Simultaneously Righteous and Sinner
Well, having a dog collar around your neck is a bit strange! I was thinking this week that now, when I walk around in public, people might assume a number of things about me. They might think I’m on my way to a fancy dress party as a zombie vicar, they might cross the road or give me a dirty look because their experience of someone in a dog collar holds negative connotations, or it could be the opposite and some might be glad to see me and want to connect with me in that moment.
And within the church itself we are also not safe from the luring desire to put the clergy on a pedestal and expect true Godly perfection.
The unhelpful thing with putting expectations of perfection on someone is that the reality is that it isn’t really perfection anyway, just what we think is perfect, and each one of us will have a variety of different expectations. It also just sets ourselves up for disappointment. Even making assumptions possibly loses the opportunity to connect and learn something about someone, which I believe is an integral part of learning to be one body united in Christ.
In the bible there was a guy who everyone made assumptions about. This guy was called Levi - I don’t know if you have heard about him (read Mark 2:13-17) - he was a tax collector. Now I’m not talking the HMRC kind, but in ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, working as a tax collector came with a lot of assumptions and the Jewish people despised them. Tax collectors were seen as greedy, untrustworthy, traitorous thieves - pocketing taxes whilst working for Roman officials that oppressed them. I kind of imagine them as a modern day dodgy bailiff or loan shark. The kind you would probably fear and feel hatred towards because they could demand that last bit of money you had.
Now picture this: Levi is in his tax collector's booth, minding his own business, when a crowd begins to buzz past him from the lake and a man named Jesus says to him two simple words: “Follow me.”
Now... before I go into this next bit, I want you to lay down any assumptions you have ever had about Jesus Christ and see what you think after this.
So... back to the story: Jesus says "follow me" and instantly Levi gets up, leaves everything behind and walks off with Jesus. Later we see that Levi puts on a proper nice party for Jesus, and I’ll tell you how I know it was proper nice: the Hebrew translation for the word "seated" means "to recline", and in those days reclining meant that you were probably seated as the most honoured at the table. Looking deeper within the text, it was very likely that Levi was having a party for all of his mates to meet Jesus.
And I have to tell you, Levi’s mates weren’t made up of a sweet ladies knitting group. In the text, these mates were referred to as ‘the sinners’. For context, we need to understand that this culture was very dualistic in who and what was good and bad, and you were typically labelled based on the family you were born in, the friends you hung out with, where you worked and how you lived. Because the Pharisees highly respected Jewish leaders of that time, they took real issue with what Jesus was doing.
Jesus, a Jewish man, the so called ‘messiah’... partying with sinners? Using the word ‘the sinners’, the passage suggests that they were a group of rebellious people who went against the Jewish laws and lived their own lives. However, theologians believe it probably goes further than that. Jesus and the disciples were already being perceived by the Pharisees as rebellious, so why would they be so concerned of Jesus sharing the same company? Therefore some theologians suggest that 'the sinners' were in fact criminals.
A common theme I find in the gospel stories is Jesus’s unconcern with how anyone’s company will make him look or the assumptions and expectations that people might have of him. What he does view as important is eating with the most despised people in the community, because no cultural barrier can stop the love of God reaching out and drawing people in.
On my journey to ordination, my biggest challenge was believing that someone like me could be called to be ordained. I didn’t do very well in school, I have lived a painful and traumatic past (as many of us have), I get my words mixed up in casual conversations and I make a lot of mistakes. But God seems to cut through all of our stuff - just as Jesus says to Levi “follow me”. Regardless of what people think about you, or what you think of yourself. Regardless of what you do for work, and no matter your sexuality, your education, your gender or your life experiences.
The image on my stole, that I wore whilst getting ordained, captured this reality in a phrase written by Martin Luther, derived from Romans 7. ‘Simul Justus Et Peccator’ which translates from Latin as ‘Simultaneously righteous and sinner.’
When I started my ordination journey, I was always trying to be the best, most Holy version of myself... to be what people wanted me to be... and I thrived on it because the majority of people thought I was great. However when I went home I felt exhausted, lonely and depressed and like no one knew the real me. My journey of ordination was about coming out of hiding, and bringing my full self to others and even to God in all its mess and beauty - which I hope has encouraged other people to feel they can come as they are. It is only Christ who has made us righteous, only the Holy Spirit that will draw us to be the people we have been made to be. So having those words on my stole is a reminder of my ability to ruin and bless. A reminder that it is not me who really leads but Christ. A reminder that grace is what draws us, and that in all of our complex human fragility in Christ we have been made righteous, not through works but by faith.
Romans 7:15 says "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do".
Romans 5 says "Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God's glory."
I believe there is that deep deep soul calling in our lives that reaches out and says “follow me” - which taps into that long life desire to just simply belong and be loved by the greatest love known. You know, that’s why I think Levi was so quick to drop his life to follow Jesus. And it's why, 13 years later, I’m still here. When my mum used to get asked by her work colleagues how she had a religious daughter, she would say “God changed Hana’s life”.
And when she says that, it’s not that I’m all of a sudden a very well behaved, good and shiny, holier than thou person. My mum would still say I am a pain in the bum at times! But I have found, since that day I became a Christian in my bedroom at 17, it’s like I encountered what I had spent my whole life searching for.
I truly believe that part of the journey of the Christian life is to experience life in all its fullness, to experience greater freedom and healing, drawing us to be confident in the people we have been made to be and to live our lives in light of that. Nurturing the world around us and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
May we grow to be people who come without expectations and assumptions. Would we learn from people different to us and make space for people to show us something new. Would we have the attitude of Jesus reaching out and drawing people in. Would we be like Levi creating safe spaces for people to encounter God. Would we be the people we have been made to be.
I am really looking forward to the next three years at St Mark's Saltney - learning everything from Hennie and the team. I’m excited to continue building relationships with you all and to see the faith building project come into fruition. And, lastly, I’m looking forward to living out my role as a pioneering curate as we enlarge our tent.