Why would Saint Paul call himself the “first among sinners” in today’s Epistle Reading? He was the greatest apostle who helped spread the Good News of Jesus Christ outside of the Jewish world and into the Greco-Roman world. Yet, despite all his accomplishments as an apostle to the nations, he writes to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners.”
How could St. Paul consider himself the greatest among sinners? And if he was, what does that say about you and me?
Saint John Chrysostom, the great Church Father who produced our Divine Liturgy with which we worship every Sunday, says in the Prayer that we all offer before Holy Communion, “I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” When St. John wrote this prayer, he was writing it for himself, not for everyone to recite, and he highlights that he is the first among sinners.
How could St. John Chrysostom consider himself the greatest among sinners? And if he was, what does that say about you and me?
Other great Church Fathers and saints highlighted this same spirit of looking at themselves as the first among all sinners. Was it hyperbole? What did they mean by this? How could they truly see themselves as the first among sinners? Did they truly think that they were worse sinners than so many others who surely didn’t live holy lives in Christ like these great saints?
It wasn’t hyperbole but perspective. The closer we draw to God, the clearer we see ourselves as we truly are, as well as we see ourselves as we can become – as the first among sinners as well as beloved children of God.
Imagine looking at an icon from a great distance; you are so far away you can barely see it. Maybe you can’t even see the icon at all because of the distance. Yet as you approach closer and closer, the icon comes into view and slowly it comes into focus. As you continue to draw nearer and nearer, you realize who the icon is of and even the little details of the icon now become crystal clear.
I think this is as an analogy for the way the saints encountered Christ in their own lives. When one lives far, far away from Jesus, they take no notice of him. Their perspective is such that Christ may not even appear on the radar screen of their life. Yet as one journeys in the direction toward God and as one opens up their heart and mind to Christ, walking toward Him, what happens? Christ not only comes into view, but the closer one draws to our Lord, the clearer He becomes. Once we can see Christ clearly, He then helps us see who we truly are as well as who we are called to become.
The Apostle Paul, Saint John Chrysostom and the greatest of saints drew so close to God that they no longer compared themselves to other people. Saint Paul would say “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Through this perspective of Christ, they didn’t look at the shortcomings of others and compare them with their own holiness. No, instead, they kept their eyes solely on Christ and compared themselves only to Him. By doing this, they saw clearly their own sins. How can anyone stand before the countenance of God and claim to be righteous? No one can!
In this way the Apostle Paul understood that he is the first among sinners. Saint John Chrysostom could write his prayer and honestly confess that Christ came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am the first” not by exaggerating, but by comparing himself only to Christ, and Christ alone.
Here is the lesson that each of us can learn. How often do we justify our own actions, or praise ourselves because we compare ourselves to others? Instead of seeing how crazy the world is and thinking that this shows how sane we are, we need to adjust our standard of judgment and not compare ourselves to the world at all, but to Christ alone. Jesus Himself is the only standard by which we should look at ourselves, the only standard by which we judge ourselves.
Christ taught us not to look at the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log that is in our own eye. We must never compare ourselves with our neighbor. Only God know the talents, the potential, and the life of our neighbor. We must only look at ourselves and then turn to Christ. He is the standard by which we and all humanity will be judged.
Thus, we look at Christ, we see how far short we fall of the ideal, of the perfect man. By looking at Jesus alone, we will confess, “I am the first among sinners.” Yet, when we look at Christ, we also will see how great and unfathomable His love for us is. His mercy and grace give us hope to believe in ourselves, to believe in the image and likeness in which we were created, to believe in the divine potential we possess.
After the Apostle Paul confesses that he is “the foremost of sinners,” he then states, “but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost of sinners, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life.”
So, God took the foremost of sinners and turned him into an example for the rest of the world. If God can transform the life of Paul, the foremost sinner, He can do it with us also.
When we have the humility to see ourselves as we truly are, we won’t despair. Yes, we are the first among sinners. But we will also say, “Yes, but God’s mercy and love is greater than my sin.” Viewing ourselves with humility will teach us to discover the divine potential that God has given to every human being.
In some ways, this is the meaning of Saint Silouan’s famous saying, “Keep your mind in hell but do not despair.” We keep our mind in hell because we are deserving of hell, the first among sinners. We never despair, however, because God’s mercy and grace far exceed our own sinfulness.
How could St. Paul and St John Chrysostom consider themselves the greatest among sinners, and what does that say about you and me? It reminds us that we also are the first among sinners, but we are also sinners redeemed by God’s grace.