Proper 19 | Pentecost 16C
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Making Friends with Paul
In 1 Timothy, at that place in a letter where we would expect thanksgiving for the letter’s recipients, we get something else. In this letter, thanksgiving is offered for the way that Christ has called Paul and made his own ministry possible. To those of us who are pretty sure that a follower of Paul, rather than the apostle himself, wrote 1 Timothy, this beginning brings a smile. One of Paul’s students sets out to construct a letter in the apostle’s voice. How shall he begin? Why not begin with content that can be heard as arrogant and self-absorbed? That’s it! Of course. I imagine the disciple reviewing his first paragraph and saying to himself, “Nailed it!”
(Most of us have had remarkable teachers who were like Paul in at least this respect: they were odd combinations of brilliance, arrogance, self-doubt, and foolishness. It may help when we spend time with Paul’s letters to offer Paul the same level of charity that we would give to the great, flawed, beloved teachers we have known.)
So Paul, or someone trying to get Paul’s voice right, begins with thanksgiving for the mercy shown to him. Mercy is getting something good just at a time when it would make more sense if you got nothing, or getting something good at a time when you should have received punishment. To understand the gift of mercy that Paul talks about, we have to have at least a sketch of what Paul was doing when he got what he did not deserve. So Paul fills in some back story: in short, he was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13).
For more detail, one can look at the story of a mob-killing of Stephen in Acts. Luke reports that witnesses to the stoning “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58), also known as Paul. A couple of chapters later in Acts, Saul is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1a). He requests letters from the high priest to the synagogues at Damascus, “so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). Paul himself describes his former life by saying, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).
This is the one who receives mercy: one who was so sure of himself that he could claim to practice violence in defense of justice. In 1 Timothy, Paul says he acted in ignorance, as if he imagines that ignorance offers an excuse. It doesn’t, but Paul is not the only one to marvel at the contrast between the good we thought our actions would have and the harm we actually did. “I didn’t know it would turn out that way.” “I was trying to help.” “I didn’t think anyone would get hurt.” No matter what we intended, still, there we are, standing in the need of mercy.
Salvation: Swords to Plowshares
Having described his past, Paul goes on, “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul’s claim to be “chief of sinners” may strike many hearers as one more bit of evidence of his life-long arrogance. Yet it would be a mistake to get stuck in analyzing the flaws in a personality here. The thanksgiving emphasizes Paul’s sinfulness only insofar as it demonstrates the surpassing greatness of Christ’s work to save Paul, to strengthen him, and to call him to something better (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12). The words point beyond Paul, and beyond sinfulness, to the work of Christ to exercise “the utmost patience” in order to save blasphemers, persecutors, people of violence, and other sinners. Christ makes Paul an example to show that if Paul can be saved, anyone can be saved.
To figure out what it means for Christ to “save sinners,” we have to look back to the first verse of this lesson. There, we see that Christ strengthened Paul, judged him faithful and appointed Paul to Christ’s service. “Saving,” as Paul describes what happens to him, is not moving a name from one column to another. Saving is certainly not ignoring sin and the harm it does. Saving is re-commissioning someone for new work. It is taking a persecutor of the church and turning him into an ambassador of Christ. Saving is the human equivalent of fashioning swords into plowshares. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Paul should know. He is Exhibit A.
The fact that Paul is Exhibit A tells us one more thing about salvation in Christ. From Galatians 1-2, we know that before his experience of the risen Jesus, Paul was bright, zealous, ambitious, and quite sure he was right about things. From the rest of his letters as well as the testimony of Luke in the book of Acts, we know that after his experience of the risen Jesus, Paul was bright, zealous, ambitious, and quite sure he was right about things.
In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called, “Tapestry,” Captain Picard has an experience of seeing what his life would have been like if one particularly embarrassing chapter had been removed from it. Afterward, he confides to his first officer, "There are many parts of my youth that I'm not proud of. There were... loose threads—untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, I unraveled the tapestry of my life."
Paul is genuinely remorseful about having persecuted the church, yet he cannot remove that thread and still tell the story of his life and his new life in Christ. In the end he comes to see Christ as having re-commissioned even this chapter along with all of the elements of his character that led him to do such a thing. At least part of the miracle of salvation in Jesus Christ, as testified to by the apostle Paul’s life, is that Christ does not unravel the tapestry of those whose lives he saves. He does not unravel anything, but out of that mess of threads and stitching, he creates something for the neighbor’s good.