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.
Gratitude – it’s where our story begins today. There are certain times of year we are perhaps more attuned to our gratitude than others – for most Americans, our thoughts turn toward gratitude around the fourth Thursday of November – there are 12 hours of consecutive football – what’s not to be grateful for? In my home and in many of your homes, as the family gathers around the table, we may go around the room to tell what we’re thankful for.
My first year of seminary, I was given the privilege of praying for the meal at Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house. As 30 heads bowed in her dining room, I began to pray, apparently not loud enough for my grandmother’s satisfaction, because she called down from the other end of the table, “Can’t hear you down here!” Before I had time to catch myself, I said, “That’s okay, Grandma, I wasn’t talking to you, anyway.” I’m sure that’s only one of many times I’ve been cut out of the will.
Today’s text begins with gratitude. There are some important theological points, some central timeless truths to come a bit later in this text, but it begins with gratitude. And when it comes down to it, anytime we approach God or each other, before we launch into whatever else is on our mind, gratitude isn’t a bad place to start. May we pray.
Today’s text begins with gratitude. Paul’s gratitude stands out all the more because it comes in the middle of hard service. The grateful believe we have better than we deserve. Instead of taking things for granted, we see good things in life as gifts. Instead of assuming we are entitled, we assume grace underlines all we have. Gratitude gives thanks for mercy. Gratitude sets us up for joy in life. The grateful choose to embrace what life gives and enjoy life’s mercies.
The author of this letter sets up a sharp distinction between Paul’s former life as a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence and what happened in his life when God’s grace overflowed into his life with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Paul – no stranger to boasting, arrogance, or ego – is described in terms that would have made him an enemy of God in his former life and among the greatest of God’s servants through his life in Christ.
The author paints a picture for us here of God’s grace, mercy, and love being poured out, flowing out, freely and abundantly, a relentless, unyielding, springtime melt of God’s love flowing into the parched desert places in our lives. We receive this outpouring, this flood of love, this firehose of grace, this 40-oz of mercy, not because we are special, not because we are deserving, not because we’ve done anything to earn it. The text says the gifts of God come to us in our ignorance and our unbelief, and even when we are actively working against God. God is loving, God is kind, God is compassionate – even when and perhaps especially when our actions are sinful.
And that brings us to verse 15 – “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance” – this, by the way, is the author’s way of saying, “Listen up and pay attention!” Five times in the New Testament some version of this phrase is used, and each time, it signals that what is about to come next is important. If you’re working on a term paper, what comes next would be your thesis statement. If you were a lawyer, this would be your central argument. If you were a doctor, this would be the most important thing you’d want your patient to hear. I have a preacher friend who somewhere in every sermon says, “If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this,” and then he makes the sermon’s most important point. So when the author of 1 Timothy says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” he’s saying, “I have something important to say, and this you can take to the bank.”
And what’s so important? “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”
Folks, if you remember nothing else I say today, remember this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
But what is sin? A definition that is roundly endorsed by theologians of all traditions and throughout history is that sin is a violation of the law of God. Will everyone agree that’s a pretty good definition? Sin is a violation of the law of God. Before everyone dives into Leviticus and other Old Testament writings to discover the details of specific laws so you can figure out if your neighbor is sinning or not, let’s take a step back. You’ll recall that Jesus was asked what is the most important command in the law, in other words, he was asked to give a summary statement of the central thrust of the law. And Jesus summed it up this way: the greatest command is to love God and love neighbor.
Do I sound like a broken record yet? Are you sick of me constantly coming back to this central teaching to love God and love neighbor? Well, get used to it, because I’ve got plenty more where this has come from. I’m gonna keep coming back to this central point precisely because it’s central – you can hang your entire Christian ethic on this statement: love God, love neighbor. If we can get that much right, I am confident the rest of it has a way of working itself out.
So let me connect the dots. Sin a violation of the law of God. And the law of God is summed up as loving God and loving neighbor. Sin, therefore, is anything that prevents us from loving God and loving neighbor. That’s part of the reason my sermons aren’t really that moralistic – I’m not going to tell you the list of dos and don’ts because I will inevitably miss something. No list of dos and don’ts is comprehensive enough to encapsulate sin because sin can be anything. If it separates you from God or it separates you from other people, then it’s sin. I’m not saying it’s only sin if it feels wrong, because we can sin just as readily out of ignorance as out of malice, as was made very clear in today’s text. But sin can be anything, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the list of sin in our own lives is probably much longer than we’d really like to admit. Sin can be anything that separates us from God and neighbor, it can be anything where our own will is exalted over God’s, it can be anything where our own will is exalted over our neighbor’s.
