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Salvation Arrogance

I Timothy 1:12-17
David A. Davis
September 15, 2019
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Biblical scholars categorize I Timothy as one of the “pastoral epistles”. I and II Timothy and Titus. The label points to the content of the letters which focuses on authority, leadership, worship, and life together in the community of faith. Biblical scholars, not all but probably most, also argue convincingly that these pastoral letters were most likely not written by the Apostle Paul himself but by a devoted follower of Paul invoking his authority, his honor, his name while continuing to shape the earliest practices and traditions of the early church. It was a common practice in antiquity in the church and beyond.

I Timothy has it’s share of bulletin board material. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…Train yourself in godliness, for while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way… Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity… Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to young women as sisters…There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world so that we can take nothing out of it…The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith…”

            I have been doing this too long to stand here before you and mention the highlights of I Timothy without acknowledging the troubling parts, the verses easier to just ignore. Like women being silent, not having the authority to teach and being saved through childbearing (whatever that means). That deacons must be first tested and if they then prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. That the only widows to be put on the church list of care should be the older ones who have no other family. Younger ones should get married. Widows with children aren’t really widows and if believers have real widows that are relatives, they should take care of them so the church would not be burdened. And, of course, let slaves regard their masters as worthy of all honor.

The common practice for a long, long time of those of us in the theological traditions that push back against literalism and scriptural inerrancy and infallibility has been to acknowledge the historical context of the ancient world knowing and believe that God is not calling us to recreate, repristinate a first-century church. To use language from another discipline, we are not “originalists” and we hold to a view of the authority of scripture as a living, breathing, Word of God. The Word of God made all the more authoritative, powerful, and meaningful through the work of the Holy Spirit, interpretation and proclamation rooted in the community of faith, and the deeply held affirmation that we do not worship the book. We are called to worship the Word made flesh, the Living Word, Jesus the Christ. In addition to drawing upon centuries of biblical scholarship to better engage the historically and culturally rooted parts of scripture, it is more and more clear to me that it is essential for the church and for preachers like me to be willing to say that the material regarding women and authority and slavery isn’t just cultural, it’s wrong. To put it another way, it is inconsistent and a contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is in conflict with the heart of the Apostle Paul’s own writing and teaching about Jesus Christ, his cross and his resurrection. I don’t say any of this lightly and I realize I may be offering it at some risk. But in a day and time when some are increasingly and dangerously weaponizing the bible and using it (as it has been done in Christianity forever by the way) to exclude, demonize, refuse, harm, ignore, and in some cases destroy people, while justifying their own sinful bigotry, lust for control, and living like it is better to be right than to love, a stronger response is warranted. Stronger voices must rise up and speak. The bible and its authority don’t belong to the loudest, or the biggest, or the most powerful. That would be inconsistent and a contradiction and in conflict to the gospel itself, wouldn’t it?

If I were writing an academic paper, the above thoughts would have been placed in  the dreaded “explanatory footnote.” So forgive me, please. The slight digression either has very little to do with the sermon or it has everything to do with it. You will be the judge. But scroll with me back up to those quotes, those verses, those snippets from I Timothy I shared with you. “The saying is worthy and sure…Do not speak harshly…great gain in godliness… the love of money…fight the good fight of faith. For perhaps the most important take away, the most profound theological assertion, the deepest, most meaningful impact in your relationship with God to be gleaned from I Timothy, never makes it to the bulletin board. “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, it says here in I Timothy, “because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service….even though…”. Even though, even though I was a blasphemer, even though I was persecutor, even though I was a man of violence. Even though. “Even though” doesn’t get underlined or memorized or put on a poster. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” That probably makes it. That quote is up there. It’s a common assurance of forgiveness in the liturgy for worship. But not this part: “ Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners- of whom I am the foremost.” The foremost. Nobody up here ever says, The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners- of which I am the foremost, of which you are the foremost.”  In Jesus Christ, we “foremosters” are forgiven.

