A Personal Message (11am service)
Topic: Christian Faith & Discipleship Scripture: Psalm 14,
I’ve been lucky to have many examples of quality Christian leadership in my life. From the priest at my first church who would always greet each of us kids with his signature “snake shake” – a handshake that shook our whole bodies – to now having the opportunity to learn beside Pastor Larry, I consider myself fortunate. I’ve seen all different types of Christian leaders. Ones with a firm, strong hand. Leaders with a soft and gentle spirit. Leaders with astounding intelligence. And leaders with a quippy and sharp wit. And a personal favorite, leaders with a good sense of humor. And each and every one of them took it upon themselves to pour into me. Through different stages of my life and varied circumstances, God brought leaders into my life at times when I needed them. Perhaps many of you can recall people like that. Youth leaders, pastors, strong Christian friends…
This Fall we will be spending our time exploring what are called the pastoral epistles. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. The title can be a little misleading. Yes, these letters are written by a pastor to pastors. But the message found in these letters is not only for pastors. One writer says that these letters shouldn’t be ignored simply because someone isn’t a pastor. That these letters “address questions crucial” to the health of every church. The subjects covered in these three short books are towering. From the purpose of money to the significance of Christ’s sacrifice to the model for Christian leadership – we hit on some of the most central questions of Christian faith and discipleship. And it helps, I feel, to remember that these truths aren’t being communicated over a podium in an ancient lecture hall or over a lofty academic discourse. These truths are communicated from one committed pastor, Paul, to another, Timothy (and later, Titus).
In the four weeks we’re in 1 Timothy we will be reading a personal message from Paul to Timothy. Paul, the established and well-known pastor, to Timothy, the brand-new pastor. Timothy has taken leadership of a new and growing church. A church like any other – one with huge blessings and one with big issues. A church that Paul started and has now left in the care of Timothy as Paul realizes he probably won’t be able to return for quite some time. For Paul, this is a personal message. Concerning a church he loves and written to a young, new leader he loves. And in this message, Paul lays out the foundation – the cornerstone – for understanding the Christian faith and what it takes to serve as a leader in that mission. We’re going to be in 1 Timothy 1:12-17.
Read 1 Timothy 1:12-17.
One of the first things the search committee asked me during the interview process was about my faith journey. They wanted to know my story, who I was. And so I shared it with them. It’s funny because I had a pastor friend who described that part of a pastor search as “fluff” and just something you have to ask. I disagree. Where we come from and how God has shaped our journey serves as the framework for how we serve in any capacity. Whether that be our parenting styles, our work habits, or the way we serve in our church. Our story matters. And it matters to Paul in our text. Like I said, Paul is not taking the position of a lofty professor spewing academic information. He’s sending a personal message about what the Lord has taught him and the truth is – Paul’s life is an incredible tapestry of God’s work.
And you have to love how Paul starts out. The direction and movement of the relationship is clear: God came to Paul. Not the other way around. We know this if we recall Paul’s conversion experience. Strolling on the road to Damascus preparing to hunt down some local Christians. Bam! Christ appears to Paul on the road and blinds him and calls Paul out for persecuting and hunting Christ’s followers. Paul then begins the dynamic story of his conversion from a zealous super-Jew bounty hunter to the most recognizable pastor in the ancient church. That story matters! Knowing who Paul is impacts how we receive his message. And Paul doesn’t sugar-coat or pull any punches.
When it comes to how he sees his former self, Paul knows what a wreck he was. By the standards of society, he had it all. Lofty position, influence and power in the community, respect. But he knows what he was. A blasphemer – someone who spreads lies about God. A persecutor – someone who hunts down the innocent with force. A violent man – surely in more ways than one. But it was in that state that Christ came to Paul and that God transformed his heart and life. Everything about Paul’s old life was the opposite of humility. Now, Paul can only proclaim his identity with humility. He says that he was shown mercy, that God poured out His grace on him, that God is the source of his faith and authority. He says that all his faith and love come from Christ and not from himself. Paul’s personal message to Timothy here begins with the important truth that nothing is more precious and personal to Paul than his story of God breaking into his world and giving him purpose and a call.
