(a sermon for September 15, 2019 , the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hosea 4:1-3, 5:15-6:6 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17)
(The podcast version of this message can be found here)
In biblical parlance, they are often referred to as “trustworthy sayings,” and there are at least five of them scattered throughout the so-called “pastoral epistles;” that is, 1 and 2 Timothy and the Letter to Titus. Simply explained, these are major points that Paul wanted to make sure his readers perfectly understood before proceeding. And the thing about these sayings is that you always know they’re coming; because, first off, Paul tells you so (in the NRSV, for instance, Paul announces, “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance…”), and secondly, what follows is usually something that while absolutely essential for understanding our Christian faith what Paul is about to say might nonetheless be a little bit hard to hear and difficult to swallow!
And so it is with the “trustworthy saying” at the center of our text for this morning, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” of which, Paul hastens to add, “I am the foremost.”
Now, in at least in one sense, for Paul to proclaim that Jesus came into the world to save sinners does not seem like all that much of a radical statement or something hard to hear. I mean, after all, that Christ died for our sins on the cross is central to just about everything we know to be true about our Christian faith; certainly not anything that Paul would need to first qualify before writing to these early Christians! And yet, it does sort of hit us in an uncomfortable kind of way, does it not? Because if Christ Jesus did, in fact, come into the world to save sinners it would follow that there were (and are!) sinners to save; and if the Apostle Paul, of all people, would refer to himself as “the foremost” of sinners (or as it’s translated elsewhere, “the chief” (KJV) or “the worst” (NIV) or even “Public Sinner Number One,” as it is rendered in The Message), then what does that make you or me?
I remember back in seminary how those of us who were serving as student pastors would often return to school on Monday morning ready to commiserate on the experience of preaching to these little congregations who were at once incredibly supportive and encouraging of our efforts in the pulpit but also a bit, shall we say, skeptical, which was more than a little unnerving to us! I remember one of my classmates lamenting that he’d had an extremely difficult, to the point of nearly impossible time that week looking into the eyes of those sweet people sitting in the pews in front of him and saying that they were all, in fact, sinners in dire need of salvation! I remember this because for my part, I’d preached on pretty much the same text that Sunday; and after worship one of the sweetest of the sweet elderly ladies of that church came up to me – I’ll never forget her: her name was Alberta Burrill and I used to call her “Sunshine” because she always sat in the back of the church listening to the sermon with her eyes closed and this wonderful, peaceful smile on her face – and she took my hand in hers that morning and said, “That was very nice, deah… but you don’t want to do that very often because people wouldn’t like it.”
See what I mean about some of these “trustworthy sayings” being hard to hear?
The fact of that matter is that none of us want to think of ourselves that way, do we? Last week, as you’ll recall, we spoke here about the need, our call in Christ Jesus, to always be seeking to do the right thing in faith. I’ll be honest; as I often do after the preaching is done, I found myself sort of self-analyzing the sermon that day, and I found myself wondering if perhaps it had come off as a bit… obvious! I mean, who doesn’t think we ought to be doing the right thing, in faith or otherwise? Maybe the real question, I started thinking, is what happens when we’ve done the wrong thing? What about when our intentions are good, when we really do want to do what’s right in a given situation, but for whatever reason we just keep doing exactly the opposite? Or even worse, when it’s become so easy, so convenient, so normal, or so, well, enjoyable that the right thing to do kind of gets lost in the process? What then?
In other words, what happens when it’s begun to feel to us that if Paul is the chief and foremost of sinners then we might well be working our way up to second in command?
The Old Testament, of course, doesn’t hedge on such matters. In our other text for this morning, from the prophet Hosea, we hear an indictment of the inability of God’s people to accept any real guilt for its sin: “Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed,” (all clearly, by the way, wrong things to do!) to the point where there has been a judgment upon the land in the form of ecological disaster. “Therefore the land mourns,” says the prophet, “and all who live in it languish.” But perhaps most damning of all is the lament that despite the horrible result of such sin, Israel doesn’t seem to care: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” that which seems promising at first but ultimately and swiftly dries up in the light and heat of another day.
