1 Timothy 1:12-17
September 22, 2019
William G. Carter
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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. 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. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
When new people get involved in the church, one of the troubling discoveries is who is sitting around them. Church people clean up pretty well. But when you find out who they actually are, it can be upsetting.
Eagles fans sit in the same pews with Steelers fans, and maybe a Patriots fan even got in without a ticket. You may have noticed this is a purple church (just look at the cover of our hymnal). That’s because red and blue are singing out of the same book. Within this room there are all ages, all genders, right-handed and left-handed, tall and short. But the question I have is this, “Who wants the apostle Paul to be in the same church with them?”
It’s not just his first century views. Some of us can forgive him for his assumption that the institution of slavery would always continue. A lot of us observe his views on the roles of women were shaped by the time and culture when he lived. Even his perspective on human sexuality was influenced by the fractures and abuses that he saw in his own time. Paul never left behind the Jewish formation of his soul; that’s who he is.
But it’s more than all of that. What troubles a lot of people is his past. Paul killed Christians, and now he is one. Anybody who gives that a serious thought will flinch.
Some would say, “That was then, this is now.” Give him some room to wake up and change his ways. Look at what he has done: traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting churches, preaching Jesus as Lord, persevering through conflict, and keeping in touch with all of his letters. He is a remarkable man.
But do you want him to sit in your pew?
I enjoy reading the stories of Flannery O’Connor. She was a Roman Catholic, lived on a farm in Georgia, died early from lupus about 50 years ago. And she wrote outrageous stories from a southern town where women wore hats in church. They stitched their own dresses, wore white gloves, and implored their children, “You be good now, you hear?” By contrast, Ms. O’Connor filled her stories with “freaks and frauds,” and the properly righteous church was horrified.
As someone observes about her stories, “Most of them follow one basic Biblical narrative: St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Again and again, she depicts an event of searing violence in which divine grace shocks a hard-hearted, wicked, or selfish person into a moment of recognition. In this terrible moment O’Connor offers her characters a choice, a flash of self-knowledge, and an encounter with God that utterly burns away their illusions.”
That’s all well and good. But do we want somebody like that in church with us?
Today we hear the apostle say, “Hey, remember me? Remember what I did? I was the one who organized a pogrom. I was the one who dragged Christians out of their houses and tried to eradicate them. Before I saw the light, that was me.” He calls himself, “the chief of sinners.” And one day, he comes into the church a changed man.
Maybe the one thing harder than welcoming someone like that is seeing his story as the shape of the whole Gospel. By Paul’s own admission, he was a religious bigot. He worshiped his own certainty and then claimed it was the will of God. He was so convinced he was right that his convictions blinded him.
Remember his story? A child of God’s covenant, trained as an expert in the Bible, he hears about people who are telling Jesus stories, how Jesus was put to a shameful death, how that death took away human sins, and how this Jesus is now invisibly alive. It angered him. It infuriated him. He was convinced this was all wrong. When another troublemaker appeared, a Jesus-follower named Stephen, Paul approved of killing him – and then led the charge to get rid of people like him, all in the name of God.
It was working – until one day, about noon, on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul and stopped him in his tracks. Jesus called him by name and said, “Why? Why are you doing this?” And the light of glory not only blinded his sight; it revealed Paul’s inability to see. There’s nothing more terrible than a moment like that.
Arrogance is exposed. Presumption unravels. Privilege is punctured. Cruelty is dismantled. Paul is a bigot and Christ calls him out. It all happened in broad daylight. Unable to see, Paul was led away by the hand and commended to the care of the same Christian people he had been trying to destroy.
Next thing you know, he’s back. He’s talking about Jesus. He’s praying to Jesus. He’s finding Jesus in the pages of his Jewish Bible. His reputation spreads. As he famously describes in one of his letters, “The one who was formerly persecuting (the church) is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Galatians 1:23)
The question persists: do we want someone like that in our church? The former bigot? The apologetic murderer?
Well, we don’t have a choice because God is the One who puts him among us. Like a risky shepherd chasing after a lost sheep, God in Christ rescues Paul, saves him from a life of destruction, saves him from himself – and this is the shape of the Gospel!
