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of Full Acceptance"
1 Timothy 1:12-17
It has been facetiously argued that if one cannot serve as a model for success, perhaps one can serve as a horrible example for failure. In other words, instead of providing a list of things to do and be in order to succeed, one can provide a list of things to avoid doing and being.
For Christians there should be no question that our model for success according to our Christian values is Jesus of Nazareth. We even prompt our children with questions like “What would Jesus do?”
But is there a model for things to avoid doing, for a life to avoid living? It’s more likely that we would need to put together lots of bits and pieces of events from the Biblical stories. We might start with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus; but he was one of the disciples, and his downfall was his singular act of selling out Jesus with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver to the high priests.
And then there was Peter, who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed on the night he was betrayed.
We can also find momentary lapses of faith on the part of the disciples, and we can find evidence that their patience was never as great as that of Jesus. When Jesus fed the five thousand, the disciples wanted to send them home.
When children approached Jesus, the disciples wanted to send THEM home, also; or at least get them out of the way.
But much of the time the disciples were behaving much like anybody else would. They were by no means saints, and sometimes we get the feeling that Jesus selected the twelve at random.
One might argue that the Pharisees, who seemed to be hounding Jesus at every turn, could serve as horrible examples. But it would seem that as a group they simply embodied a faceless fear of change.
They’d always done things a certain way, and here came this itinerant preacher from Galilee messing up their party.
But if we want to put a face on the antithesis of Christ, if we want to embody a personality, my choice would be the former Saul of Tarsus, who became, after his conversion, the apostle Paul.
In his first letter to Timothy, he writes, in the twelfth verse of the opening chapter, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service.”
Well, he had not always been grateful; and I’m not so sure that “faithful” is the best word for how Christ judged him. Listen to the third verse of the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:
“But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
And later in the opening verses of the ninth chapter:
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Paul sounds a bit like a cross between a bounty hunter and a storm trooper. And “zealous” might be a more descriptive term than “faithful.” He was indeed enthusiastic in his acts of persecution of Christians.
It’s also interesting that Paul tells Timothy that Christ “appointed me to his service.” Well, that’s a bit of a stretch. If he had not been struck blind on the road to Damascus, it would have been necessary to drag him kicking and screaming into any appointment.
As it was, however, for three days he was blind, and he only regained his sight when the Christian Ananias laid his hands on him.
But I think that we can forgive Paul this whitewashing he does of his reputation, because what follows is a forthright confession of who and what he really was.
He notes that Jesus “appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”
This stuff we know from the eighth and ninth chapters of the Acts of the apostles. At least we know about the persecution and the violence.
But there are other things we know about Paul that are not in those chapters and not in this passage in the first letter to Timothy.
Especially we know that Paul was a Pharisee, and a very well-trained and well-educated Pharisee. Let’s be quite clear about this: he may have been a persecutor and a man of violence, but he was not simply a brute, a thug, or some type of first century hit man.
He tells us, in the fourteenth verse of the opening chapter of his letter to the Galatians, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”
So not only was Paul a really nasty person, by his own admission, but, in other letters, he reveals that he was also a rather bright, intelligent person.
Indeed, if he had NOT been such a bright intelligent person, his letters would not have continued to carry meaning for us across two millennia.
So how did Paul attain this so-called appointment from Christ, in spite of all his wrongdoing? He tells us:
“But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.”
And it sounds like Paul is saying, “I really didn’t know any better.” But I think that there was more than “unbelief” behind Paul’s actions. He could have been an “unbeliever” without being a persecutor and a man of violence. And IF he acted ignorantly, of WHAT was he ignorant? He most certainly was not ignorant of the Jewish law, being a practicing Pharisee.
And I really doubt that he was ignorant of current events, even if he had never personally seen or heard Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime.
So I would argue that the mercy which Paul has received is greater than even he lays claim too. He has received mercy IN SPITE OF his acting violently in his unbelief.
