Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Giving Gladly

Giving Gladly
2 Corinthians 9:6-15[1]
Some of you know that I did my seminary training, both my Master’s and Doctorate, at a Southern Baptist Seminary. The Southern Baptists have a cooperative giving program that is a little like our per capita. Out of it they fund the various agencies and institutions, including their Seminaries. Their “Cooperative Program” giving was enough that all seminary students received a scholarship that covered their tuition. We simply paid a small registration fee. One of my professors once reminded a class I was attending that our education was being funded by gifts that were offered to God. He charged us to avoid the temptation to take that for granted. I’ve always remembered that, and I’ve never taken for granted the fact that my livelihood comes from gifts offered to God.
In part, one of the reasons for this is that, despite any difficulties I’ve been through in a life of service to the church, I’ve always believed that I am a part of something bigger than myself. I’m not just talking about this church, or our denomination; I’m talking about what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” which refers to everything God is doing in this world to implement his merciful justice and unlimited compassion to set right all that is wrong. While my experience of life has not always confirmed that faith, I still believe in the kingdom of God as the reality that is ultimately true in this world. And I still believe God’s kingdom will have the last word.
I think it was that vision of belonging to something bigger than himself that inspired St. Paul in much of his ministry. From the very beginning, he was compelled by the conviction that he belonged to the “Body of Christ.” And so he did not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel, even when to do so put him in harm’s way. In fact, his commitment to proclaiming the gospel and serving the kingdom of God brought him into life-threatening situations on more than one occasion. And yet, Paul didn’t despair or lose heart because of the threats; instead he saw what he was going through as a way of “fulfilling the sufferings of Christ” for the sake of the church. Even in the lowest moments of his life, he was inspired by the vision that his life was a part of something much bigger than himself, bigger than Judaism, bigger than the Roman Empire.
In our lesson for today, he’s trying to encourage the people in the Church at Corinth to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves—that they too were part of the “Body of Christ” which encompassed believers of all kinds—all races, all ethnic groups, all social classes, all walks of life. In that day and time, the most significant division in the church was the one between Jewish and Gentile believers. It caused serious problems on more than on occasion. And yet, the reality of the church in that day was that just about every Church everywhere included Jewish and Gentile members. So it’s understandable that St. Paul saw this as one of his most important tasks in ministry.
One way in which he set about to enhance the unity of a church that was being pulled apart by this division was to raise a collection. For whatever reason, it would appear that the believers in Jerusalem and Judea were living in a state of poverty, and it was a great burden to them. Since most of the churches Paul served were in the Gentile world, and were composed of a majority of Gentiles, he decided to raise an offering from the Gentile churches to the Jewish churches to help alleviate their suffering. From what he says about it here and elsewhere, it was his hope that this offering would help strengthen the bonds of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He hoped that it would help the fledgling Gentile churches see themselves as a part of the larger “Body of Christ.”
Apparently there was some reluctance on the part of the Church at Corinth regarding this offering. For that reason, in our lesson for today, Paul encourages them to give “gladly.” He uses a variety of strategies to encourage them to do this. He points out that other churches had given generously despite their own difficulties. He reminds them that the one who “sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,” while those who “sow generously will reap generously” (2 Cor. 9:10 NET). He comes close to suggesting they will receive a material reward for their giving, but the language throughout makes it clear he is thinking about the spiritual benefits of their generosity, for themselves, for others, and for God’s kingdom. The bottom line is that he wants them to “give gladly,” not “with regret or out of a sense of duty” (2 Cor. 9:7, TEV). It seems to me that the main motivation for their ability to do that was for them to recognize that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
We live in a time when many of us are longing to feel like we are a part of something more than just our own lives. I wonder if that’s not part of what drives our “mania” for getting over-involved in our lives. I don’t think that really satisfies our longing. But the message of our faith has always been that we who have identified with Christ have aligned ourselves with something that truly is bigger than anything we can imagine. We are a part of Christ’s Body in this world. We are a part of God’s kingdom, and we are called to promote that kingdom amidst the various “kingdoms” of our world. The way we do that is by investing our gifts and our lives in the work of this church. I hope that the vision of community, compassion, service, and faith that we stand for is motivation enough to lead us to make that investment by giving gladly.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/13/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Change of Format

Those of you who may have followed my blog will notice a change of format in future posts. For the past 8 years or so, I have posted sermons with rather full footnotes, in part because I have been sharing my sermons with "The Text this Week" in the hopes of making my work available to the larger body of Christ. Now it seems that it is time to shift gears in my ministry. I will continue to publish my sermons, but they will no longer contain such full documentation of sources. I hope that they will continue to be useful. 