It would seem as though as much as Israel wished for prosperity and plenty to return they were half-hearted at best about repentance and their faithfulness to God. And the truth is, we get that, don’t we? For as much as we desire and know to do that which is right and good and in keeping with God’s precepts of love and faithfulness, all too often all those challenges and temptations we face in the heat of the day pull us away from that which logically, lovingly and spiritually seemed so very… obvious to us. It all comes back to a break in that sacred relationship we have with God; that innate human tendency to live independently, autonomously, of God… which, by the way, is the very definition of sin. But even as the cycle of doing the wrong thing again and again continues, here’s the prophet calling for God’s people to return to the Lord, “for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
…which brings us back to Paul’s letter to Timothy and his “trustworthy saying” that “Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”
Once again what we have here in these “pastoral epistles” is a very personal appeal on the part of Paul to some “faithful co-workers,” namely Timothy and Titus, dealing with some real-life challenges to the integrity and purity of the Gospel message. Simply put, these letters deal with a few of the “messier” aspects of trying to live in true faith. I love what Thomas Long writes about this: he says that most of the time we would rather read accounts of the church cruising down the highway of faith… in the Pastoral Epistles, though, we see the church on the mechanic’s lift, in the garage, and we are given guidance for performing an ecclesial engine overhaul… [which may] in fact, make them urgently important” for us today.
So, yes… Christ came into the world to save sinners, and like it or not, as hard as it may be to confess, we’re the sinners Christ came to save! But as you consider this, Paul says, remember something: that “even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (NIV) Or, as The Message puts it, “The only credentials I brought to [this ministry] were invective and witch hunts and arrogance.” But, with a heart full of thanksgiving, Paul says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.”
Think of this for a moment, friends. GRACE… a gift freely given of love and forgiveness and new life. GRACE… extended to the same one who, quoting Rick Power, who “stood as an approving witness to the stoning of Stephen, [who] dragged believers out of their homes to face imprisonment, [who] made it his sole purpose in life to crush this new movement of Christ-followers, and [who], perhaps worst of all, mistakenly thought he was serving God at the time!” And yet, Paul writes to Timothy, “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.” Paul, you see, had begun as the lowest of the low – where the wrong thing was the starting place – but the point is that his story ends in the glory of Christ. This was the assurance “sure and worthy of acceptance” that Paul wished to convey to Timothy; and for those of us seeking to do the right thing even when so often we’ve ended up doing the opposite, it’s a crucial word as well… and a reminder of true GRACE.
Perhaps it was precisely in those moments when we messed up and failed to “do the right thing” in faith and love: maybe an ill-spoken word or some regrettable action done without thinking; or else when we made a choice not to stand up or stand with someone who’d been knocked down or rejected or subjected to some manner of hatred that’s become all too common in this present age, even as we knew better. Could be an instance of discovering to your great despair that the ethical or moral standards of your life have… slipped. Or it could be, I’m just saying here, an overwhelming shock and revulsion at the depths of selfishness and the realization that your life might well have fallen far as you think possible from the life filled with God’s love and purpose. Understand, friends, it is not my desire nor am I seeking to send you forth from this place this morning stinging from words of judgment and rebuke… but I would say to each one of us here that as we are stand naked before God there is always going to be… sin. We have done the wrong thing… in the words of the old confessional, “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”
But the good news, you see, is that this isn’t the end of the story! The good news is that through mercy, in great patience and in the light of God’s limitless and overwhelming grace bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus, we are forgiven, and redeemed and saved. In the words of the anthem we heard earlier in the service, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Amazing grace that opens up a new future for each one of us as a redeemed child of God; amazing grace that opens before us brand new opportunities for finding the right thing to do in a world sorely in need of simple human kindness and true compassion, peace and justice rooted in Christian love rather than political divisiveness, and a moral and ethical center that begins from the heart. Because beloved, Christ Jesus came to save sinners – and yes, that means you and me – but Christ Jesus also came to send us forth as his disciples in the redeeming work of his Kingdom.
So let us go forth in that sacred calling, beloved; and “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen…”
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry