Forgiveness is the only way to live
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. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17 ESV)
In our second reading today and for the next few Sundays we hear from two letters in the New Testament – 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy which are part of three letters called the ‘Pastorals’ (including Titus) – where Paul talks to younger pastors about pastoral things. We’re eavesdropping, so to speak, or overhearing a discussion in a class on Pastoral Theology – ok, the class might be a class of one – but it is advice giving and colleague sharing. And what do they talk about?
What do you talk about at work? I expect you talk about work; about your role and function and responsibility; about your boss (it is amazing how often bosses are so out of touch!); about the people you work with – those who are good to be around – and those who don’t pull their weight; and you talk – maybe a little less (maybe not) or it is with a more selective group about yourself – your family, your weekend, what is happening in your life.
Welcome to the Pastorals – where the Apostle Paul does a lot of what I just said – talk about work, work issues, tasks to do, problems to avoid or solve, people involved, and there’s a bit of news as well. We don’t know when they were written – remember the New Testament authors were unkind to us by not stating clearly when and where they are producing their letters – and so we have to do a bit of a Sherlock Holmes and play the detective to work out some details – and we have to come clean when we’re not sure.
We’re not sure when the Pastorals were written – and some scholars think it isn’t Paul at all who wrote them but they’re lessons for church leaders – sometime in the 2nd century – dressed up as letters to teach church workers long after Paul had died. Leaving that idea, if we stay with Paul as the author and working with what we know in Acts what emerges is that after Paul had appealed to Caesar and made it to Rome, he stayed under ‘house arrest’ where he enjoyed the freedom of company and he could teach. At some point he was freed and before the later persecutions began – the ones that imprisoned and killed him – Paul did go and do more travels. Did he make it to Spain as he said he wanted to in Romans? We don’t know. But the logic of some time away from Rome in which he is directing ministry and people – writing letters to guide the younger pastors ‘fits’ and so 1 Timothy and Titus are dated early 60sAD while 2 Timothy, when Paul is back in prison and death seems to be close, is dated not too far away from whenever you have Paul being executed – 66ishAD.
Our second reading comes after Paul has directed Timothy to stay in Ephesus to proclaim the truth about the Gospel – and this involves two things – one, telling people who Jesus is clearly and unambiguously and what the consequences of following him are; and two, defending this truth from errors, misconceptions, flights of fancy, and downright ‘wrong stuff’ at every level – particularly when the preacher is in the message for himself, for his glory, for his profit, for his ego – because then he is particularly dangerous – for a preacher / teacher who wants something from you for himself will work hard to give you whatever you think you want. And religions being about God and hidden truths are particularly susceptible to the ‘cult of personality’, to people following the person – and, of course, the preacher’s goal is their compliance – not their engagement. This sort of preacher wants minds turned off – blind following – best done with rules and regulations – whereas the Gospel preacher wants minds turned on – following with your eyes open – and this is only done when it is the Gospel that sheds light on us personally and on our day-to-day living and convinces us that whatever we see – and the truth of sin and death isn’t pretty – but whatever we see doesn’t have the last word in the face of God’s first and last words – particularly when it is ‘I love you’.
You tend to bring yourself to work. Your work reflects your gifts and skills – maybe not all of them – but certainly ones your employer wants. Paul would be regarded as zealous – if the job’s to be done and he’s to do it, then it won’t be half-hearted and ready to down tools at the first opportunity – no, he’s the guy that does overtime not for the money but because he wants the job done well. Paul’s studious – he knows his job well – he’s well trained in quality control. And so when Paul is talking about faith – true faith and false faith – his personal ‘back story’ – his life and his past deeds – can’t be too far from his mind – and from the minds of his audience or colleagues if they know him. And he was so good at his former faith that he was a persecutor with such zeal that his reputation was well known – so much so that he was feared in those early years after his conversion and I think that’s the reason why he seems to have gone ‘quiet’ in those early years after his conversion when he spent his time ministering / being a pastor – possibly for well over a decade – in no limelight – until Barnabas came and got him for mission work.
Now he’s writing a long time after all this drama of persecution. Now the persecution associated with Paul is the persecution of him. And it isn’t hard for us to imagine how persecution shapes Paul – both what he did prior (the hurt and damage and death) and what he endures now. And this is only possibly because of the mercy and grace of God. Paul isn’t claiming his ignorance of Jesus meant that God went ‘easy on him’ and implying that other persecutors or false teachers should get punished by God for all error and unbelief is ignorance of God – no matter how certain the person believes himself or herself to be. All those who reject, oppose, hold at arm’s length, distort, twist God in Christ into something he is not are ignorant and yet God continues to show mercy towards people – of which Paul is the living testimony.
He is not suggesting however that people should ‘go bad’ before they ‘come good’. His message is precisely that he wants people to avoid the pain and hardship ignorance causes you and the people around you. His centrality of the Gospel – the key being forgiveness – is God’s love for all people and it is love that captures people, brings them alive as they never knew life could be, and sets them in this world in a new relationship with God and with the world and everything / everyone in it. Of course people – all of us – have our own sins and shames – it isn’t a matter of one-upmanship in the ‘who is the worst sinner’ department – but together we are beggars of God’s mercy – so that we can live without letting sin have the last word on us or on the people around us.
And that’s the point for Timothy – that the Gospel is power to speak the truth in love – words that are merciful from God and words that confront error and unbelief. What is hard for us particularly at times is to deliver those words – in words and deeds – mercifully. It is so easy to adopt an attitude of judgement meaning condemnation – being the moral policeman – rather judgement meaning diagnosis – being the doctor so to speak and offering both the correct label for the disease and the right medicine by which the person can be healed from that disease. No general antibiotics here – but specific words of law for specific sins – the ones we’re actually doing – and specific mercy – absolution even – for those sins – so that life – a much healthier life than before – can come forth.
Our second reading sets the scene for the letter which offers specific advice about a range of matters – and that scene is that no matter our sins – not that we should aim to be as bad as we can – but no matter what they are, God is always ready to forgive. And even – and this dangerous – when we twist, distort, reject – all or in part – God’s Word in Christ – than our ignorance is deadly to us – but still God in mercy speaks to us, encounters us, waves a cross before us – and draws us to him so that we might be forgiven.
How was your week at work? Lived it perfectly?
How was your week at home? Sin free?
How was your week when you were all alone? Guilt free?
In this world – and the people around us usually feel it the worst – sin still clings to us – and it seeks to damage and kill and cut us off from each other and especially God.
And that’s why the Gospel is so precious – for where else will you have forgiveness that will change your life one day at a time?
- 1 Timothy 1:12 - 17