And if we’re honest, our own wills are stubborn and hard to break, and we constantly do things that damage our relationship with God and with other people, and all of those things are sin.
This can be a harsh word, because for good, decent, respectable church folk like many of us, this isn’t part of how we view ourselves. We don’t murder, we don’t steal, we don’t blaspheme, we don’t persecute, we’re not given easily to violence. For most of us, our sins are milder, subtler, perhaps even more socially acceptable. We are more like middleweight sinners; we can always point out someone whose sins seem worse than our own, while failing to recognize that as a different sort of sin all on its own. The danger is that we can let ourselves off the hook, because someone else will always look worse than we do.
But hear the words attributed to the apostle Paul in today’s Scripture: “Christ Jesus came to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Do you hear that? He doesn’t say he was a sinner. He says he is a sinner. Paul – St. Paul, the Apostle Paul, Paul the evangelist, Paul the church-planter, Paul the pastor, Paul the leader, Paul the attributed author of half the New Testament, says that he is a sinner. Not only is he a sinner, but he’s the worst one out there. And he holds up his own life for us to inspect as exhibit A, and in the next breath he says, “If I was this bad, and God could work in my life, how much moreso can God work in yours.”
In fact, sometimes I think church should be more like an AA meeting. Before we speak on anything, we should stand up, say, “Hello, my name is so-and-so, and I’m a sinner.” In fact, right now, turn around to three people and introduce yourself to them and let them know you’re a sinner.
Everyone in agreement here that you’re a sinner? But don’t stop there. That’s only part of it. Let me remind you, as Paul Harvey would, of the rest of the story: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Salvation, in the truest sense of the word, is an act of commissioning. On our own, given to our own faculties, our own wills, our own abilities, we are commissioned to a life of sin – a life of separation from God and from each other. But through Christ, both in a moment and over a lifetime, our lives are re-commissioned. Sinful living is self-centered living; salvation commissions us for God-centered living. Salvation takes the narrative of our lives – self-centered, focused on me and getting mine – and renames us as participants in God’s redemption story. Salvation examines purposeless, wandering aimlessness and re-commissions us for a purpose beyond ourselves.
And we find a life lived in God’s service to be infinitely more satisfying than simply living for ourselves. Back in our text, the author considers it a privilege to be in Christ’s service. In fact, he’s grateful for the opportunity.
Christ Jesus saves sinners – that is the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel. And we are all sinners. But don’t stop there – go back just a little further. Yes, we are all sinners, we are all prone to live our lives separated from God and from each other, we all are self-motivated toward our own desires rather than those of God, but don’t stop there. We are all sinners, which means that deep within us, our hearts yearn for reconciliation with God. And the key word here is reconciliation – you can only be reconciled to someone if you were once close to them and something that created distance happened. God seeks us and saves us offering us reconciliation, for this reason and this reason alone: while it’s true that we are all sinners, even before we were sinners, we were created by God in the image of God for a lifetime of relationship with God. Sin – that condition of separation – has driven a wedge into our relationship with God, but before we were sinners, we were created in God’s image. So, while fundamentally we have to recognize all humanity as sinners, even more fundamentally we have to recognize all humanity as created by God and in God’s image.
Do you think this realization would change the way the church typically interacted with unchurched people? If we would remember that all people are created by God in the image of God before we are so quick to start pointing out the sins of others, I daresay we just might treat people in a way that drew them to Christ, thereby participating in the very thing for which the author of today’s Scripture passes gives gratitude.
If God has convicted you of sin in your life, then join the author of today’s text in expressing deep, unending gratitude. But don’t stop there. Show your gratitude. Let your salvation count for something more than a personal spiritual cosmetic, more than moving your name from column A to column B, more than some sort of cosmic life insurance policy. If God has worked in our life, convicted us of sin, sought us and saved us, we show our gratitude by playing our part in God’s ongoing salvation story. We join with the Scripture writer in expressing deep gratitude, and then our life itself becomes a proclamation of the Gospel, and we live as an extension of the very saving power which has saved us, and the result is continually-mounting joy, gratitude, and praise to God.