The Lord is With Us

The Lord is With Us
Haggai 2:1-9[1]
What is your formula for “success” in life? It depends on whom you ask, and I would say a survey would yield a wide variety of answers. There was a time when the formula for success was to work hard, do what is right, love your family, and trust in God. Unfortunately, the changes in our society and our economy over the last several decades have made us painfully aware that we can do all that and not wind up with the “success” we were hoping for. The “millennial” generation is learning that to be successful in life, they have to be flexible, able to innovate, thinking creatively about ways to carve out a niche for themselves in the world. It’s a very different approach to life, but then they face challenges many of us could not have imagined at their age.
One of the side effects of the changes in our society and economy is that church is changing. And while many are wringing their hands about the future of the church, I think there are just as many people in churches who are actually worried about the past.  Remembering “the good old days,” they are desperate to find the solution that will make it possible for us to re-create those days, when the pews were mostly filled.  Unfortunately, no one can turn back the hands of time, and those days are gone for good. In order for churches to thrive, we have to take a cue from our children about what that takes to thrive in this day and time.
I imagine that our situation isn’t all that different from the way it was in the days of the prophet Haggai.  He was one of the exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonian captivity.  And when they returned, they found that everything had changed. Jerusalem, their cities and towns, and especially the Temple, were all in ruins.  There were those who looked at the ruins of their culture and their temple and who worried about the future: how would they survive?  And there were those who looked at those same ruins and grieved over past greatness that had been lost.  But for all their worrying and all their grieving, I’m not sure they knew what to do about it.   
And so the word of the Lord came to Haggai.  He rather pointedly reminded them that their efforts to restore their lives and to provide for their future had been in vain.  They struggled with crop failures, food shortages, inflation, and famine—not to mention the lingering threat of their enemies who would like nothing better than to see their restoration project fail.  And the word of the Lord came to them: “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag. 1:9).
Apparently, everyone was devoting their efforts to ensuring and securing their own future—rebuilding houses, planting crops, trying to maintain their feeble hold on the land of their ancestors.  And their efforts met with more failure than success.  Haggai asks them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4).  And Haggai’s words had their effect: “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel ..., and the spirit of Joshua ..., and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hag. 1:16). 
But even though the people set about the work of rebuilding the temple, there were those who remembered the former temple, Solomon’s temple.  And in comparison, this new temple looked pretty shabby. Once again, Haggai came with the word of the Lord: “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4).  Even though the results of their work may have seemed disappointing to those who had seen the original temple, the word of assurance was that the “Lord of hosts” was with them.  That was the purpose of the temple: it was to be a place where the people could come to encounter the presence of God in a unique way.  And so Haggai told them to go on with the work despite their misgivings.
I would imagine that there are many in our day who are saying similar things about the church—or about their church in particular. They remember the “good old days,” and look for a way to somehow re-create that storied past. They may believe there are certain qualities that are supposed to define a thriving church. But we live in a very different world, and the strategies that worked 25 years ago will not necessarily work today. Rather than trying to go back to the way it was, we have to learn to be flexible, able to innovate, and think creatively now.
Regardless of challenges we face in the church, the promise Haggai made to the exiles in Judea applies to us today as well. We can rise to the occasion and do the work it takes for this church to thrive.  Just as the people of Haggai’s day needed foundation stones and timbers to build the temple, so we have specific things we can do promote new life in our church.  They aren’t secret; they’re the same as they have always been: prayer, worship, studying Scripture, helping those in need, working for peace, promoting community, and inviting others to join us. And the reason why I believe we can do the work it takes to see the church thrive in our day is because we have the promise that we are not doing the work on our own.  We can do our part because we have the same promise the people of all ages have had: it is not our efforts alone that will cause this church to thrive, but the presence of the Lord who is with us.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/6/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

