Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 22, 2019
1 Timothy 2:1-7 Commentary
Concerned about the divisions, the dissension from doctrine, and the deplorable way their inner congregational conflict looked to nonbelievers, Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to try to make things better in the church. Back in chapter 1 verse 3, Paul reminded Timothy what he charged Timothy to do when he left: “instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculation rather than divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” In other words, Paul charged Timothy to correct the congregational members in a way that people experienced the actual transformation of the Holy Spirit because without such Spirit-filled correction, the changes would not last. The main goal wasn’t to get the toppled power structure upright again, but for the faith to be real.
This week’s lectionary section brings us to the first explicit instructions Paul gave to the young leader who had the seemingly impossible task of helping the church in Ephesus pull itself out from under the influence of the bad teachers and back on the Jesus way.
In Paul’s eyes, the very first step was prayer! What a novel idea! The first step to address the divisions, the dissension from truth, and the church’s relationship with the community, was, and is, to pray. And not just pray, but to intercede, to make supplications for, to give God thanks for… EVERYONE. Enemy… friend… foe… stranger… family… oppressor… ally… people in power… Paul… Timothy… the false teachers… the people being led astray by the false teachers… EVERYONE. Well thanks, Paul, no wiggle room there!
Paul urged Timothy and the church in Ephesus to make prayers of all kinds for all kinds of people because that reflected the desires of God for all people. Praying for people in more than one kind of way is a specific spiritual exercise that keeps the people we pray for humans. In other words, when we get into a rut of praying for people—especially when we are praying for people that fall more on the ‘enemy’ end of the spectrum—we can easily dehumanize them by making our prayers only about what we want to see changed. But when we can sit with the Holy Spirit long enough to be able to pray with thanks for our enemy (WHAT?!), or we can pray God’s blessing upon them by interceding for them (WHAT?!), or we can pray for them to have their needs met in specific ways by God, i.e. supplications (WHAT?!), we are reminded that they are more than the conflict and/or bad behaviour we want to see changed. Not surprisingly, praying all the kinds of prayers is the kind of prayer life that finds itself in the stream of prayers that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are continuously offering for God’s people. Such prayers have a way of reminding us that the people we’re praying for belong to the same human race as ourselves—we’re all human after all. And such prayers, when offered with sincerity (even if that sincerity is slow to arrive in our lives and we have to fight hard to keep it), are the marks of a “a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith.” (1 Tim 1.3)
By keeping people human we just might be able to find room for them in the grand vision of what God is up to. Paul made prayer first on his list of things to do because of the desires of God. Jesus, he wrote, “desires everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (verse 4). There’s that “all” (in the form of the word “everyone”) again! It’s as though Paul continually used “all” throughout this section on prayer because he wanted to make sure that the church in Ephesus understood how these dissensions were connected to something much bigger. In fact, their squabbles were connected to the spread of the gospel—and at the time of writing, it wasn’t a step forward, but a huge step back.
Looking back at the charge that Paul gave to Timothy, looking ahead at the contents of the letter, and looking around at the historical context—which isn’t so different from our own—it isn’t a stretch for us to assume that the divisions forming in the Ephesian church were also causing some elitism to take root. Elitism, a form of separating one group of people from another, doesn’t fit well in an “all” framework like the one Paul is painting here in the opening verses of chapter 2.
Do you notice how the “alls” finds their place under the “one”? As Paul explained, we’re part of the “all,” but “there is one God… one mediator… Christ Jesus, himself human,” as in, Jesus is both part of the all as well as maker of the all, and he “gave himself as a ransom for all.” We are the all, Jesus is the one who was merciful enough to connect the all to the one. Paul’s sound doctrine here is in direct opposition to what the false teachers were spreading. These truths about Christ are the lynchpin of the knowledge of the truth—not some myths and digging deep into genealogies. And if Jesus gave himself for all, it only makes sense that he desires to see everyone be saved—not to have some people excluded because of their ethnic heritage, or excluded by “believers” for any other reason/standard by which we humans like to measure and compare ourselves to one another. As it turns out, these truths are also a pretty good starting point when you’re teaching about God.
