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An Example to Follow

Sermon – 9/26/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Timothy 1:12-17

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, we read in the first chapter: “I’m 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, for in me as the foremost Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those that would come to believe in him for eternal life.  To the King of Ages immortal, invisible the only God be honor and glory forever.  Amen.”

I propose to do a 3-part series on this book, First Timothy.  This is obviously the first part, so we’ll be looking at it for the next couple weeks (you might want to read ahead).  First Timothy is a bit of paradox.  On the one hand, it contains such memorable passages as chapter 6 verse 10, the “love of money is the root of all evil”.  You know that one – maybe didn’t remember it was from first Timothy, but you know that one.  And on the other hand, it has some rather problematic sections such as this from chapter 2, verse 11:  “Let a women learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no women to teach or to have authority over a man.  She is to keep silent”.  (“Amen!” heard from JoAnne in the choir) Hello!  Let me read that again!  I know that this is problematic, because JoAnne tells me it’s problematic, and I do whatever she tells me to do.  Not quite.  We’re going to look at this passage next week, so until then, women, just keep silent (a joke – laughter form the congregation).

Though First Timothy only has 6 chapters it was a very significant and influential book in the development of the early church, especially in system of governance and the establishment of doctrine of the church.  And yet it has fallen out of favor in certain sacred halls (like this one), precisely because of those problematic passages and because of some questions of authorship that have risen in the last two centuries.  So I propose to probe deeper into this paradoxical book to heighten our understanding and perhaps our appreciation for First Timothy.

Now let me begin precisely with that issue of authorship.  You may know that there are – how many letters in the New Testament supposedly from Paul? – thirteen.  And if you turn to your pew bible to the Table of Contents, you’ll see the first five books of course – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and then you come to Romans, the first of Paul’s letters, and then if you follow down the list, you see all of the letters of Paul through Philemon.  They are all grouped together, those 13 letters, which are the ones attributed to Paul.  As you look at that, I suppose you are probably wondering – why in that order?  Doesn’t that keep you up late at night?  J  Why in that order, I’m sure some people are struggling with that, so I’m going to reveal to you one of those little secrets of Bible scholarship that have been hidden over the ages so that you won’t have any more sleepless nights.  Here it is:  count the pages:  Romans, 13.  1 Corinthians, 11 pages.  2 Corinthians, 8 pages.  Galatians, 5 pages.  Ephesians, 4 pages.  Philippians, 4 pages.  Colossians, 3 pages.  1 Thessalonians, 3 pages.  2 Thessalonians, 2 pages.  Do you begin to notice a little pattern here?  They’re arranged in the order of length – such thought went into the construction of our Bible!  That’s how the letters of Paul are arranged.  It’s not chronological, which would seem logical to us, in fact we know that Romans is one of the last letters written, and 1 Thessalonians was one of the first, but it’s much farther down on the list because it’s one of the shorter books.  This order breaks down, however, when we get to First Timothy.  First Timothy has 4 pages, Second Timothy 3 pages, and Titus 2 pages, Philemon 1 page.  If you don’t believe me, you can go and count the pages yourself – you’ve got nothing else to do for the next 20 minutes, right? J.  

Why then that change?  The order still holds with the last four letters – 4, 3, 2, 1 – but there’s that break there between Second Thessalonians and First Timothy.  The reason is because those four letters are all addressed to an individual, and so they are grouped together, but within that group they still follow the order of longest to shortest.  The other thing to note is that something you may know, that three of those last four – First and Second Timothy and Titus – are known as the “Pastoral Epistles”, because they address questions of the order of ministry and matters of doctrine and of preservation of the faith.  Scholars for at least 200 years or more have recognized that these 3 are different than the other 10.  Significantly different.  They are different in language, they are different style, they are different in theme.  Such things as in this particular text that I just read from the first chapter, where it says:  “the saying is sure”.  That phrase appears five times in the Pastoral Epistles and nowhere else in the other ten letters.  Little things like that that scholars note, as well as the differences in theme, have led scholars to conclude that these three letters were written a good 30 years, at least, after the likely death of Paul.  And they deal with a set of issues that had not yet been the case, had not been important in Paul’s time.  For instance, the issue of leadership of women in the church.  We have little hints of that in the other ten letters, but it had not yet become a full blown controversy.  That’s what gets dealt with in First Timothy.  As I said, we’ll explore that a little bit more next week. 