New Sight, Fresh Vision

New Sight, Fresh Vision
Habakkuk 2:1-4[1]
There are times in life when it seems like “God is in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.” In everything that really matters things just seem to line up. It all works smoothly and life makes sense. But there are other times when it can seem like everything has come unraveled. You find out you’ve been “downsized” at work. Or the diagnosis is a frightening one. Or no matter what you try, it seems like nothing goes right at home. In those difficult times of our lives, one of the challenges we may face is that our problems persist for so long that we begin to believe it will always be this way. We lose sight of hope, and just put one foot in front of the other to keep moving. Or we may be tempted to just shut down altogether.
Unfortunately, we are living in a time when church life can seem that way. Estimates on the number of churches that close each year range from five to ten thousand. The numbers of pastors who drop out of ministry aren’t much better. It’s no secret that it’s a difficult time to be the church, especially a neighborhood church with a particular identity like “Presbyterian.” When you look around and see dwindling congregations and younger families seemingly going elsewhere (or not at all), it can be pretty discouraging. It’s easy to lose sight of hope and wonder what future this or any other church has.
In our lesson from Habakkuk for today, he was dealing with a crisis of faith and hope as well.[2] It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems clear that Habakkuk carried out his prophetic ministry during the time when Israel and Judah were being effectively dismantled by powerful empires like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. By comparison, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were tiny and had little hope of fending off these ruthless invaders. We know from other sources that they tried to make an alliance with Egypt, the only other major world power of the day. But that didn’t protect them from being conquered and sent into exile.
One of Habakkuk’s problems was that he found it hard to reconcile the fact that this was a judgment from God. The reason this was a problem was that God was using the Babylonians, a people who were far more violent and unjust, to carry out this judgment. That didn’t make any sense to Habakkuk. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but it seems as if Habakkuk is disappointed with God because right and wrong appeared to have been turned upside down. From his perspective, what was happening meant that “judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4). Later in the same chapter, Habakkuk asks God rather pointedly, “why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1:13). We might debate with him as to whether Judah was truly “more righteous,” but that’s the way he saw it, and because of that he had a serious problem with God.
So Habakkuk poses his question to God and then basically decides to watch and wait to see how God would answer his complaint. I find it interesting that Habakkuk doesn’t mince words here: he’s complaining about God’s justice and fairness and he knows it. That’s something we might think ought not be done, but Habakkuk was not the only prophet to complain to God. While we might be tempted to think of “complaining” to God as an act of unbelief, that’s not necessarily the case. If you think about it, it may take more faith in God to voice a serious complaint than to keep silent.
The interesting thing about Habakkuk is that God does indeed answer. Although there are other times and places in the Bible when God gently (or not so gently) chides the complainer, there’s nothing like that here. God simply gives Habakkuk an answer: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; …. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). God’s answer to Habakkuk is that even though it seemed as if the events around him invalidated his faith in God as well as his hope for any future for his people, God did indeed have a future in store for them.[3] It might not look like what Habakkuk expected, but that didn’t mean there was nothing left to hope for.
In fact, although it’s not obvious on the surface of things, it would seem that part of God’s answer is that the proud and arrogant people who had conquered them would not last. In our lesson this comes as a hint: “their spirit is not right in them” (Hab. 2:4). In the next verse, it’s more straightforward: “the arrogant do not endure” (Hab. 2:5). Although the proud and arrogant seemed to have all the power at the time, God assures Habakkuk that their power would come to an end. And his people would indeed have a future.
At times when you look at our world it’s easy to become discouraged. It can seem like all the wrong people have all the power in our world, and they use it to their own advantage. With that in mind, many may say that the church has become irrelevant in our culture. But just as it was in that day, so now God still has a future for his people.[4] And the path to that future is found in our lesson as well: “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4). Perhaps a better way to put it is that God’s people endure through their faithfulness to him and to the gospel of new life through Jesus Christ. That is the vision that has inspired generations of servants of God—right here in this church as well as elsewhere. And it’s that vision that continues to point us toward the future. As we gain new sight of this future, it can renew in us a fresh vision for our lives in the present.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/30/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Ralph L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, 107: “Habakkuk, like all of us, was living ‘between the times,’ between the promise and the fulfillment. Habakkuk was to wait in faith for God to act.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.2:913: “How much need faith has of hope may be seen from the innumerable temptations which assail and shake those who would cling to the Word of God, from the delay of God in the fulfilment of His promises (cf. Hab. 2:3), from the hiding of His face, from the aperta indignatio [revealed indignation] with which He can sometimes startle even His own people, from the scoffers who ask where is His coming, who argue that all things remain as they were, and who can so easily insinuate their doubts into ourselves and the world around (2 Pet. 3:4)!”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, where he reminds us that our hope is based on a promise, one which contains a fundamentally different view of reality, and in fact not only “announces the coming of a not yet existing reality” but also to some extent “goes beyond what is possible and impossible in the realistic sense” by anticipating the fulfillment of the promise already in the present. Cf. also similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 295.

