Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2016
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Commentary
In the first century—and really for a large chunk of the church’s history—most everything a given person knew had to be memorized and carried around in one’s head. There were no published materials, no pamphlets or tracts or catechisms. Not surprisingly, then, by the time the Pastoral Epistles were written it is clear that the church had developed a variety of pithy Gospel summaries that were easy to memorize and that captured core dynamics of Christian faith and beliefs. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the Apostle Paul was able to lend his apostolic stamp of approval to any number of these “trustworthy sayings” that Paul deemed to be theologically accurate and useful in communicating the Gospel.
There are about a half-dozen such sayings scattered in the Pastorals. A couple of them are a little hard to delineate—lacking quote marks around the actual saying itself, it’s a little hard to know where the saying leaves off and Paul’s commentary picks up. But the saying in 1 Timothy 1:15 is pretty clear. The faithful or trustworthy saying in question was the very essence of the Good News: “Christ Jesus Came into the World to Save Sinners.” It’s a veritable bumper sticker of a saying. Short, direct, to the point and absolutely correct in terms of the purpose behind Jesus’ life and ministry. For all that has been written in theological history—for all the commentaries and catechisms and systematic theology volumes—that really is the most basic truth of them all: Jesus Saves! Jesus Saves Sinners! He did not come for those who were convinced they had no sin or that there is no such thing as sin. He did not come for those who first got their own spiritual acts together. He came for the moral train wrecks we all are when left to our own fallen devices.
And what’s more, his advent into this world is most welcomed by those who know—or who can become convinced at least—that they really are lost. If to the best of your knowledge all the plumbing in your house is working just fine, then the unannounced arrival of a plumber at your front door will not only not be a welcome development in your afternoon, you will politely tell him to go away. But if your basement is filling with water from a busted pipe—or if the plumber tells you the city has experienced a sudden drop in water pressure and they think it’s all going into your basement—then you will embrace the plumber’s presence with great ardor and rejoice that something can be done!
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” If you knew that much in the early church—if you could memorize and repeat just that much information—then you were well on your way to convincing people why the Gospel = “Good News” indeed.
In the verses that come just before this particular Year C Lectionary reading Paul reminds Timothy to contend for the truth of the faith and he does so in the teeth of a lot of apparent foolishness and complicated myths that were floating around the ancient world. Some of what was going on, Paul implies, led to endless and fruitless speculation on a whole range of things. And so among other things, Paul’s recitation of this simple trustworthy saying was a reminder that at the end of the day, the Gospel is really pretty straightforward. It’s not finally that complex. We’re broken. God wants to fix us. In Christ he does. Our relationship with God went south a long time ago. Jesus enables a reunion. Now, of course, there are great depths to all that, too. The Gospel is not finally a simple thing. Figuring out why God’s only Son had to suffer and die the way he did is properly a bracing theological task.
And yet . . . there is this core simplicity to it, too. As someone once noted about John’s Gospel: the Gospel is like a body of water that is shallow enough that a toddler can safely splash around it yet deep enough to drown an elephant.
Meanwhile, in the course of approving the accuracy of this faithful saying, Paul trots out his own former self as Exhibit A of the Gospel’s truth. Timothy knows enough of his mentor’s past that Paul need not fill in the details of his dark days as a Jesus-hater. A mere allusion to his violence and blasphemy sufficed. Saul of Tarsus was nasty business. That he carried out all his violent abuse and persecution in the name of the very God he’d later know as the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ only made his crimes the more heinous. God would have been well within his divine rights to swat Saul to deepest hell forever.
But he didn’t. Why not? Because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Saul may have been the poster boy for blasphemy but he was simultaneously the exact kind of person Jesus most wanted to save by grace alone. And now that he was saved by grace, Paul could assure anyone that there is no such thing as a lost cause, as a person not worthy of someone’s time or effort to save through the message of the Gospel. There is always hope. There is always the possibility of resurrection.
That’s just what the Gospel is all about. And you don’t need more than even ten words to get the gist of it!
In Frederick Buechner’s memorable framing of it, Saul of Tarsus set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ. He went from being convinced that eternal life was bought on an installment plan of good works to believing that God is about as wildly loose with his saving grace as Crazy Eddie the used car salesman whose TV ads feature Eddie hopping up and down like a mad man in promising that he’ll do ANYTHING to make you a good deal. It ends up being all grace, all undeserving. That whole thing about God’s grading on the curve? Forget about it. That whole story that said God goes around handing out moral medals to those who had worked the hardest to be good on their own? Forget about it. That whole way of thinking—as Paul indelicately had once put it in his letter to the Philippians—is really just a giant pile of crap. In fact, Paul himself had once been a piece of crap but now shined with the light of Jesus as God’s #1 agent in bringing the Gospel to the whole world.
So many love songs or films in history have been premised on the idea “It Could Happen to You.” Frank Sinatra crooned about it. Others have sung that if true love could find a schmuck like me, it might come your way too. “You don’t think it’s possible—well, look at me and think again” is the idea.
The Nicholas Cage/Bridget Fonda movie It Could Happen to You was premised on the idea that sometimes the best things in life come from out of a clear blue sky in the most unlikely way possible. A cop has to rush out of a café and cannot leave the waitress a tip. He had just bought a lottery ticket earlier that morning and tells her that in lieu of a tip, if he wins, she gets half. “Yeah right” is her common-sense response. And then, of course, the cop wins $4 million and makes sure she gets half (even if doing so ruins his own marriage).
Crazy things happen. And sinners who get caught up by the truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” know this more keenly than anyone. It’s the one “too good to be true” scenario that really is true. “Just look at me” Paul writes.
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