Sermon shared with friends at Emporia Friends Church
1 Timothy 1:12–17 (NRSV)
Gratitude for Mercy
(Cp Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–19)
12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
How many of us have for a moment considered how we have gotten to where we are today? Looking back on my life, it actually seems like a miracle that I am standing here. I say this because I know my history better than you do. In fact I have the luxury of standing here in a place where most of you that know me or know of me only know the good things about me. You know that I am a pastor, that I am a friend of your pastor and her family’s, that I happen to be the elder of the north east area of Friends, and that I am a mediocre to decent parent (I can honestly say that that is a gift from God because I still do not really know what I am doing). But most of you do not know the deeper things of my life that brought me here today. Those deeper things are usually not spoken about in regular conversation because those pains and struggles, those personal vices that I have are often the things that tarnish a reputation and if we are honest would actually keep me and every other pastor that has and does exist from being seen as a leader within the assembly of Christ. So I keep those things quiet, I do not mention them unless I am around the closest of my friends. Why do I do that, why do we all do these sorts of things?
We often look back on the ancient church as being something to emulate today. They were people that lived their faith and saw the hand of God working all around them, and no matter what happened in the world they stood firm through increasingly terrifying persecutions. But this golden age of history was not as pure as we think. To be honest it could have been a scary time to be a part of the church, not because of the persecutions, but because there was nothing to fall back on. There was no creeds to say, this is what I believe. There was no set formula as to what the meeting for worship would look like. At times it might be difficult to even know for sure where the church would gather at any given moment, or even who would be there. All these unknowns and yet the church grew. It grew to such a degree that as we flip through the pages of history we can see it emerged to be the largest religious expression in the entire world.
These people would joyfully find their meetings, they would sing, pray, listen to teachings, and would break bread with one another. They would go out into their communities saturated with the spirit of God and would boldly speak when lead to speak, they would offer hospitality, they would anoint the sick with oil and pray for healings (and sometimes they would see their prayers answered), and they would care for those that would have no one to look out for them. At times when I cannot sleep I will read about that church so long ago, the church that started it all and wonder what it was that allowed this to happen.
Today we read a portion of the first letter to Timothy. These letters are unique in many ways but one of the most striking is that this letter was not written to a church as most of the letters Paul composed were. It is one of the few letters that were addressed to individuals within the larger assembly. This is important to remember because some of the issues raised within the letter may not necessarily be commands for the larger body, but are word to encourage just one family or person. Timothy is a young pastor living in the city of Ephesus. Paul went to this town and began to preach and teach among the people and when he left that city he encouraged Timothy to stay to encourage the members to continue to walk along the pathway of discipleship. It is a personal letter. Written to encourage one leader, as he encouraged the others within the community.
Timothy was a young man compared to the others in leadership. I am sure if we really wanted to figure out what his age might have been we could probably find a good explanation somewhere, but that is not the point. Timothy was a man; a human just like us. A man that was discouraged because life just was not working out the way he imagined it was going to work out. He was a companion of Paul, he had seen the miraculous feats that can only be described as divine guidance, but he was no longer on the missionary journey. Now he lived among the people, one man in a community filled with people who of various gifts, his vocation was assist in the development of this community as they all worked to advance the kingdom of Christ.
The issue is that Timothy was discouraged, he began to wonder how did I get here, and why am I here? Paul steps in to help Timothy work through these struggles and to redirect his focus. There is one thing that we know for sure about this church on the coast of Turkey, they were very devoted and religious people. They were known by the resurrected Christ as being a people devoted to correct teachings, and Timothy appears to be feeling a bit insignificant possibly saying like so many of us, “If they really knew who I am they would never listen to me again.”
Paul writes to Timothy, reminding him of who the apostle is. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecute, and a man of violence, who acted ignorantly in unbelief.” This is not the first time that Paul reminds people of who he is, in pretty much every letter he wrote Paul reminds people just who the person is that God called to participate in such an important quest. This is an important discipline that Paul shows us, he confesses, he lets people know that he is not a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. He reminds all who is willing to listen that he is not qualified to do what he does in himself.
“I was a blasphemer.” When we here this word today we often connect it to aspects of theological doctrine. Today we use this term primarily when speaking about those who teach error within the church. But the term could also be seen as severe slander. The purposeful statements made to cast doubt on the character of an individual with the hopes of removing the influence they might have over others. But this goes even deeper not only do blasphemers what to cast doubt on the character of others, they actually seek the prosecution of these individuals based on the lies they perpetuate. So when Paul says I was a blasphemer, he is not saying I taught a false doctrine, but he is saying I purposefully misrepresented others with the hopes of getting them killed.
