It was the early morning hours of January 8, 2012 when Jonathan Parisen found himself on a New York City railway staring down an oncoming train. The day was young but so far it wasn’t looking like a good one for Jonathan. Minutes earlier, he jumped off the platform and down on the tracks to retrieve his shoe. Now, unable to pull himself back up on the platform, Jonathan was facing certain death.
And then he met Steven Santiago.
Steven couldn’t just stand on the deck and watch another man get run over by a train. Steven didn’t know Jonathan but it didn’t matter. Something had to be done.
At the last possible minute Steven jumped down in front of the oncoming train, grabbed Jonathan and pushed him back up on the platform. In a matter of seconds, Jonathan Parisen went from nearly being mutilated by a train to receiving just a few bumps and bruises. The hero, Steven Santiago, didn’t make it out so well. For his troubles, he suffered severe head trauma.
Stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to rescue other ordinary people are very common. We love these kinds of stories because they remind us that there’s still some level of decency in society. Sometimes the good guys win.
But this story isn’t like that. Sure, Steven Santiago wasn’t a cape wearing super hero but he wasn’t exactly an ordinary citizen either. In the past decade, Steven served two terms in prison. Steven has a past. On at least two occasions in his life, Steven Santiago was considered the bad guy.
God has a way of using bad guys.
In Ephesians 3, Paul tells how he became a proclaimer of the gospel. He tells how he would be the one man God initially used to bring the gospel to those who for generations and generations have been “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
Paul didn’t find himself in this position because of his fine spiritual pedigree or because his grandmother was a really classy Christian lady. Instead, he attributes his standing to “the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power” (Ephesians 3:7). And then in verse 8, as if he is overcome with awe at God’s grace, Paul says, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given”.
Paul. The one that almost single handedly drove the early church from its Jerusalem headquarters by overseeing the murder of one of its most prominent members (Acts 8:1-3). The one who after that was on his way to do it again to other believers before Jesus stopped him (Acts 9). Because of God’s grace, the one who once violently opposed the church would eventually give his life proclaiming the “manifold wisdom of God” through it (Ephesians 3:10).
The Bible is one account after another of God using broken outsiders to proclaim his gospel to other broken outsiders. And it’s because of a perfect man who was broken on our behalf that we don’t stay broken outsiders. Just as Jesus’ broken body would eventually rise victorious over the grave, in Christ, we do not remain broken outsiders.
I wonder if Jonathan Parisen would have reacted differently had he known about Steven Santiago’s past. Would he have rejected Steven’s attempts to help, hoping instead for a hero with a less checkered past? What if Steven Santiago had disqualified himself from helping Jonathan Parisen for fear that his past mistakes prevented him from effectively offering any kind of help?
And I wonder how often our disappointments over our own past sins prevent us from serving the One who set us free from those very same sins. If God can use a murdering blasphemer to spread his gospel message to others, he can use me and you, former broken outsiders, to tell of his power and glory to other broken outsiders.
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
(1 Timothy 1:12-16 ESV)