Monday, November 28, 2016


2 Timothy 3:10-17[1]
The concept of “truth” has become quite small in our day. In a world of “instant everything” we seem to believe that truth can be reduced to a “sound bite.” We feel justified in thinking that we can capture in a word or phrase the full truth of a human being with all of his or her thoughts, feelings, history, and aspirations. We don’t have as many bumper stickers these days as we once did, but it seems that our conception of truth is something that can be reduced to a slogan. We like our truth bite-sized, cut-and-dried, and simplified so that we really don’t have to think too much about it. Unfortunately, life is far more complex than a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker.
That kind of simplification of truth seems to apply to all topics generally, from human relationships to politics to science to history to religion. Yes, we take this approach to our faith as well, as if a slogan can somehow satisfy the questions about God, redemption, and the meaning of human life. And our approach to the Bible is very similar. If we can quote some snippets of Bible verses, then we “know” our Bible. And we dutifully say, “The word of the Lord, thanks be to God!” And yet, I’d have to say that in my opinion this perspective on the Bible effectively nullifies any real authority biblical teaching might have in our lives. The real authority for most of us is our own opinion.[2] And if we make any reference to the Bible at all, its actual impact on our lives is quite minimal.[3] It’s become essentially a useless book.
Our lesson from 2 Timothy reflects a very different approach to the Bible. All of the New Testament writers look to the Hebrew Bible, which was the “Scripture” of their day. When they make a point, whether it’s theological or practical, they appeal to Scripture to back it up. They also appeal to life and nature and the way things tend to work, but when they really want to make a point with authority, they appeal to the “Scriptures.” Some scholars have accused the writers of the New Testament of simply trotting out their favorite snippets of Scripture as a “proof text.” But a more thorough study makes it clear that the apostolic writers were much more familiar with their Bible than most of us are.
In fact, the point of our lesson is to encourage Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14). The reason for that is two-fold: first, Timothy knows the character and the life of those from whom he had learned his faith.[4] But the second reason our lesson cites for his continued confidence in the faith is because “from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). The idea here is not just simply pulling out memory verses, but rather that Timothy knows the Scriptures, and knows them well. The idea of “knowing” Scripture in the New Testament has much more depth than we may assume. For example, James speaks of know the Scriptures so well they are able to become “doers of the word” and not simply “hearers who forget” (Jas. 1:22-26). This, of course, echoes the words of Jesus at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, where he praises those who “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Mt. 7:24-27). “Knowing” Scripture is something that makes a difference in the way you live.
When we know Scripture in that way, it becomes “authoritative” for us. I’m afraid that we may have some problems with our understanding of the Bible’s authority as well. We hear that “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), and we may tend to think of a secretary taking down dictation. That makes it seem settled and beyond question or doubt. But if you’ve ever given the Bible any really serious study, you know that it raises all kinds of questions and its truth is something that’s far from “settled.”[5] We continue to study the Bible over a lifetime, and at the end of it all, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we’ve only touched the hem of the garment.
In our lesson for today, the Bible’s authority is presented in terms that are far less definite than words like “inerrant” or “infallible” imply. Our lesson says it differently: the Scriptures “are able to instruct you for salvation through Jesus Christ.” That is the primary purpose of the Bible: to teach us what it means to know God, to follow Christ, and to experience salvation.[6] The other purpose of the Bible here is very practical: it is “useful …so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).[7] The Scriptures are not meant to be the final word on every matter of truth or knowledge. They are intended to introduce us to God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and to teach us how to live out that faith.[8]
From that perspective, the Bible is meant to be a truly useful book. But for it to be useful to us in this way, we have to spend time actually reading it—to be precise, studying it. That means we have to think about what we’ve read. We have to do so enough to raise questions about what it says, because we learn best when we ask questions. The Bible is not something that is meant to be read once in 90 days and then you’re done with it. The way for us to actually learn what it means to live out our faith is to continually read and study portions of the Bible.[9] Sound bites and slogans can’t come anywhere close to getting us there. The Bible only unfolds its truths gradually, over time to those who practice regularly studying it. When we do that, it will become more than just a table ornament or an accessory we carry to church. It will become useful precisely because it prepares us to be useful in living out the Christian life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/16/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language, 60: “The assertion of autonomous freedom and self-direction as the key to human self-fulfillment is subversive of many of the historic forms of religion with their traditional authorities of various sorts stemming from the distant past—and their insistence that man is fulfilled when he patterns himself according to the divine image” (cited in J. Christiaan Beker, “The Authority of Scripture: Normative or Incidental?,” Theology Today, 49 [Oct 1992]: 378).
[3] Cf. Sharon H. Ringe, “The Word of God May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” Theology Today, 49 (Oct 1992): 368, where she reminds us that “If what a speaker or author says is to have authority, it has to find an echo in his or her audience’s experience or longing.”
[4] The primary reference here is to St. Paul. Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus,” New Interpreters Bible XI:850: “Thus is picked up again an emphasis running through both letters to Timothy, where Paul is put forward, not only as Timothy's father and teacher in the faith, but also as a model for subsequent generations (1 Tim 1:12-16; 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11-12; 2:9-10; 3:10-12; 4:6-8).”
[5] Cf. Ringe, “The Word of God,” 371: “Clearly such readings that find in the Bible support for abuse, slavery, apartheid, and other death-dealing institutions are misreadings and, indeed, abuses of the Bible. But the fact is that the requisite words are in there.”
[6] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:850: “Obviously implied is the continuity between Timothy’s instruction from the Jewish Scriptures and his belief in Christ; it was because the two were so closely coordinated that Paul could defend and expound the gospel by referring to the Scriptures.” He continues (ibid.), “the assumption is that the gospel is the outworking of Scripture, so that the wisdom, salvation, and faith held out in the gospel are continuous with that inculcated in the holy writings. That is also to say that the gospel's saving power is of a piece with the saving power of Scripture, or it is not the gospel.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:504, where he explains the authority of Scripture in terms of the fact that “they have already given the proof of what they claim to be, that they have already shown their power, the specific power of instruction in the faith which saves him [Timothy],” and yet when this text describes the Scriptures as useful for instruction, “The same Scriptures have now become the object of expectation. The content of the expectation does not differ from that of the recollection of which he spoke earlier, but all that was previously represented as a gift now acquires the character of a task which has still to be taken up and executed.” The reason the Scriptures can carry out both of these functions is because they are “given and filled and ruled by the Spirit of God, and actively outbreathing and spreading abroad and making known the Spirit of God.”
[8] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:852: “The sacredness of the writings is directed to the end of ‘making wise for salvation’; the point of Scripture's inspiration was that the Scriptures should be beneficial for teaching and equipping the student believer for effective living as a Christian.”
[9] Cf. Beker, “Authority of Scripture,” 381: “when we posit that the authority of Scripture is to be located in the dynamic interrelation between coherence [which he defines as ‘the abiding, constant, and normative elements of the gospel’] and contingency [which he defines as ‘those elements of Scripture that comprise the time-bound, culturally specific situations into and for which the gospel is addressed’], the question of the authority of Scripture is directly connected to the interpretation of Scripture. And so it follows that Scripture is only authoritative when we obey its command to engage in the same risks of interpreting the gospel that it is itself engaged in all its parts.”