“I was a persecution.” We in America have a skewed idea of persecution. We tend to get the idea in our head that if people do not agree with us and actively support ideas contrary to our own, that those in opposition are persecuting us. Persecution is active opposition, it is the reactionary physical reaction to blasphemy. In essence it is riots in the streets with the expressed intention to push ones beliefs on to others, and to quarantine the opposition from the community preferably placing the blame on the minority.
“I was a man of violence.” Not only did he use words to insight rage in others, not only did he seek to quarantine the opposition, but he actively participated in the physical removal of their influence. He led the charge, he cast the first stone, and he raised the sword and encouraged others to join in the cause. He did not see a problem with it because if you opposed his position it was war.
But these things are no longer who he is, because he was granted mercy because he acted in ignorance. Ignorance is another interesting word, because it is the lack of knowledge or error. Paul was not an unintelligent person by any stretch. In his own testimony he tells us that according to the world’s understanding he was off the charts a leader of leaders in his generation. He was destined to be great because no one knew as much as he did, yet he still did not have knowledge. He did not know. He did not know that in his blasphemy he was actually slandering the God that he claimed to love. He did not know that those he persecuted were the very people his God loved. He did not know that the violence that he was encouraging and participating in was actually killing those that were encouraging the followers of the one true God to live their belief in everything they did. He did not know.
Paul tells Timothy that it is not about being good enough, it is not about being smart enough, for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven it requires that we let go of ourselves and allow God’s grace to reign. Paul says I was the worst of all sinners, yet through the Grace of God the one that would kill became the one to be killed. Jesus came to live among humanity, he came to show and teach us how to live a life in communion with God. He came to empower us to live that life directed by the Spirit. He came to provide the way and the means by dying on the cross removing at once everything that kept us from God. He was buried in the ground and rose again to give us victory through Him. And when we join with Christ, when we allow His life to flow through us amazing things happen.
Paul tells Timothy, and each of us that our story is powerful. The story that brought you to this point is one that is filled with mercy and grace, pain and struggle, doubt and hope. But that power flows if we are honest with one another. That power only flows if we are willing to take ourselves off of the pedestal and let Christ be seen through us.
So what is your story? What brought you here? I grew up in a Friends Church in North Central Kansas. I came from a family that I am very proud of people of great faith through many hardships. But my family cannot save me. I wanted to be smart. I did not really latch onto the faith of my ancestors because I loved science. Nearly nineteen years ago everything in my life changed. It began around Halloween when on an ice morning my brother and sister were in a car accident and my sister died. Every doubt I had about God seemed to be confirmed. I numbly went through life, seeking knowledge and playing the role of a good and faithful son. But I did not have comfort in my own grief. So I sought comfort elsewhere, the result of that is now a handsome senior in high school. I was a sinner. In my pursuit of knowledge I became ignorant of God, which led me down a path that resulted in an unplanned child to two parents that were too young. But when I held James the first time I heard God say yes that is how much I love you. And a new journey began. My life took on a new focus, how will I teach this child to be the man I failed at becoming? I realized that I needed God even though I did not know if God even existed. This new journey took me across the ocean to Odessa, Ukraine where God really began to work in my life. That is when God called me to take all that passion for knowledge and redirect it to Him, and it was confirmed in my mind the following fall while I sat in my pickup eating lunch between classes, where God seemed to ask me if I really loved him. This is where most of you begin to know me. You know me as the pastor, not the scared father of a son born out of wedlock. You know me as a pastor, not the guy who gave up on a dream for something different. It is God’s grace that got me here. Not my own self-righteousness. You only see part of the picture, but there is so much more.
Timothy like every one of us was a discourage leader in a community. He was not enough to meet the challenge before him. Of course he isn’t because he is human, just like us. Why do we try to act as if we can meet the challenge before us in our own power, when we can barely live our own life? But Paul took this discouraged leader and told him that may be who you were, but there is more to the story. God’s grace is with you. God’s grace strengthens and empowers you. God’s grace came down from heaven for the sinners of which you are the foremost. God’s grace came and is overflowing through us to splash onto those around us with the love and mercy of Christ.
We are all human, and everyone knows it. We all fail at times, but there is hope. Be honest with yourselves and with those in this community and love those we see as sinners because Jesus see them just as he sees you. They are all someone worth dying for.