“To Save Sinners”
14th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19C)
September 15, 2019
1 Timothy 1:12-17
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.
The Apostle Paul’s story is one of the most inspiring in church history. He went from being a persecutor of the church to becoming its biggest advocate. He was completely changed from the inside out by meeting Jesus.
You know the story. He was a zealous Pharisee. He was trained by the best rabbis to read and study the Hebrew Scriptures. He was smart and very well-educated; he was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and probably other languages. And he understood his Jewish faith very traditionally and very narrowly. After studying the Scriptures and learning from the Pharisees, Paul believed that God had made Israel the chosen nation, but that the people did not follow God's Law closely enough. If they would only obey, try harder, and do good deeds, then God would save them from Roman colonialism and oppression. Paul believed that it was essential for the common good of all Jews that they piously obey the Law.
And that's the rub. Paul believed that the Jesus followers were heretics and blasphemers against the LORD God of Israel. They devoted themselves too fully to a single rabbi. They were calling Jesus the Son of God and Messiah. They were even claiming that he was God in the flesh. This was unacceptable. It was against the first commandment to worship anyone but God alone. This was a corrupting influence within Judaism, so Paul and his companions worked to stamp it out.
So Paul, then known as Saul, was part of the violent fringe movement from within traditional Judaism to suppress the message of Jesus. These extremists arrested, beat, and even killed Christians, especially when they tried to preach to Jews and “corrupt” them with their “false teachings.” Saul was notably a witness to the lynching martyrdom of St. Stephen. A mob attacked Stephen and stoned him to death in a wild fury, and “Saul approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1).
Then, in Acts 9, we learn that Saul was commissioned by these persecutors in Jerusalem to continue this work in Damascus. He was supposed to arrest any Christians he found in Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem for a religious trial. This was serious stuff.That’s why Paul testifies, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”
It’s during that journey to Damascus that Paul’s life gets turned upside down. Jesus appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus and spoke to him: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Jesus met him and challenged his assumptions about who Jesus was and who the God of Israel was. He forced him to consider that he may have been wrong about these Christians. Maybe Jesus was all that the Christians said he was.
Jesus turned Saul's life around. Jesus chose him out of all the people in the world to become a disciple, an apostle, a missionary, and a bishop. Saul/Paul was the unlikeliest choice for such an assignment. He had to change everything he thought he believed. He went from hating Christians to loving Christ and the Church.
Saul believed that God was all about punishment and violence. He thought that he could earn God’s favor by using violence to enforce God’s rules. But the God of Jesus was willing to forgive a man of violence and persecution. The God of Jesus loved Saul enough to transform him into an ambassador of peace. The God of Jesus loved him enough to rename him Paul and make him the greatest missionary in Christian history. But more importantly, the God of Jesus loved Paul, period.
Even when Paul “acted ignorantly in unbelief,” he “received mercy” from God. God is so gracious, so kind, so patient, so merciful that God loves Saul, the persecutor. God’s grace is enormous and magnificent. God’s grace can transform even the ugliest of sinners. God can always change someone, no matter how far gone we might think they are. Nobody would have ever guessed that Saul would become Paul. Nobody in the church expected him to join them. In fact, Ananias, the man who God sent to baptize him was afraid to answer the call, even though Jesus literally appeared to him and spoke to him.
Paul’s life shows us the true meaning of the Gospel. It’s not that we can be good if we try hard enough. It’s not that we’re okay the way we are. It’s that we are all fundamentally broken. We are all tainted by the curse of sin. We are all unable to love perfectly. We all fall short of the glory of God. But, as Paul testifies, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost.”
Paul is saying, “If God can do it for me, God can do it for you” (Pulpit Fiction). He is one of the best examples of God’s ability to transform a human life for the better. Paul didn’t become perfect. He still sinned and he needed God’s forgiveness every day until the day he died. But he turned his life around because of the grace and mercy of God shown through Jesus Christ.
Paul shows us that no matter how far we think we have fallen, God can lift us up. God can turn us around. God can set our feet on solid ground. God can turn us from our deepest darkest sins, our nastiest prejudices, our ugliest hatred and assumptions. God can turn us instead toward love, peace, and justice for all. God can make us ambassadors of grace and peace instead of punishment and violence. God can transform our hearts so that we love boldly as Jesus loved us.
And God can transform our enemies. It took the rest of the church some time to believe that Paul had really changed. They doubted his sincerity. Early on, people were afraid that Paul was trying to trick them by claiming to be a Christian so he could find out who they were and arrest them, like an undercover cop or a spy. But Paul shows us that no one is beyond redemption. Even our worst enemies can be saved.
God loves them even as God loves us. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and we’re no better than anyone else. So no matter how bad you think you are (or anybody else is), the truth is that God loves you and God loves them. Jesus died for you and for them. And the grace of God is for you and for them, now and always. Amen.