Wednesday, September 9, 1998

Sermon on Paul and Timothy

Sermon Preached at Trinity Chapel
September 9, 1998

Year C, Proper
1 Timothy 1
Luke 15:11-32

Have you ever wondered what happened to the prodigal son’s older brother? In one respect, the father’s words are too comforting: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32). They are too comforting not because they are false but because the older son is in no condition to hear them as words of grace. Is it possible that he ever came in? That he ever spoke a kind word to his brother? That he ever embraced his father for his graciousness, saying “Father I now see that you are both just and merciful, pouring out your love on all your children alike.” What would the older brother’s change of heart look like?

Well, I would suggest we know exactly what it looked like. Because not many years after Jesus told this parable, a Pharisee named Saul, breathing threats and violence against Jesus’ followers, was confronted on the road to Damascus by this same Jesus, who addressed him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”. And this encounter lead to one of the most amazing personality changes in history: when Saul the zealot for the law of Moses became Paul the apostle of the grace of Jesus Christ.

In the lesson from Timothy, we meet the apostle many years later, perhaps thirty. He is now an older man, finishing his earthly race, looking martyrdom in the face, seeking to leave his legacy among his churches by final instructions to his younger cohort Timothy. I would like to raise a question about Paul as we see him in this late snapshot. Is he still the passionate apostle, aglow with the glory of the Risen Lord, overflowing with the Gospel of free grace, writing his congregrations with overflowing emotions, wearing his spiritual heart on his sleeve.

Or has this older Paul reverted somewhat to his former days as a zealot for law and order? Has he lost his sense of the spontaneous love of the Father, and reacquired something of the judgmental, doctrinaire aspect of the elder brother. This is not an idle question, either psychologically or literarily. We all know that youth is a time when the passions and compassion are full, and maturity a time for sobriety and wisdom. Winston Churchill said that anyone who is not a socialist as a youth has no heart and anyone who is still a socialist when he turns thirty has no brains. True, but maturity may also be a time when people abandon their youthful dreams and become hardened and cynical.

As to the literary question of Paul’s writings, you may be aware that many scholars doubt that Paul wrote the Pastoral Letters for the very reason that he seems so much more concerned for “doctrinal orthodoxy” and moral correctness than in his church letters. They conclude that an “early catholic” writer took Paul’s name on his lips in this letter in order to enforce the growing authority of bishops in the generation or two after Paul’s death.

By examining what Paul actually says in 1 Timothy, I hope to show that the Paul of the Pastoral Letters, the Paul of the twilight years, is the same man who came to know Christ’s grace on the Damascus Road and that we too are called to remain faithful to our calling as those who are God’s sons, elder or younger, by adoption and grace.

First, we need to grasp the situation of the Church in Ephesus where Paul is writing to Timothy. He is writing primarily to encourage Timothy to stand fast against some doctrinal deviants there, urging him to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,” In particular Paul is offended by Alexander and Hymenaeos, whom he apparently had banished from the church. We do not know exactly what they were talking about, but it appears that it was some kind of fanciful interpretations of the Old Testament, what Paul calls “myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations.”

Whatever this theobabble was, Paul saw it as a threat to what he calls “the dispensation of God [literally “economy”] that belongs to faith.” Paul’s primary objection to the views of Alexander and Hymenaios – “desiring to be teachers of the law without understanding what they are talking about” – was that certain kinds of “insider” knowledge puffs up. It makes sophomores think they are professors, and valets think they are statesmen. It breeds a pathetic kind of arrogance, which is directly opposed to the Christian virtue of love.

Paul’s opponents may have been low-brow practitioners of Jewish legalism, but Paul, knowing the Law as he did from the inside out, may have picked up a tendency which is present even in the higher forms of rabbinical study, a tendency to treat the law a kind of intellectual puzzle rather than a practical guide to right and wrong living. We may see a similar sort of phenomenon today in the Clinton scandals where for seven months analysts jabbered on about this or that legal strategy or technicality until one day in mid-August everyone had to face the fact that the President was a self-confessed liar and adulterer. And that has suddenly sobered up the nature of the national discourse.

True knowledge of the most important things, Paul argues, impacts one’s character. He uses three words from this impact: “pure heart,” “good conscience,” and “unfeigned faith.” These are qualities that do not come from advanced legal studies, Paul is saying, from experience. He then goes on in four verses to explain the purpose of the Law, which Alexander and Hymenaios had been going on about ad nauseam without the slightest clue. The law, Paul says, is good, but it is relevant only for the bad. It does not apply, he says, to the just person. The paradox of the law is this: if you abide by it lawfully, you will not even know it’s there. If you drive under the speed limit, you need fear no state policemen. If you keep your belt buckled, you need fear no interns.

The law, according to Paul, is for the lawless. He proceeds to list the kind of vices that the law does address. In so doing he shows how the Ten Commandments continue to function in a fallen world. The Commandments continue to identify characteristics of the human heart and behavior.

1-2 the godless and irreligious
3-4 defilers and profaners,
5 fathers-beaters and mother-beaters,
6 murderers,
7 fornicators, sodomites,
8 slave traders,
9 liars, perjurers,
10 and whatever else is contrary to healthful doctrine,
(1 Timothy 1:9-10)

But what are all these vices to the “just” person, Paul asks. By this time it should be obvious that the attitude expressed here to Timothy is not the law observance of Saul the Pharisee. Nor does it express a narrow moralism and judgmentalism. Almost all pagan philosophers and run-of-the-mill public opinion in Paul’s day would agree with his judgments on various forms of lawlessness.

