Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

These verses tell a story of conversion and of transformation, of a life renewed by the inexhaustible love and grace of God.

Lost Drachma
Tissot, James Jacques Joseph. Lost Drachma, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.  Original source.

September 11, 2016

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

These verses tell a story of conversion and of transformation, of a life renewed by the inexhaustible love and grace of God.

It is a beautiful story, a story that could inspired renewed faith in any who might read it and sense the power of God’s grace to change an enemy into a friend.

And yet we face some real difficulties in interpreting this text. For one, many scholars have disputed the authorship of 1 Timothy. It would be fair to say that most scholars have concluded that the vocabulary, theology, and vision of 1 Timothy is incongruent with the authentic letters of Paul. What we find in 1 Timothy is not like what we find in Romans and Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. And yet some scholars, including Luke Timothy Johnson, defend the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy and the other pastoral epistles. So how does the disputed authorship of this letter shape how we read, interpret, and preach these texts?

The difficulties extend beyond questions of authorship, however. It is also the content of 1 Timothy that should cause us pause, especially the famously problematic things the letter has to say about women and their leadership in the home and the church. These are verses that some Christian communities have taken as a direct, inviolable model for relationships between the genders. For other communities, the verses are so discordant with the vision of a good news that creates equality among the children of God that they are not worth reading; in fact, for some Christians the verses are so problematic that 1 Timothy may not be read as Scripture. That is, for some, 1 Timothy falls outside of an operative canon within a canon.

For the next three weeks, the lectionary invites us to revisit 1 Timothy. One temptation may be to ignore these texts. These texts are inspirational but too closely associated with texts I don’t wish to bring before my congregation, we might reason. Perhaps we might conclude that these texts would require too much scholarly prolegomena, too much explanation preceding the preaching moment. But an even more pernicious temptation may be to read only the parts of 1 Timothy that resonate with us, while simply pretending as if the more troubling, more controversial portions of the text are not tightly interwoven with them. That is, I hope you will preach on these texts, but I also hope that in doing so you will not avoid confronting the problematic aspects of this text.

For 1 Timothy reminds us what Scripture is and what Scripture isn’t. Scripture is not just a list of easily apprehended propositions with which we can agree at all times. Scripture is not just a collection of sayings that might guide our daily walk. Scripture is not just a perfect text free of discomfiting content. Scripture is as human as we are. But we also trust that God speaks through these texts, whether these texts resonate with our hopes or create a dissonant sound in our midst.

So let’s turn to these opening verses from 1 Timothy.

These verses rehearse Paul’s call in brief form. Notice that the narration of Paul’s story is perhaps more a story of calling than of conversion. When we Christians recall this moment in Paul’s biography, we tend to imagine a change in his religion. We tend to assume that Paul switches religious commitments on the road to Damascus when he encounters Jesus. This, of course, neglects to notice that Paul remains Jewish before and after his encounter with Jesus. So notice that the result of Christ’s grace here in 1 Timothy is Paul’s being “appointed … to his service” (verse 12). The deliverance of a sinner from enmity to God’s service ought to remain a stirring picture of God’s grace all these years later. A sermon may therefore invite us to remember and share with one another how God’s grace has propelled us into service of God and one another. How has God’s grace not just delivered me but delivered me for the sake of another.

Appropriately, therefore, the text starts with the empowering of Paul by Jesus. We sometimes imagine Paul as a singular figure whose theological erudition sets him apart from other early followers of Jesus. Here as well as in Paul’s undisputed letters, however, it is clear that the very source of Paul’s calling is Jesus himself. That is, even as the author of 1 Timothy highlights Paul, he is actually highlighting what Jesus has done through Paul. A sermon may therefore invite us to narrate anew how Jesus has encountered us but especially how Jesus has called us. What does it look like to heed Jesus’s voice in the quotidian faithfulness we seek to embody? One of the key reasons we return to Paul’s story of call is as a reminder of what such a transformation looks like, as inspiration that it too could happen in our lives, as a model for listening to God’s voice.

Last, this narrating of Paul’s call by Jesus is a study in sharp contrasts. Paul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” and yet Jesus gives mercy and a call. Paul had “acted ignorantly in unbelief” while the “immortal, invisible, the only God” acted with grace and patience. Sinners — that is, those who have denied the glory and honor due to God — are not lost in hopelessness but delivered by Jesus Christ himself. A sermon may therefore invite us to imagine what sharp contrasts delineate a life of faith today. How has “the grace of our Lord overflowed” for you and for me? And how has that overwhelming grace empowered us and called us to turn to our neighbor and our God in love?

In the Baptist churches that nurtured my faith, the sharing of testimony was a vital practice of faith. Such sharing of stories, such narrating of God’s faithfulness in our lives was not a moment to extol the speaker’s virtues as a follower of Jesus so much as a way to name God’s acting. These testimonies were not just for the one who testified but those whose own testimonies might be inspired, sharpened, and clarified by the stories they heard.

The temptation, of course, is that these testimonies might become a genre to themselves. That is, these testimonies might become a way to repeatedly check certain characteristics of faithful living from a checklist. Every story, in the end, might start sounding like all others.

The story of Paul’s call here is not a blueprint as 1 Timothy opens. It is not a mere model to imitate but a narrative into which we too are called. If scholars are right that 1 Timothy represents the grappling of early Christians with the legacy of Paul and its continued significance for the faithful, then perhaps there is much more to be found in 1 Timothy than we might have expected. In 1 Timothy, we might just see a reflection of our own struggling to narrate what God has done for us.