. The story I remember the most from all my years of reading comics was about Black Canary’s partner Green Arrow. It was the story of the day he wanted to save someone, and couldn’t – not because he’d made a mistake, or because he didn’t try, but because even superpowers have their limits, and he wasn’t even a superhero per se – he was just a really good archer. I like superheroes that aren’t perfect. That’s the genius of heroes like Black Canary or Green Arrow or Batman. They’re human, just like us.
Stories about superheroes who face the limits of their powers have always been popular; what is not so popular is stories where the imperfections of superheroes, or simply their bad judgement, leads to disaster. Recent movies like Superman vs Batman and Captain America: Civil War, play with that premise a little bit – though, of course, because it’s Hollywood, all comes right in the end.
But what about our real heroes – people whom we know or know of, people whose writing we admire or movies we watch or people whose music has brought us joy? What happens when they fall? I don’t know about you, but after I find out negative things about one of my favourite authors, I find it harder to read their books. When I find out a singer is a bigot or sexist or just a jerk, then I don’t really want to listen to her or his music anymore. We want our heroes to be heroes, not just in their chosen field but in their lives. We want them to be worthy of our admiration, to be mentors and guides on how to tackle life successfully. When they prove to have clay feet, we feel let down. It’s worse when a hero’s behaviour is criminal; then we get out the tar and feathers, and the one we loved becomes the one we love to hate. Often, we consider them guilty until proven innocent, instead of the other way around.
As Jesus said to his disciples once, we’re always more conscious of the splinter in our neighbour’s eye than the log in our own, and the bigger the hero, the more likely we are to condemn them when they fall! But Jesus says we need to focus on our own behaviour, our own faults, our own shortcomings, and not on those of others. I find Paul’s words in today’s reading rather ironic, as he is doing exactly what Jesus taught us not to do. He’s going all “holier-than-thou” about the apostle Peter, right after admitting that he was responsible for the imprisonment and murder of many early Christians. Now he’s picking on Peter to prove a rhetorical point, but still – I want to say to him, “Get over yourself , Paul, and make way for Jesus. Stop bragging about how much better you are than anyone else, and get to the Gospel!” Paul’s never really been one of my Biblical heroes – he’s a bit too full of himself – and neither, really, has Peter, because he’s such a bumbler most of the time. But I like Peter a lot more than I like Paul – and there I go, judging Paul, and Peter, and the log in my eye is getting in the way.
What Paul is trying to get to, in his roundabout way, is a truth he knows from the heart, even if he doesn’t always make it clear right away to the people who read his letters. In fact, it’s a truth that both Paul and Peter know. Paul knows it because of his persecution of Jesus, and Peter knows it because of his denial the night of Jesus’ arrest. They both know, despite their intellectual squabbles and their arguments about circumcision and Jewish law, that it is only by their relationship with Jesus that they can stand before God with confidence. It is only because of the forgiveness and mercy Jesus brought that they can draw close to God.
The old Reformation phrase for this was “justification by grace through faith”. To be justified is to be made right – to have our slate wiped clean and our relationship with God mended. By grace? By a free gift from God, not because of anything we can do ourselves. Through faith? The gift we have received is the gift of faith – of trust in the One who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. Even our faith comes, not as an act of our own will, but as a gift. In other words, God wants to be in relationship so much that God is going to set things up so that all we have to do is receive what God has to offer! That’s pretty amazing when you think about it!
The Gospel of Jesus tells us that God never writes anyone off: not the man who denied Jesus, not the soldiers who crucified him nor the leaders who condemned him, not the man who persecuted Christians and held the robes of those who stoned the deacon Stephen to death, not our fallen heroes or even our criminal heroes!
Paul himself experienced a transformed relationship with God through Jesus, despite the fact that by the standards of adherence to the law of Judaism, he was already in the best relationship possible! But we all know how people can seem to be doing all the right things but not be right in their minds and hearts. This was Paul, the persecutor of Christians. Some of his arrogance and single-mindedness remained after his conversion by Christ – but it was tempered by his inner knowledge that if it weren’t for his encounter with the spirit of Jesus, he would never have found the purpose for which he believed he was born. In finding Christ, he found his true self, and a deep reliance on God beyond any self-righteousness or deeds he could do on his own.
I can’t remember who said it, but somewhere in this last year I heard the words, “We should judge a man by his angels, not his demons.” The apostle Paul had his demons, that’s for certain, but he also had his angels, just as you and I have our demons and our angels, our destructive parts and our healthy parts, our sinful side and our godly side. We’re all a mix of motives and longings and desires, good intentions and bad choices, whether we are heroes or celebrities or just everyday Janes and Joes.
We all fall – every one of us. And we are all – everyone of us – lifted up by the free offering of God’s grace and love. If you’ve ever had a hard fall, literally – a physical fall resulting in broken bones or bad bruises or a concussion – you’ll know what it’s like to find yourself lying on the ground, looking at the sky, and wondering, “How did I get here?” Many of us can identify similar moments in the trajectory of our spiritual lives. Then we call our spiritual 911, and we cry out to God, to Jesus, to rescue and to save. The good news is, no matter how far gone we are, Jesus comes to our rescue.
This is not a man I would normally quote, but I found what Martin Lloyd-Jones had to say about grace helpful. “To make it quite practical I have a very simple test. After I have explained the way of Christ to somebody I say “Now, are you ready to say that you are a Christian?” And they hesitate. And then I say, “What’s the matter? Why are you hesitating?” And so often people say, “I don’t feel like I’m good enough yet. I don’t think I’m ready to say I’m a Christian now.” And at once I know that I have been wasting my breath. They are still thinking in terms of themselves. They have to do it. It sounds very modest to say, “Well, I don’t think I’m good enough,” but it’s a very denial of the faith. The very essence of the Christian faith is to say that He is good enough and I am in Him. As long as you go on thinking about yourself like that and saying, “I’m not good enough; Oh, I’m not good enough,” you are denying God – you are denying the gospel – you are denying the very essence of the faith and you will never be happy. You think you’re better at times and then again you will find you are not as good at other times than you thought you were. You will be up and down forever. How can I put it plainly? It doesn’t matter if you have almost entered into the depths of hell. It does not matter if you are guilty of murder as well as every other vile sin. It does not matter from the standpoint of being justified before God at all. You are no more hopeless than the most moral and respectable person in the world.”
― D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure
The fallen hero and the righteous Christian are equally hopeless before God – or better yet – equally hopeful before God. That’s what Paul discovered through his own transformation…that when it comes to our relationship with God, it is God who is the primary actor. Nothing we can do will change God’s love for us, and it is always there. We reach out, and we receive it. That is all. Amen.