Even though. “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, the author of the letter writes, “and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that is in Christ Jesus.” “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ.” The faith and the love of Christ, and the grace of God comes first. God’s grace. Grace alone. First. Prevenient grace. God’s reach. God’s gift. God’s action. First. God’s first touch of grace to me, me…even though, I am the foremost.

Even though. Remember it. Circle it. Underline it. Put it up on your bathroom mirror. Because every one of us has our own “even though.” Our own finish to the clause. Our wrestling with the sinfulness of our own lives, and the constant tug of our humanity. And then, our own wonder at God’s touch.  God’s grace and how it pours out to me…even though. How it flows unconditionally, day after day. “Morning by morning, new mercies I see”….even though. For by grace I have been saved through faith…even though. Nothing in life or in death can separate me from the love of God made known to me in Jesus Christ…even though. God’s grace is sufficient for me, for God’s power is made perfect in weakness….even though. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me…even though. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me….even though. For God so loved the world, for God so loved me….even though.

When Jesus ate with and touched and healed and called fishermen and tax collectors and women and children, every one of them had an “even though.” Martin Luther would start every day with his hand on his head remembering “I have been baptized”. He could have said to himself, “I have been baptized…..even though.” The theologian Karl Barth wrote about how the only way preachers can dare speak is because God has spoken. No one can rise to proclaim the gospel without the “even though”. God has spoken…even though. When you listen to Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin or Jennifer Hudson sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow”; “when Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is he, you know his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for you and for me.” What makes that gospel song, why that song strikes deep,  is the “even though” of our lives even when it isn’t mentioned. “Jesus cares for you and for me….even though.”  The only way to wrestle with all work of the Apostle Paul in scripture, and especially the parts you don’t like, is to never forget his “even though” and his confession that he was “the foremost”.

Instrumental musicians, from the newest to the oldest, have their arpeggios, their exercises, their scales. their rudimentary practice. The best never stop when it comes to them. Athletes and coaches never stop talking, working on the fundamentals. The strongest of families and the deepest of relationships are shaped by the simplest of experiences the deepest of memories, and most never stop talking about them, reliving them, laughing and crying with them, remembering them. A parent sends a child off to school, off to the new job, off to another part of the country or the world and always finds someway to say “don’t forget who you are”.

When it comes to our life in God, our witness to faith, our call to the way of discipleship, the “even though” part is a fundamental, an arpeggio, an essential that is always to be remembered and never forgotten. Because when you stray from the knowledge deep within  your soul that you are sinner in need of God’s grace, when you turn for just a moment from the awe of the first touch of God’s grace, when you find yourself forgetting that like Paul, you and I are the foremost, when you forget the basics, the insipid sinfulness of salvation arrogance is soon to set in; whose faith is better, whose walk is closer, whose place next to Jesus is surer. Jesus didn’t like that when the disciples thought about it and he has to not like it now either. Salvation arrogance; as in how easy it is rest on the laurels of a place in heaven while taking a pass on an ever-growing understanding of God, and constantly being convicted and challenged by the teaching of Jesus as to life today and tomorrow, and a deepening life of discipleship and serving the kingdom of God now. Salvation arrogance: as in I am feeling really good about my faith. Thank you. You, you’re pretty much the foremost.

Even though. Even though. A daily infusion of the remarkable wonder of grace’s in your life. Part of what’s so remarkable about that taste, that sip, that daily reminder of God reaching out to you, is that as you tell yourself again and again, as you allow God to mind you again and again, as you live in and are shaped by nothing other and nothing short of God’s unending, abiding, steadfast grace is that you start to see that very same grace in everyone else. God, by God’s grace, changes how you see the world.

God changing the world, one “even though” after another. That belief, that knowledge, that assurance gives me hope. “For in hope we were saved, the Apostle Paul writes, “Now hope that is seen I not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Yes, the people of God, the followers of Jesus we still hope….even though.