1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Good morning. Knock, knock!
Orange you glad I didn’t start with another reading from Deuteronomy?
Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one. All kidding aside, over the next several weeks, we’re going to be hearing some readings from First and Second Timothy. In case you’re not familiar with these two books of the Bible, they are short letters that were attributed to Saint Paul, though many scholars now doubt that Paul was the author of these two texts. That’s an academic debate that I’m not going to get into from the pulpit, but I invite all of you to come to the adult Sunday school class if you want to learn more about it.
A few weeks ago, we held a retreat for members of the Christian Ed and Worship Committees. During that retreat, I walked them through my process of preparing for Sunday worship, including my sermon writing. Then they broke into groups and each group looked at all the scriptures for a particular Sunday. I asked each group to pick two readings and then explain why they chose those two readings among all the possible choices.
Each group selected stories that they found challenging or difficult to understand. This is a really good place to start. This is something that I do. If I read a passage that I don’t understand or that I don’t like, I will often use that as the basis for my sermon. I figure if I have a problem with the text, some of you are likely to have issues with it, too. So, we can work through the issues together.
I mention this because at the retreat, three of the four groups chose readings from First or Second Timothy. By coincidence, I’ve never preached on either of those letters. I wondered if maybe the Holy Spirit was up to something and I decided that we should all take a closer look.
The Letter to Timothy begins with a brief biography of the Apostle Paul. Earlier in his life, he was known as Saul of Tarsus. He was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence;” he was an unbeliever. That is, he didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
Saul saw himself as a righteous Jew. So righteous, that he made it his mission to persecute Christians. Remember, Christianity began as a splinter movement within Judaism. To Gentiles, early Christians would have been almost indistinguishable from other Jews. In fact, when Saul was busy persecuting these early believers, the name Christian hadn’t even been applied to those who followed Jesus’ teachings.
At that time, Saul’s identity was in the law—not in God, but in a zealous defense of the law as he understood it. It wasn’t rooted in the covenant with God or the love of God for humanity, which underlies all of the covenants. Paul’s identity was found in the letter of the law, not the love behind the law.
So, Saul lived into that identity by persecuting early Christians. Until he had a direct encounter with the risen Christ. He was transformed by that encounter. He was born anew as Paul. His new identity was rooted in his relationship with Jesus. He became an apostle for Christ, and Paul’s work—his mission—was one of the driving forces behind the growth of the early church. Christianity, as we know it today, owes a great debt to Paul and the work that he did on behalf of the church. All it took was a change of heart.
I think many of us are more like Saul than Paul, myself included. Certainly, our culture behaves more like Saul than Paul. We see this everywhere, and then we use social media to fan the flames. Yes, I know that not all of you are on social media. Also, I don’t think that social media is the problem in and of itself. But it does give us a platform to be like Saul and call out all the witches and heretics in our world. And then all of our “friends” can jump on the bandwagon.
Look at our toxic political culture. How many of you are on Facebook? How many of you have un-friended or un-followed someone because that person made a political post that angered or upset you? What percentage of your online friends have nearly the same political views as you? What percentage of your friends have political views that are nearly the opposite of yours?
But it’s not just politics. Many women who are on social media also have to deal with mom-shaming. Have any of you experienced this? I’m no expert here—I don’t have kids and I’m a guy, so I’m never going to experience this phenomenon. As I understand it, there are a lot of women on social media, I’ll call them “super-mommies.” They tend to be white and affluent. They buy all the best clothes and products for their kids. They post pictures of their perfect families online. They only serve the healthiest of snacks for play dates. And woe be to the mothers who serve the wrong snacks at play dates or use the wrong car seats or wear the wrong clothes or whatever. The “super-mommies” can shame them in public and they can amplify the message on social media.
This is just as awful as our toxic political culture. The sad truth is, we’re far too quick to label people and write them off. What’s more, we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve all been rubbed raw, and thus, any time we hear something from somebody with a different point of view, we hear it as condemnation. And sure, sometimes people are too quick to judge or condemn. But if our first response is to label someone else as a witch or a heretic, and then call for them to be burned at the stake, the real problem lies in our own hearts.
We put our faith in the law, in the Constitution, in business, and in political parties and social movements. In doing this, we identify too much with the things of this world and the systems we create. Just like Saul. That’s how we work, but that’s not how God works.
The Lord offered grace and mercy to Saul. This was NOT deserved, nor was it earned—that’s why we call it grace. Through that grace, Saul became Paul, and Paul was called to relationship with Jesus. He found his true identity in Christ. He found his true identity in the Jesus who goes searching for the one lost sheep.
Honestly, how many of us would leave the ninety-nine sheep and go looking for the lost one? I know what my first instinct would be. I’d say, “I’m going to focus on the ones who are still here; they need me. If Dolly wants to wander off on her own, I’m gonna let her go. What else can I do?” Indeed. What else can we do?
Jesus didn’t write Saul off, Jesus embraced him. We can’t imagine what the Church would look like today if Jesus had written off Saul; if Saul hadn’t become the Apostle Paul. Yes, God can choose and use anyone to accomplish God’s work. But here’s the thing. Paul had to repent of his old ways. He had to change and take on a new identity.
That identity, apostle, grew out of a relationship. Paul received mercy and grace. Of course, this was scary, but it also gave Paul joy. And through that joy, Paul responded in faith and spread the word of the Lord around the world. Paul’s faithfulness and joy sustained him when he was persecuted by the Roman Empire. Love and joy and relationship were more powerful than prison or death.
Today we witness that same joyful response as we ordain Jean Pennett to the office of Deacon. Jean has been a member of this congregation for only a couple years, and she has responded to our love by agreeing to serve us all more deeply. She has responded with love and joy and relationship.
Today, Jean will be officially appointed to Christ’s service. But as we say, ordination simply marks the work that God has already done. As we mark this joyous occasion, we must recognize that we are all called to examine our relationship with Christ and how we are called to serve. May we all be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and may we all respond anew to Christ’s call. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that Christ calls and appoints us to service. Quiet your hearts and your minds as you listen for the movement of the Spirit, and be open to action. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Share the love and peace and joy of our Lord with your children and with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!