Monday, November 07, 2016


2 Timothy 2:8-15[1]
I don’t know about you, but I must confess that I find betrayal something most difficult to forgive. I’ve learned over the years to forgive a lot. But I still struggle to forgive a perceived betrayal of trust. Most of us have some experience with this unfortunate part of human life. The truth of the matter is that people are prone to let us down. They very likely mean well, but when push comes to shove, they can disappoint us in the most disheartening of ways. Of course, since we’re people too, that applies to us as well. Recognizing that about myself helps me to forgive others. And as we all know, forgiving someone is something we do as much for ourselves as we do for one who we think has wronged us. But betrayal remains a challenge.
If you pay close attention to the history of the people who claim to trust and obey God, you will find that we have betrayed God’s trust repeatedly. That’s the theme of the history books in the Bible: there is a cycle of betrayal, the subjection of the people to a hostile enemy, repentance and restoration, followed by further betrayal. It’s one of the major plots in the story of the people of Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible. They continually betrayed God’s trust, and he restored them every time. This applies to the history of the Church as well. The truly remarkable feature of this story is the way that God remains true to himself by remaining faithful to love and care for his people.
Our lesson from 2 Timothy for today presents us with an interesting “litany.” It is one of the “sure” or “faithful” sayings that are found throughout 1 and 2 Timothy. The first part is fairly clear: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11-12). This is a theme that St. Paul was fond of: our baptism into the body of Christ constitutes our sharing in his death and resurrection. The purpose of this, as he says elsewhere, is “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
It’s the second part of the litany that’s troubling: “if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). On the surface, that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds positively menacing. We’ve been talking about the good news of our salvation by God’s grace alone as a gift of his unconditional love. But this seems to introduce some conditions for actually achieving the end result of salvation: eternal life. That impression is only reinforced by remembering that Jesus himself said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
It sounds like we’re back to trying to earn God’s love and trying to do enough good to deserve salvation! There is, of course, another way to look at this strange litany. If we look at it from the perspective of the way God has actually dealt with his people for generations, we could see it as a promise. From that point of view it could mean that even when we are at times “faithless” and betray his trust, he remains faithful to us, and continues to love us and offer us grace and mercy. That would seem to make more sense in the light of the consistent witness of the Scriptures. The most fundamental affirmation of the Bible is that God remains faithful to us, no matter what.[2]
But there’s still that part about denying and being denied that causes us to wonder about all that. Would Jesus really deny us if we happened to not perfectly live up to our commitment to follow him and to bear witness to him? Does God really reject us if we have times in our lives when we fall short and are “faithless”? That seems to be the implication here, at least on the surface. And many in the history of the church have understood it that way: they think it means that if we fall short or lose heart, God will remain true to himself by punishing us accordingly![3]
Again, I would argue that reading doesn’t do justice to the way God actually deals with his fallible and wayward people in Scripture. Whatever “denying” and being “denied” means in this context, it has to take into account the fact that Peter specifically “denied” Jesus three times, and yet he was not “denied” but restored!  Perhaps that’s the point—even if we fall short to the extent of denying Christ the way Peter did, God’s faithfulness provides a way back for us. Whatever the “denying” that leads to being “denied” means, it has to be something more than just human weakness. It must be a final and definitive rejection of God’s grace and mercy and love.[4]
The Bible bears witness time and again to the promise that, even if we are faithless to the extent of betraying God, God will remain faithful to his love, mercy, and grace towards us, which are unconditional and irrevocable.[5] In light of our experience with betrayal, it may be hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around this promise. When we experience betrayal, we don’t readily respond by offering even forgiveness, let alone unconditional love. But as the Scriptures remind us, our way is not God’s way. God’s way is to send his son to die for those who are at odds with him. God’s way is to forgive and restore those who stumble and fall. God’s way is to remain faithful to us, even when we can at times be faithless.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/9/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, 109: “‘He remains faithful’ (πιστὸς μένει) cannot refer to God’s insistence upon formal recompense; such an interpretation contradicts the usage of the terms. Rather it is the thought of God’s faithfulness to the covenant (cf Rom 3:2f).” Contrast William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 520. He sees no conflict in affirming that this verse both “asserts the absolute seriousness of apostasy after one has professed faith in Christ, giving a reminder of the fact of final judgment” and that it “teaches the marvelous faithfulness of God whose promises to people remain despite the temporary faithlessness of some”!
[3] See, notably, John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 218-19: “he threatens that they who, through the dread of persecution, leave off the confession of his name, have no part or lot with Christ. … Hence it is evident, that all who deny Christ are disowned by him.”
[4] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:844, where he refers to the tradition rooted in Judaism that “God remained faithful to the chosen people, even when they proved faithless time and time again.”  In that light, it makes sense to conclude with him that “denying” is a deliberate and determined action, not simply a failure of nerve.
[5] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:510, where he describes “God’s action in relation to the apostasy of the creature” as one of grace and reconciliation, and in this God is supremely true to himself and his purposes as revealed from the beginning of Creation.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Courage to Serve