The two pieces connect. We pray for everyone in all kinds of ways to avoid sinning against them by making them less than ourselves; in essence, we pray for all because we are part of the all. And we pray for everyone because doing so is right and acceptable to the God who desires good—and the ultimate good of salvation—for everyone, going all the way back to the beginning of all things being made, carried through the Abrahamic covenant to be a blessing to the nations, solidified in the instructions to the Israelites to seek the good of the city where they were exiled, culminating in the incarnation of Christ, and commanded to faith communities as part of their witness to the good news of the gospel.
There was one group that Paul decided to single out as part of the “all”: “kings and all who are in high positions so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (verse 2) Why? Well if everything we’ve thought through above is the way the Spirit intends us to understand Paul’s instructions on prayer, then the same goal applies: the witness of the gospel. If the infighting within the church had made its way outside into the public sphere, the church itself was in jeopardy, and if the church was in jeopardy, then the spread and witness of the gospel was in jeopardy.
The ability to lead quiet and peaceable lives that are characterized by godliness and dignity is the result of praying for everyone in all kinds of ways, including for people who could make surviving, let alone thriving, really difficult for a Christian community in the Roman empire. We make them human, too; not more than human as the emperor may have desired, there’s still only the one God, but a part of the all.
No one who has read Paul is surprised to hear him mention the Christian’s lifestyle. What is interesting in this case, though, are the words he chose to use. When Paul wrote of holiness, he did not use the religious word hagios, but a word that leans toward the external acts of holiness rather than internal purity. Likewise, Paul could have used diakonos (righteousness), but he used a Hellenistic term for godliness or respectability. Reading between the lines, Paul’s word choice means that Christians can live true to the gospel and way of Jesus, and be respected by nonbelievers in their city because of the way that they live.
The temptation is to focus on the other pair of descriptors, a quiet and peaceable life, as though they were separate from the second pair (godliness and dignity). More than a few modern uses of this text are used to excuse the “persecuted” Christian from caring what any one in society says about them, and as reasoning why we can withdraw from the public sphere. “The best way for me to live a godly life is with some peace and quiet, unstained by the world” sort of attitude. But Paul, in any of his letters, never promised that Christians get to separate themselves from the world, because the world is full of people who Jesus desires to have hear, see, and be surrounded by the good news! How does that work if Christians refuse to engage the public sphere?
Perhaps the quiet and peaceable life is outward expression of someone who has taken seriously Paul’s entreaty to offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone. One usually prays in quiet, after all. And seeing other people as humans cultivates a peace among one another. As it turns out, one of the issues that comes up on the “need to address” list that Paul wrote for Timothy in this letter is gossip—and what is gossip if it’s not the opposite of a quiet, peaceable, prayer-filled life expressing love from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith? Not that it needs mentioning, but gossip is also rather counter to a lifestyle known for its godliness and dignity.
Praying for Leaders
How does one pray for political leaders? Though the church has had Paul’s advice for a very long time, this particular topic popped up earlier this year when Franklin Graham declared June 2nd a special “Pray for the President” day and invited Christians, pastors, and congregations to join him in praying for President Trump. Anyone aware of the current political and religious landscape in the USA can make a very strong educated guess what sort of prayer Graham was looking for. Yet, many Christians do not see the current US president in the same way as Graham. Does that mean they shouldn’t or can’t pray? Do such differing viewpoints tarnish the witness of the gospel? Not necessarily, according to Paul. Here evangelical churches have some things to learn from other traditions, particularly the Anglicans / Episcopalians. All over social media after Graham’s call for June 2nd, mainline priests highlighted the fact that their denominations regularly pray for people in power because there are number of set prayers for them in the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer book is available online: https://www.bcponline.org/
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