No, this is the same Paul who in the Epistle to the Romans said:

For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Romans 3:20-21)

Instead of speaking of justification, Paul speaks to Timothy of the “healthful doctrine that is in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” But they are the same thing, only here he is emphasizing the fruit, health, that God intends for those who trust in him.

The mention of the gospel seems to trigger something in Paul, the remembrance of God’s mercy to him so many years before. For he had known what it was to be a legal beagle, to be the proper elder son, but to have missed the heart of God’s mercy.

I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; 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. (verses 12-14)

Paul does not “share his testimony” just to show off. He has a serious lesson he wants to remind Timothy of, so that he can remind his churches: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (verse 15). Having made that point, Paul continues to relate the Gospel to his own case.

And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (verses 15-16)

The law, Paul says, is designed for this life, but the Gospel is a promise of eternal life. The law was mediated for human use below. The Gospel is the revelation of a sovereign God who sent his son as Lord of all time and space. And here Paul breaks out in a doxology that sounds Jewish except that its object is Jesus Christ: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (verse 17)

Having soared with Christ into the heavens, Paul now returns to practical matters. Timothy is to recommit himself to the charge to “preach the Gospel in season and out.” He is to remember his call to be an evangelist and shepherd. He is to remember that in a fallen world this will undoubtedly require him to be a soldier of Christ, fighting the good fight. It means he will have to call good good and evil evil, and uphold Paul’s ban on the two false teachers, at least until they repent. In short, Timothy is asked to be a pastor after the image of his mentor St. Paul.

Which brings me back to my original question. Did the Paul who wrote the Pastoral Letters really have a pastoral heart? When he says – “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” – was this really the case? If indeed Paul was the older brother of the parable, did Christ truly take that heart of stone – the one that could look the Father in the eye and see not a brother restored but “this son of yours” – and turn it into a heart of flesh? And did that heart of flesh continue to pound throughout his life and ministry for his people, or did a hardening of the arteries creep in at the end that would force us to distinguish between the “early Paul” and the “late Paul,” between the mystical Paul and the “early catholic” Paul of the Letter to Timothy?

One of the most remarkable studies of St. Paul’s character was a philosopher named Heinz Cassirer. Cassirer was himself the son of a world famous disciple of Emmanuel Kant, and was himself a non-Christian and a Kantian until middle age. Kant is a truly significant figure in that he attempted to reconstruct the moral character of Christianity “within the bounds of reason,” i.e., without any supernatural revelation. This led him to posit that moral norms were inborn mandates, sort of like the Ten Commandments written on the human heart. Kant had then to struggle with the problem of why most people do not seem to obey the rational dictates of their own hearts, why in short they seem to be slaves of lower passions.

As Cassirer studied Kant, he became convinced that Kant had no solution for this problem, that he had indeed discovered the moral nature of man, but that he had no rational Savior who could deliver us wretches from the bondage of sin. And it was this point that Heinz Cassirer, who for all his great learning had never read the Bible, picked up the letters of Paul and never put them down again. In a little book, Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets, Cassirer rendered a verdict on the question we have been asking.

Although St. Paul’s nature was indeed a most unusual one, what strikes one particularly about it is this: he was the sort of man one would least expect to be ready to renounce self-will and to give up the control of his own life to another. This is how St. Paul himself felt about the matter, and he never ceased looking upon his liberation as having been due to a truly exceptional act of grace and condescension….

As to whether St. Paul’s turning to Christ really did have the effect of setting him free, we have suggested several times before that there are several criteria which lend support to such a conclusion. First, it is evident that St. Paul, in his new mode of existence, not only has the capacity for loving his fellow men most sincerely but, moreover, does not encounter the least difficulty in expressing his feelings without holding anything back. Second it is striking to find how penetrating is the insight he has into his own nature as well as into the nature of others. Third, it is undeniable that he manages to combine within himself gifts which are not normally encountered in the same person, and at the same time he has the aptitude to keep the proper balance between them. (p. 168)

For Cassirer, the character of St. Paul was no mere academic trifle. It was through his reading of Paul’s letters as a pagan that he came to abandon the philosophy of his father and become a Christian. St. Paul’s words and example was the key that opened the door to Jesus Christ. He continues:

I am, of course, fully aware that nothing that has been said may serve to establish either that Jesus Christ is the Son of God or that he appeared to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Yet … I myself have no doubt that St. Paul is right on both counts. This is largely because the impression I have formed of St. Paul is that he is the very last man to fall victim to self-deception and because, in consequence, I find it impossible to entertain seriously the idea that his spiritual pilgrimage had a hallucinatory experience for its starting point…. What St. Paul wishes to signify is that whoever commits his life to Christ, far from having his personality destroyed, is, on the contrary, having it restored to him, and can now, for the first time, act in a manner which is in conformity with his real nature.

We are not philosophers, but it is just as true for us this morning as it was for Heinz Cassirer that Scripture presents us in the example of St. Paul not a perfect man but a perfected man, that is, one who has so been captivated by Christ that he can run a consistent, graceful race to the end of his life. We do not have his nature or his gifts, we may imitate him only very imperfectly, but he does give us hope and confidence in our identity and our callings. When Paul claims that in his example “Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life,” that rings true for us as well.

Let us take to heart the example of the prodigal elder son, Saul of Tarsus, Paul the apostle, and let us “hold faith and good conscience” in the saying that is worthy of full acceptance that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Like us. AMEN.

Have a comment? Please send it via email.

Follow-ups from Stephen

There are no follow-ups to this post at this time.