And so it is with all the meaningful energy of that personal introduction that Paul hits his reader and us with his first “trustworthy saying” – read verses 15-16.
As long as I’ve been in ministry I’ve heard scholars, pastors, and speakers debate over what should come first: sin or grace? Do you start off telling folks how terrible we are and then hit them with the whammy of God’s grace? Or do you tell them about the immense love of God and then show them why that love is so personally important? Well, I personally think it’s kind of a “chicken and egg” type of situation. Grace without sin is simply adorable affection. Sin without grace is soul-crushing guilt with no relief. We need both. And in his first sentence, Paul introduces both.
Christ came into the world to save sinners. Two big words there. Save and Sinners. Both are right there. Christ came to save sinners. And Paul, in his typical transparency, takes no issue calling himself the worst sinner. But this is the first thing Paul wants Timothy to establish in his church and to have accepted universally: Christ came to save sinners. That means you and it means me. It means everyone. It’s one notion we can’t be cutesey about. We see sin in the world all around us. Social media and the news barrage us with the realities of sin and brokenness every day. But we also have to be willing to admit the sin and brokenness within ourselves as well. Paul says it in his letter to the Romans: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Not most. Not a bunch. No exceptions. We’re in need of grace. Saint Augustine, the father of Western Christianity, said it best: The church is a hospital for the broken, not a museum for saints. We need this. First Pres needs this. Bloomington-Normal needs this. Our world needs grace. But first we have to accept why we need it.
And then Paul describes how something incredible happens. Something that has happened through the entire existence of God being creator. God’s creation, by simply living into its call and God-given-design, displays the power and love of God. When we have the rare moment in the tranquility of nature and can stare at the immense canvas of the stars – we awe at God’s creativity and power. When we witness the kindness of a friend or even perfect stranger – we see the goodness of Christ reflected there. When we take in the innocence and affection of a child – we believe in the purity of God. And when a sinner, broken and messed up as we may be, dedicate our lives to living and sharing the mercy and grace and strength of the God who saved us – we proclaim our God for all to hear. Paul says he became an example of God’s immense patience to any who saw him and that through that example, some were saved.
Again, this is a personal message. It’s a universal truth – God came to save sinners and offer grace – but that reality impacts and reacts with each life differently. Paul is telling Timothy, telling us, that the transforming power of God’s mercy is beyond sufficient for all sinners and that each instance of a changed life creates a unique narrative, a personal and meaningful ripple, which goes out into the world. That is a chorus our lives join when we accept and live into the mercy and love of our Savior.
So where do we go from here? What do we do? In the coming weeks Paul’s words to these young leaders of Timothy and Titus will become our own personal instruction manual for living into the mercy of God. Questions will be asked and subjects will be brought up. The way we worship, what idols we might have in our lives, who we really believe Christ is, what we think about money, the qualifications for leadership, how we handle disputes amongst ourselves, whether we can sniff out false or dangerous teaching, why we really believe we’re here… All of these will be touched on and help us answer the question.
For now though, I leave you with this question: Is your faith a personal message? Or maybe a generic one? Does it hold weight and gravitas in your life and the lives of those who know you? Or is it just taking up space like that coffee punch card in your wallet? For Paul, his faith was the defining factor of his identity. He told people he was a tent-maker, but that wasn’t the core of who he was. Folks knew his past but it wasn’t what Paul let define him. His identity in Christ was the focal point, the core, of who he was. Does your faith and identity in Christ impact what kind of parent you are? What kind of spouse? Does it influence the way you spend your money or who you are at work? Does the light of Christ touch and illuminate every facet of who you are?
When we begin or continue working on that or having a transformation like that, it takes time and intentionality. But it starts with a determination and a decision. Elements of personal Bible study, private prayer life, involvement in the community of faith here in the church…all of those things are pieces of the puzzle. Steps on the journey. The other subjects we’ll hit in this preaching series will add to it. But it’s got to start here and now. And it’s got to be yours. It’s got to be a story that you write with God. Something that you can stand with and proclaim. Like Paul, it has to be your own personal message.