The Courage to Serve
2 Timothy 1:1-14[1]
Life these days is not for the faint of heart. The challenges we face are of a nature that most of us couldn’t have imagined them even ten years ago. And the challenges that our children face are such that we cannot entirely understand them. The pace at which life continues to change can be frightening. It reminds me of a quote from The Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business … going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[2] I suppose that’s always been true, but for some reason it feels more so today than ever.
This can be especially true of our Christian lives. We may not be used to thinking of living the Christian life as something challenging. Most of us were raised to believe that if we have faith, do the right things, and practice kindness, then we will be rewarded with a life in which the desires of our hearts are fulfilled. But the reality is that if we truly follow our crucified Savior we will face challenges that we may not be able or even want to imagine.[3] A life of following Jesus in discipleship will demand the best we have to offer.[4] It will require all the faith and love and courage that we can muster!
In our Scripture lesson for today, this theme is addressed in connection with Paul’s life. By his own testimony, Paul was climbing the ladder of success in his world. He was “advancing” in the world of Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries (cf. Gal. 1:14). He was on the “fast-track” to becoming a person of influence and power in his religion. But all that changed when he met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. After that earth-shaking encounter, Paul turned his life around completely. He says more than once that in that experience he felt the call to proclaim the gospel he had fought and to serve the church he had tried to destroy.
Because of his radical change, it’s understandable that he had to “suffer for the gospel,” as our text says (1 Tim. 1:8). It’s not hard to find references to support that claim. If you just read through the relevant chapters of the book of Acts you find quite a resume of suffering: hounded from one town to the next by enemies; imprisoned and publicly humiliated; attacked and left for dead; finally arrested by the Roman authorities and shipwrecked in the process of his journey to Rome for trial. I’d say it’s probably not the kind of life most of us would want to sign up for. I’m not sure Paul himself would have signed up for it if he had known in advance all that he would have to go through.
But Paul seemingly took it all in stride. In fact, it seems that he saw the hardships he endured as a part of his calling to proclaim the gospel and serve the church.[5] In fact, our lesson puts it this way: “For this gospel I was appointed a herald …, and for this reason I suffer as I do” (2 Tim. 1:11-12). What he had to suffer in his service to Christ was in his mind simply a part of his calling. And so he could also say, “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust” (2 Tim. 1:12). No matter what he had to face for the sake of his faith and his calling, he knew he could trust his Lord and Savior.[6]
At the same time, Paul knew that the work he was doing was not something he could accomplish in his strength alone. He knew that it was the power of the Spirit of God that enabled him to continue serving and facing his challenges. Our lesson describes that power by saying, “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7, NIV). It’s not hard to imagine that kind of boldness when we think about the heroes of the faith, like Paul. But I’m not so sure we think of the Spirit’s presence in our own lives as something that is powerful. But that is precisely what the Scripture lesson clearly states: we have been given the gift of the Spirit that empowers us to serve Christ and his church in the same way that it has empowered faithful servants of God throughout the ages.[7]
The Bible clearly frames the Christian life as one of service. We are called to follow our Savior in a life of giving ourselves away for the sake of others.[8] At times that means setting aside our wants and even perhaps our needs to serve others. It means making sacrifices for the sake of the Body of Christ and the kingdom of God.[9] That kind of service can take its toll on us. We may not have to endure the same kinds of suffering Paul did. But the simple fact of it is that serving others diligently, week after week, month after month, and year after year, can be exhausting even for the best of us. It can leave us feeling empty, at times perhaps disheartened, and possibly even bitter.
That’s when we have to find the courage to keep serving. We can rely on the encouragement of our friends and fellow travelers on this journey of faith to help us. We can also continually rekindle our own inner resolve to make our lives count for the sake of Christ. But good news of our Scripture lesson today is that we are not left to our own strength alone to continue the demanding life of service. The Spirit is the one who gives us the power, the love, and the discipline to keep living the Christian life. Through thick and thin, the Spirit keeps giving us the courage to serve.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/2/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 2d edition (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 72.
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21: “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.  It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”
[4] Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, Learning Jesus, 201 “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity.  It is the very essence of Christian identity.”
[5] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Intepreters Bible XI:835: “That the gospel involves suffering is another characteristic theme of Paul (e.g., Rom 8:17-23; 2 Cor 4:7-18), as also is the conviction that such suffering can only be endured by God's enabling and that such weakness is the necessary complement to any experience of God's power (see 2 Cor 4:7; 12:9-10).”
[6] Cf. W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 490: “Just as God can guard what Paul—and Timothy by implication—has deposited with God, so Timothy is to guard what God has deposited with him. And as Timothy is to hold to the pattern of Paul’s gospel, empowered by the divine gifts of faith and love, so also Timothy is to guard the gospel not with his human abilities but empowered by the Holy Spirit … who lives within him.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 294: “The new people of God see themselves … as being ‘the creation of the Spirit,’ …. The Spirit calls them into life; the Spirit gives the community the authority for its mission; the Spirit makes its living power and the ministries that spring from them effective; the Spirit unites, orders and preserves it.”
[8] Referring to the Nicene Creed’s statement that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” Moltmann, Church in the Power, 360-61, argues that the church is “apostolic” to the extent that it participates in the mission of Christ and the Apostles, and that “inescapably” entails suffering. He says, “the church is apostolic when it takes up its cross.” See also Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 424: “Words that do not cost anything and deeds that are meant to make us popular have nothing to do with the [apostolic] character of the people of God.”
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 207-8: “Grace … is the indicative which carries with it a categorical imperative” that we should live our entire lives to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”