From our modern perspective, to write in the name of someone else seems to us dishonest, it’s deceptive, why on earth is this in the Bible claiming to be from Paul if it really isn’t?  In ancient times, however, it was very common to honor someone, especially if you were a follower or a student of that teacher.  To honor that person by writing in that person’s name was a very common practice.  Thus the way to read the Pastoral’s is not as the writing of Paul, but as the witness of the early church to the importance of Paul, and to the manner in which they applied his teaching to their context.  It was simply another way of saying:  ‘if Paul were here today, he would say…’.  We might agree or disagree with that reading, but we see that as their witness to their understanding of Paul’s word to them in their day.

From this kind of perspective, the first thing that this does for me is that it relieves Paul of this rather egotistical, self-flagellation that appears in the text for this morning.  “Look at me, what a big sinner I was.  And now how humble I have become!”  Did you ever get that sense from it?  And it’s almost as if you have to be a bad sinner to become a good saint.  Have you heard people give testimonies like that, how terrible they were before? In the way that it comes across here, it’s almost something to be proud of.  So in order to become a really good saint, you have to have been a really bad sinner.  I don’t think that’s the kind of model that we want to uplift.  Do we want people to be really bad sinners so that they can become good saints?  You see that’s not what we want.  So here’s my point:  when we see this as the witness of the early church to Paul rather than by Paul, we are more apt to see it for what it is – a story of incredible transformation by the power of God in which the emphasis is not on Paul (see how good I have become) but rather the emphasis is on God (see what God has done).  And this is an example we can all follow because it’s not about us, it’s not about our accomplishments, it’s about God and what God can do through us.  Doesn’t matter how bad you are or how good you are, it only matters how open or receptive you are.  As the author of First Timothy says – to receive God’s mercy. 

I want to share one story with you this morning to illustrate this.  While Judy and I were in Germany, we had the opportunity to hear Jürgen Moltmann. How many have ever heard of Moltmann?  A few of you.  I realize, for most people, a name like that doesn’t ring any bells, doesn’t mean anything, etc.  But you have to understand for a student of theology this is the equivalent of Barry Bonds.  This is the heavy hitter.  This is like meeting Joey Harrington in person, in the flesh.  Some people here have gotten to do that. (By the way, did you know there was a football game yesterday?  Another Harrington was in it, but the Ducks managed to overcome that, of course.) At the time I was living in Berlin, Moltmann came to speak in Berlin so of course he spoke German.  That wasn’t the problem so much, I mean that was difficult enough but I knew a little German by then, but it was that he was also speaking theology in German. That is a whole different language! I didn’t understand a single word he said! 

I had another opportunity to hear him when I was a student in California, in the seminary there at Claremont, he came and spoke, and now he was speaking in English.  He speaks very good English – but he was still speaking theology! Fortunately I understood a little bit better this time.  I also had the opportunity to deliver him someplace, I think it was to take him back to the airport.  And through those encounters I got to know the man just a little bit, this famed theologian, one of the most important in post-war Germany.  Written many, many books, studied by students of theology all around the world and I discovered him to be a warm, friendly, casual, personable guy.  He was just like your neighbor – an average person.  A little bit smarter than most of us average people, but just a wonderful, warm human being.  I was very touched by him. 

So, I read with great interest the story of his conversion that he published in1997. I’m not going to get into his theology, I just want to share this very personal story.  Moltmann came from a secular family—never stepped inside of a church as a youth.  In July of 1943 he found himself in a bomb shelter in the center of Hamburg, underneath unrelenting bombing by the British in what was called Operation Gomorrah.  Remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?  You get the image, fire coming down from heaven.  And the objective was to burn Hamburg to the ground.  One of Moltmann’s good friends was blown to bits standing right next to him, and somehow Moltmann escaped unscathed.  Out of that for the very first time he said that he cried out to the God he hardly even knew, “My God, where are you?”  And from that day forward he began struggling with haunting questions, why am I alive?  What is the purpose, the meaning of life?  From henceforth, he spent a lifetime of seeking answers about and from God. 

The following year he was conscripted to fight in the last days of the war in Holland and Belgium.  In the spring of 1945 he was taken prisoner, barely 19 years old.  He says of those first – and by the way, he saw terrible fighting in Holland and Belgium – in those first days as a POW,  “we had escaped the war but had lost all hope.  Some of us became cynical, some of us fell ill.  The thought of there being no way out was like an iron band constricting our hearts.  And each of us tried to conceal his stricken heart behind an armor of untouchability”.  He was sent to Norton Camp in Scotland, for “re-education”, as they called it.  It was an experimental camp run by the YMCA – now this was not a sports camp, don’t think basketball and swimming pools.  That’s our image these days of YMCA.  No, the Young Men’s Christian Association.  It was a camp established to provide a basic liberal arts perspective for these young German POW’s, from the Christian perspective.  They studied Hebrew and Greek, they read theologians like Dietrich Bonhoefer and Rienhold Neibuhr.  They attended chapel – it wasn’t voluntary.  It was kind of like being a student at Northwest Christian College J, except that their dormitory was surrounded by barbed wire. 

