A long time ago, in a seminary far, far away Paul Zahl taught a class called Christian Social Ethics. I was lucky enough to be one of the unsuspecting students in his class. One day Paul made a simple statement: “We are all sufferers under our sin.” It cut straight through me. I almost didn’t believe him. It was the first time that someone had validated the pain that I had experienced as a sinner. It was the first time I felt truly addressed. I was (and still am for that matter) a western, white, suburban, Christian male, you see, so I had never really suffered in my life. I had never experienced starvation or extreme poverty. I had not been persecuted for my faith. I had not been harassed or wrongfully imprisoned, and so on. But, Paul simply dismissed all of that in a single swipe. He told us to stop comparing ourselves to others, stop comparing ourselves to people in the third world, to people who are “really suffering.” He used his Jedi skills to once again level the playing field of all humanity. He destroyed the categories into which we put ourselves, the false hierarchies, and he addressed us as sinners. In one statement he acknowledged my guilt and my plight. He didn’t pull any punches. He “called a thing what it is” (to quote Gerhard Forde), and he did it with compassion.
Paul taught me that the gospel was for me that day. He destroyed the false notion that I had come to believe in (and that is commonly taught) that Christians were supposed to be less needy and improving all the time, somehow moving beyond forgiveness and getting on with being “mature” and whatever that entails. Paul knew that message led nowhere except to complete breakdown and despair. Instead, he told us the truth. The only comparison that mattered was us against the perfect demand of the law. In that light, there was no exception, we were all condemned sinners and, as a result, we had the same need…the need for grace. And Paul reintroduced us to grace that day. He pointed us back to Jesus Christ and His cross. He knows our suffering under our sin and chose to suffer it for us once and for all, so that our stories would cease to be about guilt and shame and would become about forgiveness and freedom. Paul told us about true love that day, and it changed my life forever.
Happy Birthday Paul, and thank you.