Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone 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. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Paul’s words “by the grace of God I am what I am” have found a resonance in the most unlikely people. From Gloria Gaynor to Lady Gaga these words have struck a chord with people who have felt rejected and oppressed by the mainstream. Gaynor made the song I Am What I Am famous but it first appeared in the gay musical La Cage aux Folles and became not only a popular song to dance to in discos but something of an lgbt anthem in the 80s. Lady Gaga’s Born this Way has a similar resonance, and became a contemporary LGBT anthem but, I suspect, this isn’t quite the legacy Paul intended.
Paul was concerned that he was also an apostle; not commissioned before the Ascension, not one of the chosen twelve, not a disciple but still an apostle despite his persecution of the Church. His apostleship came from his encounter with the Risen Christ. The end of today’s passage shows something of Paul trying to prove he was worthy of the title apostle - “his grace toward me has not been in vain….I worked harder than any of them…” Of course we only have Paul’s assessment of his work so we’re not sure if he’s being accurate or self aware nor if he had guilt from his earlier life.
Many of us can feel second best, imposters, guilty, and unworthy of the trust given to us. Many of us may even, like Paul, try to over compensate and make ourselves appear more important. Early on in my ministry a rather waspish parishioner sent me a card saying “get off the cross dear you’re not the Messiah!” A great put down but one which I still remember when I start to get too pompous, too self-important, or if I’m tempted to put a chip on my shoulder.
The words that were missed out by the writer of I am what I am were “by the grace of God.” This isn’t surprising given the context but there is something there to hold on to. Grace is undeserved, freely given, enables us to do all that is asked of us, and to be all we were created to be. By the grace of God we are what we are, born this way, fabulous, and, like Paul, commissioned to proclaim the Gospel.
Lord Jesus, you worked with the most unlikely people, you dined with collaborators, let those seen as unclean touch you, trusted those who betrayed you, and dipped your bread with deserters, yet you called those unlikely people to be your disciples. Lord Jesus, help us to remember that you call us, even when we think we’re unlikely, unworthy, untrustworthy and unclean, for by your grace we are what we are. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Branston ministers with four churches in and around Glasgow and co-ordinates the Daily Devotions from the URC.