Monday, October 10, 2016

Taking Hold of Life

Taking Hold of Life
1 Timothy 6:6-19[1]
I think it’s safe to say that we as a people tend to be active. We’d rather do something than just sit around and wait. In fact, in comparison with other “modern” countries, we tend to work more hours than anyone, with perhaps one or two notable exceptions. I’d say there are a variety of reasons for this. For some of us, we just prefer to be busy and productive to doing nothing. For others, our sense of self-esteem is found in our work, so striving to work hard helps us feel better about ourselves. Still others work as much as we can simply to earn as much money as possible. We all have our reasons, but we tend to go out and take hold of what we want in life.
Unfortunately, the things to which we devote ourselves in this quest to take hold of life usually fail to give us any lasting satisfaction.[2] We tend to look for life in all the wrong places. Even the most fulfilling career is, at the end of the day, still a job. It is a means to make a livelihood. And there are times when we would rather do just about any other job. A home is at times simply a house, a family can at times make us feel crazy, and there’s only so much fun we can squeeze out of any activity. Our ultimate security rests on money. We live in a society that operates on the basis of money. It’s a part of life. But when we trust our money to enable us to take hold of the life we want, we’re very likely setting ourselves up for disappointment.
One of the focal points of our lesson from First Timothy for today is that there is only way to take hold of the life that is truly life: by placing our hope in God. This may sound strange in light of our discussion last week about how salvation is a gift of God’s grace and there’s nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. This week, the Scripture lesson tells us to “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called” (1 Tim. 6:12). That sounds very different from what we heard last week. It sounds like we’re expected to play an active role in our salvation.
You may be wondering how it can be both ways: our salvation is something that comes to us as a gift of God’s love, quite apart from anything we could possibly do. And yet at the same time we are called to take hold of the new life that God offers us in an active way. Those two statements might seem to contradict one another. If salvation is a gift, how can we play an active role in it? And if we’re called to “take hold” of our salvation by what we do, how can it be a gift? This dilemma is one that some are tempted to resolve by choosing one side or the other: either grace or our actions are the basis for salvation, but not both. Yet, the Scriptures consistently present both perspectives.
I think at least part of the answer to this question is that, while salvation is a gift of God’s grace, we are still “called,” and that implies a response.[3] We don’t just sit back and kick our feet up thinking we’ve got it made. The new life that God offers us doesn’t just work automatically, without any purposeful action on our part. Rather, our Scripture lesson reminds us that it is something that we are called to “take hold.” As St. Paul tells us elsewhere, the life we have received as a gift of God’s love is something we are to “work out” (Phil 2:12) and “press on to make it [our] own” (Phil. 3:12). In this balance between God’s grace and our response, of course God’s grace has priority.[4] There would be no salvation for us to take hold unless God had made a way. But our response is still an important part of the equation.
Be that as it may, our lesson provides us with a rather strange way of “taking hold” of this life that God offers us. The way we’re to do that is through “godliness combined with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). I’m not sure either one of those factors that our text says lead to true life are familiar to us. Here, “godliness” is not a “holier than thou” attitude, but the sum total of what it means to live the Christian life. And “contentment” is not the equivalent to being complacent. Rather it is a perspective on life that is based on the conviction that all that we are and all that we have comes from God and rests firmly in God’s hands.[5] Our lesson applies it primarily to our attitude toward money. But I think the point of the passage is to find contentment by letting go not just our wealth, but all the strategies we have for holding on to what we think will give us life. When we do that, then we are beginning to “take hold” the life God offers us so freely.
