The Christian Life According to Popeye and Paul

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results. For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace.

1 Corinthians 15:10

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by Popeye the Sailor Man, whom I knew through the television cartoon. Although Popeye loved spinach—which I detested—he was nevertheless one of my heroes. He was witty, funny, and, in the end, strong enough to beat up the bad guys.

Popeye knew his brand, if you will. He was "Popeye the Sailor Man." When asked about his identity, he would say (or in some versions of his story, sing), "I yam what I yam and I yam what I yam." There's no reason to believe that Popeye was being sacrilegious here. He simply had what we might call a strong sense of self.

When the Apostle Paul describes his life in Christ, he sounds a little like Popeye, though with a crucial difference. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains that Christ appeared to him, though last among the apostles. In fact, because Paul persecuted the church, he admits that he's not even worthy to be called an apostle (15:8-9). "But," he continues, "whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results" (15:10a). The Greek of this verse could be translated more literally, "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace in me was not in vain."

Can you see the touch of Popeye in Paul? The apostle says, "I am what I am," just like the Sailor Man. But Paul adds something crucial, something Popeye never said, "By the grace of God I am what I am." Or, if you prefer, "I yam what I yam by God's grace."

Like Popeye and Paul, we need to be clear about who we are. But, unlike Popeye, we do not define ourselves by our own will or strength. Rather, we are what we are by God's grace. Our accomplishments and calling, our abilities and gifts, our very sense of who we are rests on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We not only are saved by grace through faith, but also we live by grace each day. This gives us the freedom to be who we really are: disciples of Jesus, beloved children of the Father, ministers empowered by the Spirit.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do you think of your fundamental identity as connected to God's grace? If so, how? If not, why not? How might you live differently if you were to say to yourself: "By the grace of God I am what I am"?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I can allow so many things in this world to define me: my job and my family, my education and my accomplishments, my social reputation and my economic status. Without denying that these things matter, they are not the main thing that should define me. The main thing is you: your creation and your calling, your salvation and your community, your love and your grace.

Help me, O Lord, to see myself more and more in light of your grace alive within me. May I be able to echo the words of Paul, "I am what I am by your grace." Help me to live in this grace, to be energized by it, and to give it away generously to others.

All praise be to you, O God, because I am what I am in you. Amen.