From Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Every now and then we hear a story about someone who reaffirms our faith in humanity. We need to be reminded that good people exist; that there are people willing to take risks for the benefit of our shared humanity; people willing to risk everything for other people they know for no other reason than those strangers are people. Knowing this is vitally important in light of all the brokenness in our world. This past December USA Today ran an article profiling the service men and women of 2006 who were awarded medals of honor because they sacrificed their lives for one another and the people they were called to protect. I was humbled as I read their stories of selflessness and deeply grateful for their service. What one often hears from other soldiers and families of the fallen soldiers in response to their sacrificial deaths is that those soldiers were just doing their job.
But how does one explain the action of a man like Wesley Autrey? You may have heard of this New Yorker and his astonishing feat on January 2 of this year. The New York Post tagged him the “Subway Superhuman.” Mr. Autrey leapt in front of an on-coming train to rescue a stranger who had suffered a seizure and fallen onto the subway tracks. He covered the stranger’s convulsing body with his own as the train screamed overhead, with so little room to spare that afterward, Mr. Autrey’s wool hat was smeared with grease from the undersides of the cars that had grazed it. Both men lived. Mr. Autrey literally laid down his life for another. “I just tried to do the right thing,” said the 50-year-old Harlem construction worker and Navy veteran. “It ain’t about being a hero, it was just being there and helping the next person. That’s all I did.”
What is even more extraordinary about his feat is that his two young daughters were there with him on the platform when he jumped. According to the behaviorists, ethicists and psychiatrists who analyzed his behavior in another article I read, the power of the parent-child bond should have overwhelmed any tendency Mr. Authrey had to place himself in harm’s way. It did not. The other thing they pointed out is that Mr. Autrey is black and the man whose life he saved is white. His act was color-blind.
So let me explain what Paul is writing to the Corinthians, and what it has to do with the Subway Superhuman. Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the gospel truth—the very truth that should guide all of their actions. In essence he is saying: Christ died for your sins; he was buried; he was raised from the dead. He has a claim on your life now. You have no choice but to open yourself to the work of God in your life and for others in theirs. For Paul, what one believes has to have a direct connection to how one behaves. And how one behaves reflects one’s beliefs.
Paul then goes on to describe the timeline of those to whom the resurrected Christ appeared. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (15:9). Paul is owning up to his past of violent behavior towards Christians. He was a zealous bounty hunter until his conversion on the road to Damascus. He confesses: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” Paul is telling them that God loved an unlovable person and changed him.
I am what I am. That’s right–Paul said it first, not Popeye. “I am what I am and you cannot make me change!” How many times have you uttered that to yourself or to others when they wanted new or different behavior from you? Whenever my husband says or does something I find displeasing, his standard response to me when I voice my displeasure is “For better or worse baby!” It was kind of funny when he said it the first time in 1999.
Let me state for the record that I am not suggesting that unless we match the heroics of Wesley Autrey we will fall short of the glory of God. I wish I could be so naïve. No, what I am asking is that you allow the grace of God to work in your life–to trust it and to own it and not be afraid of what it calls you to do or to become. And keep in mind that what God has in mind for you will be different from the grace of God working in my life and in that of the next person. For Mr. Autrey it was almost second nature to jump in front of that train. Almost, but not quite: Because he made a choice. And it was a choice few of us would have made. In an article entitled “Why Our Hero Leapt Onto the Tracks and We Might Not” one sociology professor said that in interviewing Holocaust rescuers and 911 responders, he found that people who acted heroically often came from more nurturing families and were imbued with an ethic of caring, empathy and compassion. That very ethic describes our Christian heritage. Jesus taught and lived a life imbued with those characteristics and he has passed them on to us. To share with our family here at St. James’s, and out in the world. And to nurture our families at home in the same way.
When God calls us to lay down our lives for others, there are many expressions of that call. For some it might be the risk of joining a mission team to the Sudan, for others it might be marching for peace in Washington as I know some of you did last weekend, and for others it might simply be showing kindness, compassion, respect and tolerance of others. Don’t be naïve in thinking that your icy politeness to the next unkempt homeless person or struggling alcoholic that walks through our door looking for a cup of coffee will get you off the hook. You’re selling yourself short if you do. There has to be some sort of sacrifice involved. Only you know what that entails for you.
We have a collective story and history based on Christ’s life, his death and resurrection, and we celebrate it and live it out today in a very tangible way with the baptisms of these children. When Paul writes “I am what I am” he is saying, God loves me and with the power of God’s love I can be the person he created me to be. It is not my doing but God’s doing and if I trust that I need not be afraid.
This is the legacy we begin and will leave with these very children who will be marked as Christ’s own at their baptism.
Let me leave you with a short prayer that might be your catalyst for change: God help me to be a better human being more of the time. At the conclusion of my sermon we will sing the hymn “Surely it is God who saves me.” The words are right on with Paul’s message. Surely it is God who saves me; trusting him, I shall not fear. For the Lord defends and shields me and his saving help is near. So rejoice as you draw water from salvation’s living spring; in the day of your deliverance thank the Lord, his mercies sing.