He says, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord even though I was a blasphemer and a man of violence. I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly.” He didn’t have to straighten before God came; no, God just came. He was misguided, self-absorbed, arrogant, and independent. Then God intervened.
So he says to us today, in words we have heard many times, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Then he adds a few more winners, “to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost.” Something has happened to him from the outside, and it is changing him on the inside.
Now we can bless that from a distance and declare how good it is for God to interrupt the arrogant. The much harder thing is to look at ourselves in God’s blinding light. Sometimes during our weekly prayer of confession, I do a little self review. Fortunately for my self-esteem, a lot of our worship leaders rush through the silent prayer of confession. I am glad for that, because I don’t always like I what I see in myself.
And should I take the time for some honest self-review, like late at night when I can’t sleep, or in the aftermath of something horrible or hurtful that I’ve done, confession tastes like chewing on a piece of used charcoal. Not a pleasant experience!
It’s not just the childhood bullying of which I took part, nor the shadowy things I did as a teenager, nor adult maneuvers that I’m not going to tell any of you about. It’s also the deep-rooted resistance in my soul. It’s the way I push away God, the God who loves everybody and wishes them to flourish. Paul doesn’t have any moral advantage on me.
It can cleanse us if we admit who we are. There have been times when I firmly believed that, as a male, I am superior. Fortunately two sisters, three daughters, and two wives have kicked that out of me. Yet arrogance takes other forms. Am I the only one here who has thought that people like me are better than people who are not like me? Or that buying a house in an overpriced suburb is superior to living in a struggling city?
So here is Paul confessing how he believed that Jews like him were better than the new Christians. I go one better than that, thinking believing Christians like me are better than the Christians like Paul. I stop short of murder, but the arrogance still infects me. And this reveals who we are. Sin is more than what we do or what we neglect to do. It’s our chronic incompleteness, evident in our splintered life, and we never really outrun this.
That’s why Paul says, “I am the foremost sinner!” Because he knows he is never going to be any better than that. He tries so hard to be so good yet falls so far short. As much as he has achieved, he remained unfinished. When I hear him like this, I breathe a sigh of relief, because it’s hard labor to dress up, put on white gloves, and pretend your own hands are not dirty.
In the thick of it all, here’s the good news: God works with all of this. God made us incomplete that we would depend on him. In perfect love, God made us imperfect that we might lean on him for help. And when we are at our weakest moral level, that’s precisely when God comes to us, chases after us, and offers to set us free from ourselves – that’s what sin is, my friends: it’s bondage to ourselves.
And God breaks in. That’s what happens on the cross of Christ, the darkest day of our species. God comes to us in Jesus and what do we do? We execute him in public between two thieves and gamble for his clothes. Yet in the mystery of eternal patience, God does not punish us for what we do. Rather, God releases us from the prospect of punishment and cancels our crime.
Then God raises Jesus from the dead to keep speaking to us through scripture, Word, and Spirit, and to keep working with us until we are free from ourselves, free to welcome the mercy of the Risen Christ. That’s when everything begins again.
This is the mystery of grace, that miraculous holy favor that comes before everything, lies beneath everything, and finishes everything. Life comes from God. Life will go to God. In between, we may as well live for God and no longer be captives to ourselves. That’s the Good News.
I was trying to think what I might say about this, and then we had a baptism of a baby last week. Did I ever tell you what the Episcopalian priest Robert Farrar Capon said about baptizing little babies? “It’s brilliant,” he said, because baptism announces the grace of God before, during, and after our sins.
As Capon says it, “Babies can do absolutely nothing to earn, accept, or believe in forgiveness; the church, in baptizing them, simply declares that (in Christ) they have it. We are not forgiven because we made ourselves forgivable or even because we had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver.”
Take heart, my friends. Our unfinished lives are Christ’s opportunity. We can stand because his grace is beneath our feet.
(c) William G. Carter All rights reserved.
 “Reading Flannery O’Connor for the first time,” Catholic World Report, 5/20/2016. https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2016/05/20/reading-flannery-oconnor-for-the-first-time/
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans) p. 141