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To Save Sinners

  • September 15, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 15 September 2019

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 Timothy 1.1-2,12-17; Psalm 14; Luke 15.1-10

Title:               To Save Sinners

“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” (1 Tim 1.15).

My friends: what happens to us when we experience the overflowing grace and love that are found in Christ?

For the next few months, until the start of Advent, we will be reading sequentially through the Letters to Timothy – First Timothy and Second Timothy – reading most of one entire chapter each week.

To be sure, these are challenging texts. There are some really difficult parts to them, and we will not be avoiding all of these. Because even these challenging texts have much to teach us. Together, we will embrace the challenge!

But, without any question, these ancient biblical texts can be quite confusing. The novelist L.P. Hartley once delivered a fantastic apothegm that can help us when looking at texts like these. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” (The Go-Between, New York Review of Books, New York, 2002, p.17).

We always need to remember that the biblical world is different than ours. We cannot just lay our contemporary perspectives on the text and expect to understand it. Cross-cultural understanding always requires effort and patience.

So let’s start with the basics. Clearly, these texts state that they are written by the apostle Paul to a younger apprentice named Timothy. But if you look closely, it’s not that clear after all. There are a number of good reasons to think that these letters may not have actually gone from Paul to Timothy.

But that does not mean that these letters are frauds or deceptions. To write in this way, using the name and authority of a famous person – this was common practice. At that time, no one would have been surprised by this.

Besides, no matter who actually wrote them, they have been received as Scripture, as God-inspired and God-infused texts.

These are also open letters: even though they are written in a personal manner to specific persons, it is expected that they will be read openly and shared with anyone who wishes to listen.

A classic example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

It was addressed to a specific group of Alabama clergymen who had questioned Dr. King’s tactics, but it was intended to be read by all, to affect everyone in America.

So it is with these biblical letters. They are open letters, even if addressed to specific persons, they are clearly intended to have broad effects upon all who hear them.

Another important point is that these letters are reactionary, as are nearly all of the New Testament letters. In this case, the church there in Ephesus is in trouble. She is going astray. The church there is on fire with a bit of chaos, and it’s the apostolic authority of Paul that is called upon to get things back on track.

Now, let’s be honest for a second. Doesn’t it make you feel a bit better when the second generation church – the community immediately after the time of the apostles – when THAT community was already having loads of trouble?

This is a form of schadenfreude, I know. But it’s true, isn’t it? I mean, it makes me feel a little better about the church today. We have problems. They had problems. Everybody has problems!

This same kind of challenge happened to the second-generation of Franciscans. You know that the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi is coming up soon, on October 4.

By the way, – a little plug here – we will gather on the very next day, on Saturday October 5, with the good folks from Foreside Community Church just up the road, for a special Outdoors Church right outside here on our campus, to worship in the beauty of God’s creation, in the spirit of Saint Francis.

You may remember that Francis had a vision. More than that – he was a visionary! He received a way of life from God, a way of life that imitated the life of Jesus and the apostles as closely as possible. It was a life of simplicity and humility, of service and worship.

Part of his vision was the rejection of power and authority. He understood God calling him to be the humblest servant of all, and not the ruler or leader of anyone.

So once his movement was established, Francis gave up command over it and transferred this to other brothers.

But do you know what happened? Things changed! The new leaders began to change things, began to move the Franciscan community in directions to which Francis himself was strongly opposed. So the great saint struggled with this problem.

When he saw the brothers going astray from his God-inspired vision, he felt compelled to correct them, to guide them back. But then he was immediately distraught at having to give orders and to be in command, something which he did not want to do!

It was a difficult position for Francis to be in, and truth be told, the last few years of his life were greatly troubled by this ongoing tension.

Oh, we humans are an unruly lot! And every human community is continually changing – and sometimes in ways which would be deeply distressing to their original founders.

And so it was in the church at Ephesus. The primary problem among this church in Ephesus seemed to be bad teaching. There were teachers who followed some ideas along tangents – down rabbit holes – which took them far from the simple truths of the Gospel. And they discovered that it was profitable to do this. They could sell their secret teachings and make some money off of it – and people seemed to love it! A following developed, and the community began to fracture and break apart.

To counter this disturbing trend, and to call the community back to its roots, we are given this classic story of Paul’s conversion.

“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” (1 Tim 1.15).

Can you recognize how radical this is? To say that humanity is broken, and that we are stuck in broken ways of living that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” – as we say in the liturgy of Baptism.

To say that the way to fix our brokenness is not to pass new laws, not to change our diets, not to read different books, not to elect different leaders, not to develop new products, not to create more wealth – but to say that our healing, our hope, is found in the grace of God alone.

Do you know snapper turtles? They look like they are from pre-historic times. Usually quite slimy, with a long alligator-like tail and large, sharp jaws in front which snap shut – hence their common moniker –and which can easily take off your finger in the process.

Author and pastor Brian McLaren tells a story of friends who met just such a turtle, but one which was even uglier than most. This particular snapper was deformed by a plastic ring for aluminum cans which was stuck around the turtle’s mid-section.

What likely happened is that when the turtle was young and swimming in the pond, it slipped right into this plastic ring about 3 inches in diameter.

This was not a big problem then, but by the time these folks saw the turtle it was about halfway mature. And now it was grossly deformed – shaped like a guitar!

These people made a quick assessment and decided that the turtle would never be able to reach full maturity as long as this plastic ring remained in place. It could not survive and thrive with this constriction.

So, very carefully and calmly, they found a way to break the plastic, to snap the ring off.

Guess what happened next? Nothing. Nothing at all. Except that the turtle continued its slow journey across the road, oblivious to them, moving on to the next pond.

But the truth is that everything had changed. That turtle was saved! Now that turtle could fulfill its destiny. It could survive and thrive and reach its full potential.

And what happens to us when WE experience the overflowing grace and love that are found in Christ?

We are saved and set free. Brian McLaren explains the metaphor of that snapper turtle with the plastic ring around it:  “A ring of selfishness, greed, lust, injustice, fear, prejudice, arrogance, apathy, chauvinism and ignorance has deformed our species [in just the same way as that plastic ring]” (A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 98).

We sinners are saved by the grace of Christ, but not so that we can become more religious. Not so that we can fulfill some list of social expectations. Not in order to become better or smarter or more special than anyone else. Not to pat ourselves on the back or to join some elite society.

No, we are saved, we are set free, so that we can become more fully human! So that we can finally and fully become who God has created us to be.

So that we can be co-creators with God in enabling this earth to become what God has always intended it to be.

When we embrace this simple love of God in Christ, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God. And all are singing, Alleluia! And Amen.

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