If you have been saved from sin, then your life has been re-commissioned as part of God’s redemption story. This means that every person who claims to belong to Jesus needs to treat sinners the way Jesus did. Jesus ate with sinners. He shared life with them. He went to their homes. He introduced them to a side of God the religious leaders didn’t even seem to know. He taught them about the kingdom of God.
Jesus didn’t walk around saying things like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That wasn’t Jesus’ message! In fact, Jesus wouldn’t even recognize this language today and would be saddened to hear Christians using it as if Jesus said it. From my study of the Bible and how Jesus dealt with sin and sinners, Jesus’ underlying message was “Love the sinner, forgive the sin.” And friends, this is what we are also called to do.
Think back for a moment to the story of Jesus healing the paralytic in Mark Chapter 2. A man who is paralyzed is carried on a stretcher by four friends to a home where Jesus is teaching. Unable to get to him, they go to the roof, dig a hole through the thatch, and lower the man to Jesus, who tells him to walk and also pronounces his sins forgiven. Like most of Jesus’ healings, there are multiple miracles happening at the same time. One that is often overlooked is really quite profound – Jesus reveals the special power we have, as human beings, to forgive the sins of another.
With true forgiveness comes true freedom! When you truly forgive someone, they are freed from the bondage of sin – doesn’t that sound like another way of saying salvation? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and which do you think advances that purpose – loving the sinner and hating the sin, or loving the sinner and truly forgiving their sin, liberating them from its crushing weight so they can live in the freedom God intends?
Continuing in a mindset of “love the sinner, hate the sin” denies our power as human beings to forgive the sins of others that Jesus has so plainly revealed. We must come to a place where we can live by the rule “Love the sinner, forgive the sin,” for this is the place Jesus calls us to live. Time after time we see Jesus forgiving the sins of people around him – even those who finally persecuted and killed him.
Love the sinner, forgive the sin – that’s the place Jesus calls us to live, and that very statement echoes through today’s Scripture reading. If the worst sinner could be shown love and grace, could be forgiven, and find his life re-commissioned in God’s service, then we are called to hold the door open to forgiveness and reconciliation for anyone and everyone, even the person we perceive to be the worst sinner out there, if for no other reason because someone held the door open for me, and someone held the door open for you.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who publicly opposed Hitler and the Nazi regime, and for this and other crimes he was placed in the Flossenberg concentration camp and executed by hanging in April 1945, in the waning weeks of the Second World War in Europe. Writing from that concentration camp on the vastness of God’s love and grace, Bonhoeffer expressed such confidence in God’s grace that he had to hold open the possibility that he might someday see Adolf Hitler in heaven.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.
When we were at Carolina Cross Connection, one of the songs we sang frequently described how God can take what appears to be ugly and mundane and ordinary in our lives, and transform it into something beautiful, something good, something new. I wonder if some of our CCC team are here and would be willing to sing that song now?
Do you hear that message? God makes beautiful things out of us. God makes us new and is making us new. God makes beautiful things out of the dust. God makes beautiful things out of us.
Maybe you’re here today and you haven’t been able to believe that God really loves you. If so, I’m sorry. And if that’s specifically because of something Christians told you or did to you, I’m especially sorry. But I also need you to know that God does love you. No matter what you’ve done, no matter who are you, no matter what still needs to be cleaned up in your life, no matter how distant you feel from God, no matter how lonely you feel in relation to other people, no matter what hard feelings and grudges and resentments and judgments you’re hanging onto, no matter who you are and no matter who other people have told you you are, Christ is here for you, and he is here to lead you directly into God’s love, and today’s a great day to rest in his embrace.
Or, maybe you’re here today and you realize that you’ve been withholding forgiveness. You’re a little too attached to those grudges, and those hurt feelings, and those damaged places. But, you’re tired of hanging onto those old fears and resentments. You’ve worn yourself out trying to love the sinner and hate the sin, and you’re ready to embrace Christ’s invitation to forgive – you’re ready to be freed from the burden of carrying that grudge around, and you’re ready to stop devoting all that negative energy to the person you’ve refused to forgive.
Either way, if you need to forgive someone else so they can be embraced in the loving, life-giving arms of God, or if you need to come and rest in that embrace yourself – maybe for the first time, maybe for the 100th time – I simply want to invite you to come and pray here at this altar rail. Don’t worry about what people are going to think – after all, we’ve already figured out that everyone here is a sinner, so it doesn’t look like any of us are in a position to point fingers at anyone else.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. Thanks be to God, whose arms of forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace are wide open and waiting for you.