He writes, “the worst experience came early in September of 1945 – our captors posted without comment pictures from Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  Pictures of bodies piled and stacked, emaciated.  Slowly the truth filtered into our awareness, and we saw ourselves mirrored in the eyes of the Nazi victims.  Was this what we had fought for?  Had my generation at the last been driven to our deaths so that the concentration camp murderers could go on killing and Hitler could live a few months longer?  Some were so appalled that they didn’t want to ever go back to Germany again.  For me, every feeling for Germany, the so-called sacred “fatherland” collapsed.  The depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity without any apparent end was exacerbated by a feeling of profound shame at having to share in this disgrace.”

It may be hard for us to get in that state of mind, but if you can imagine what it would be like for a German prisoner of war to be reliving that experience.  Humiliation and disgrace was transformed into hope through two things:  the Bible and the encounter of grace in the form of former enemies.  The Bible was a gift of a chaplain of the camp, Moltmann said most of them would have preferred a pack of cigarettes.  But he read it because he was bored.  He read it without comprehension or feeling.  Until he came upon Psalm 39, which says:  “I was silent and still, I held my peace to no avail.  My distress grew worse.  My heart became hot within me.  My lifetime is as nothing in your sight.  Hear my prayer O Lord and give ear to my cry.  Do not hold your peace at my tears for I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forbearers”.  “They were words of my own heart”, says Moltmann.  “They called my soul to God”. 

Shortly thereafter he encountered the passion story of the crucifixion of Jesus, where he read “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  And he says, “I knew with certainty that this is someone who understands you.  I began to understand the assailed Christ because I felt he understood me.  This was the divine brother in distress who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection.  I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope”. 

On top of this encounter with the word of God came his encounter with the people of God.  First there were the local mining families in Scotland who took in the POWs with a hospitality that “shamed us profoundly”, he writes.  “We heard no reproaches, we were excused of no guilt, we experienced forgiveness without any confession on our part and that made it possible to live with the past of our people and in the shadow of Auschwitz”.  And then a group of the POWs, including Moltmann, were invited to attend the first international gathering of the student Christian movement in the summer of 1947.  What would they, as German prisoners of war, say about the war crimes committed by their nation, about the mass murders?  But they were not asked.  Instead they were welcomed as brothers in Christ.  In the night Moltmann says his eyes were filled with tears from this most unexpected acceptance. 

A group of Dutch students sought out the German POWs.  They told them of the Gestapo terror in their homeland, of Jewish friends who had disappeared, never to been seen again, of homes destroyed and lives ruined.  They also told of a bridge built by Christ between them, and of the forgiveness and reconciliation made possible by God.  Afterward, those German POWs and the Dutch students embraced.  For Moltmann, it was the hour of his liberation.  “I was able to breathe again, felt like a human being once more.  I returned cheerfully to the camp behind the barbed wire.  The question of how long the captivity was going to last no longer bothered me.  We were given what we did not deserve and received of the fullness of Christ, “grace upon grace”.  For us, what looked like a grim fate when it began turned into an undeserved rich blessing.  We came with wounded souls and when we left, my soul was healed.” 

There, at that camp, Norton Camp in Scotland, Moltmann said he did not find Christ – Christ found him.  He was liberated, set free from the camp in 1948, went on to finish his studies in theology and became the professor of theology at Túbingen University, from where he retired.  In a 1995 reunion of the graduates of Norton Camp, Moltmann said to his colleagues of war and of grace, “we have met together here after 50 years in order to praise the hidden and yet so merciful God for everything we have experienced of him.  We have also come to remember with gratitude the people who came to meet us prisoners with such readiness to forgive and such hospitality.  With Psalm 30 I acknowledge, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, You have taken off my sack cloth and clothed me with joy so that my soul may praise You and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.” 

Theologians who make a name for themselves are often known by a particular brand of theology.  Moltmann’s is known as a theology of hope.  I could be mistaken, but I think these words were written for and about him: 

“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 that would come to believe in him for eternal life.  To the King of Ages immortal, invisible the only God be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.” 

And it just may be that those words were written for and about us.

 


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