Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This week’s passage picks up and sustains the theological grounding of the offer of free grace for all (regardless of whether all receive that grace), and situates it in a practical context.

September 19, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

This week’s passage picks up and sustains the theological grounding of the offer of free grace for all (regardless of whether all receive that grace), and situates it in a practical context.

That context appears in the opening admonition that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (2:1f), and it continues in verses that the lectionary omits (about the behavior and duties of women, 2:9-15). The God of grace whom we have already learned to identify as immortal, invisible, and unique (1:17) has made that grace available for the sake of all humanity. This is done through the redemptive mediation of Jesus Christ who became human so that we might, in solidarity with him, participate in his divinity.

These epistle readings identify God’s purpose as deliverance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15) and “[God] desires everyone to be saved” (2:4), but the letters do not define “salvation” (deliverance, rescue) more specifically, nor do they identify what its opposite might be. While Christians usually rush to fill this blank with inferences from other texts, we ought to be able to manage without pretending to have a knowledge we have not been given.

It suffices that we know God longs to rescue us from undesirable circumstances. We need no more know those circumstances exactly than we need to know exactly what married life would be like when we venture upon it, or to know exactly how miserable we would be to betray our beloved.

Faith knows that God delivers us from a worse condition — a condition so much worse as to require Jesus’ life to save us.

This saving mission of Jesus is for all (“everyone to be saved” 2:4, “ransom for all” 2:6), just as last week’s lesson emphasized the boundlessness of God’s grace. The church acting in wisdom does not presume to decree condemnation before God does, nor may the church offer a cheap pass to just anybody; the limitless, all-encompassing mercy of God is not ours to manage. At the same time, everything we say about the gospel and people’s sin must be said to encourage and strengthen, not to tear down and deride.

Thus this lesson instructs us to pray for kings and other rulers, and the succeeding verses (which the lectionary omits) give us a dress code for women with a view toward not giving offence to others. What do these have to do with one another? They both are consequences of the explicit purpose of this passage: “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Our calm, peaceable, godly dignity bespeaks the character of God to onlookers who might not otherwise know anything about our God. We would belie the role of these instructions if we took them to require particular behaviors that alienated the people around us — if instead of helping Christians to lead quiet and peaceable lives, they stirred up discord and brought hostility on the church.

Though these instructions may seem relics of etiquette from ages past, which must give way in the face of the freedom for which Christ has set us free, we ought never to lose track of the effect our behavior has on others’ view of the gospel. Once again, bystanders who may never crack the spine of a Bible will read off a version of the church’s teachings from disciples’ conduct among them. The arguable obsolescence of the specific customs that this passage commends ought not to blind us to the influence that we may exercise through our deference or defiance of local custom.

The saving work of Christ, after all, extends to people who do not share “our” customs — and however firmly we believe our ways to be sound, enlightened, divinely-ordained, reasonable, or liberatory, we ought always to attend to the chance that the manner in which we live out the gospel may inadvertently make some bystanders stumble. A disciple’s life in the world constantly negotiates the invariable demands of the gospel with the pliable willingness to live among others on their terms. In that practice of negotiating, discipleship itself changes; we see ourselves and the gospel differently through living in a different neighborhood of the earthly city. But such negotiations always depend for their truthfulness on maintaining consistently a clear reliance on the unique role Jesus plays in mediating the possibility of salvation to all people.

Thus the readings for this week knit together last week’s teachings on grace and on God’s uniqueness with today’s concern that the church’s conduct in a world that lives by non-Christian customs (the letter takes this as the rationale for Paul’s calling as an apostle “to the Gentiles,” which may in this context be may read as a figure for any “foreign” way of life). While our allegiance to God alone requires that we stick clearly to the gospel’s priorities, we owe our neighbors the respect not capriciously to flout their way of life. We, who have one King only (1:17), pray for their rulers and adjust to unfamiliar customs as part of our testimony to the vision of the world. Our lives in the earthly city display to the world an embodiment of an alternative, more wondrous possibility: a world of grace without bounds, peace without oppression, abundance without exploitation — a world of grace opened for us and for all people uniquely by God’s redemption of creation in Jesus Christ.