But regardless of how we take apart these claims of Paul, the next verse is unquestionably true: “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
It’s easy for us to read about overflowing love, and to think about it, and to think we believe it, but what kind of handle do we really have on “overflowing love”?
I firmly believe that down deep human beings are inherently good. In fact we may be better than we give ourselves--and God--credit for.
Most of my years as a pastor have been spent in rural areas serving folks who have lived most of their lives in rural areas.
And when folks who spend most of their time in rural areas think of cities, especially very large cities, they tend to think of a congestion of impersonal humanity. And in New York City, Manhattan Island has the highest population density in the country.
But three years ago, the tragedies of the morning of September 11 brought out the best in humanity from the folks on that island: people caring for people. In fact, so swift was the response to the airliners collisions with the World Trade Center Towers that it was estimated that there may be have been dozens of fire trucks and possibly hundreds of fire-fighters buried in the rubble.
But as soon as the crisis struck, both within the towers and on the ground, there was an immediate concern shown not only for each individual’s survival, but also for the survival and care of others.
That concern continued--and continues to this day--in what has proved to be a long, long process. On the site, where the rubble was six to seven stories deep, huge crews needed to work through it.
In the hospitals, emergency personnel were tested to their limits.
And whenever I read, or heard, or saw accounts of people’s responses to this tragic event in the newspapers, on the radio, on television, I continued to believe that I was witnessing the overflowing love of God working through humanity in responding to a tragedy the dimensions of which we are still attempting to grasp.
But let’s get back to Paul. He tells us that “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.”
Paul is emphatic and unequivocal on the purpose of Jesus Christ. However, and this may be splitting hairs, in other letters Paul argues with equal force that Jesus DIED to save sinners. And, of course, we can argue that BOTH are true.
And I WOULD argue it: both his life and death are important components of his reason for being. Indeed, the manner in which he died was an extension of the manner in which he lived.
But whether it is his living or his dying we focus on, we still come back to his reason for being--to save sinners. And then Paul tells us: “I’m the worst case scenario.” He confesses that he is the foremost among sinners; he is the worst kind.
If there was anyone who needed saving, it was Paul.
Now, I don’t want to demean scripture or the history of the church, but this is also a contemporary phenomenon.
People who are failures at something overcome their failures, and then write articles and books, make tapes, and conduct seminars on how others can overcome their failures. And what they are saying is, “I was a terrible example. But I have overcome my failure and you can too.”
The difference between Paul and contemporary entrepreneurs is that Paul knows perfectly well where the credit lies. Paul knows that he did not pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
Paul knows that God, working through the resurrected Christ, who in turn is working through his disciples, has made this change in his life possible.
And because Paul is a horrible example,
“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.”
In other words, if Jesus can bring goodness out of Paul, he can do it with ANYBODY.
And I like that bit about “the utmost patience.” How patient is God? Patient enough to put up with the worst kind of sinner.
Paul sees himself as being chosen BECAUSE of his sin, not in spite of it. Paul believes that he was shown mercy to serve as an example.
And indeed, does not God frequently work what seem to be miracles to bring about success in people who seem to be absolute failures?
Personally, I’ve heard too many success stories to not believe that God is capable of taking what would appear to be worst possible cases and turning them into successes.
And then Paul pronounces benediction: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
It was said many times during the week following September 11, 2001, that our lives had been changed forever, that our country had been changed forever. Actually, I believe that our lives and our country are constantly changing.
But the difference that week was that we experienced one of the deepest tragedies of human history. And it was sad, and it was painful. And there was no escaping the agony of human loss.
But for those of us with a firmly based faith, we know that God has, in our faith history, taken tragedies and turned them around. He did that with Jesus. He did that with Paul. And throughout history God has worked with humanity to bring it to new life.
Let us be in constant prayer and praise to God as we continue to keep the faith and work with God to bring brighter tomorrows. Amen.
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