In essence, the message of our lesson is that we take hold of our lives by letting them go, by entrusting them into God’s hands. Rather than pursuing our own means for securing our lives, we’re to put our hope in “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). That’s the way to find “godliness combined with contentment.” That’s the way to take hold of “the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19). It may seem contradictory to say that we “take hold” of true life by letting go of everything that we think gives us life. But the only certain basis for a satisfying life is found in God. Only when we let go the things we think give us life and set our hope on God’s unfailing love do we truly take hold of the “eternal life” to which we are called.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/25/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, where he advocates “Care of the Soul,” or what I would call “embracing your life as it is,” as an important way of learning to fully appreciate life. He describes this process (p. xix) as “an appreciation of the paradoxical mysteries that blend light and darkness into the grandeur of what human life and culture can be.” In his book, he discusses, work, families, love, and possession, among other topics. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety.”
[3] James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Intepreters Bible XI:829: “Eternal life is a gift of God's calling—a regular term for God's initiative in establishing the process of salvation (2 Tim 1:9; cf. Rom 4:17; 9:11, 24; 1 Cor 1:9; 1 Thess 5:24)—but they must ‘take hold of,’ ‘grasp’ it.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:646: “The good fight in which the Christian finds himself must be accepted and fought. He must really lay hold on the eternal life to which he is called (1 Tim. 6:12). What is meant by the terms ‘fight’ and ‘lay hold’? He is to be what he is, namely, a disciple, a witness, a Christian. He is to remain, and continually to become again, what he is.”
[4] Cf. W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 368: “Salvation in the PE [Pastoral Epistles] is by God’s grace and mercy alone (cf. 1 Tim 1:12–17). There is an emphasis in the PE on the practical outworking of Christianity such as the doing of good deeds (cf. 1 Tim 2:10; 6:18), but these actions are the result of one’s faith and not attempts to earn God’s favor.”
[5] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:828: “autarkeia [contentment] was a favorite virtue of the Stoics and Cynics, the two main classical alternatives to Christianity. It denoted ‘self-sufficiency,’ ‘contentment’ and characterized an attitude that cherished simplicity and a life lived in acceptance of the hand dealt out by nature or fortune. Here perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the Pastorals we can see a pattern of Christianity in which specific Christian teaching and virtues like love are integrated with already acknowledged virtues cherished by others.” Cf. also Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 341: “Paul’s contentment is rooted in a faith that denies his own ability to perform his tasks and asserts the need for total reliance on the all-powerful God.”

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

God our Savior

God Our Savior
1 Timothy 2:1-7[1]
It might shock you, but I would say that we get many of our ideas about God from pagan religions, rather than from the Bible. I think we are actually much more comfortable with the gods of Greek and Roman mythology than we are with the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. We understand the pagan gods. They act like us. They get angry and take their anger out on others. They have wants and needs and desires and they will do whatever it takes to get what they want. And so if you do what the gods want, then you’re happy and blessed, but if you don’t they will very likely smite you. It’s not a particularly attractive picture, but it’s one we can grasp.
I think we have a hard time grasping the idea of a God who loves us simply because we exist. Some of us may have a hard time identifying with the notion of love that is unconditional and never-ending, no matter what.[2] It seems that in our experience with life, there are always strings attached when it comes to love. Or expectations we have to live up to. Or disappointments when someone lets us down. The idea that someone might love us for no particular reason, and that there’s nothing we could do to change that love, is one that simply doesn’t compute with many of us. And so we have difficulty accepting the message that God loves us all unconditionally and irrevocably, because it doesn’t fit our experience with life.
That is precisely the message of our Scripture lesson for today from First Timothy. Simply put, “God our Savior … desires everyone to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:3-4). And to that end, “Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The language is clearly all-inclusive, embracing “everyone.” That may come as a surprise to you, because it’s not the typical way in which we understand God’s “plan of salvation.” We tend to think of salvation not as a gift of God’s grace, but as a transaction. Those of us who do the right things, like believing in Jesus, going to church, a living the right kind of life, receive salvation as a reward for our efforts.
This view of salvation has been around for a long time. From the earliest days of the church, the accepted view was that “outside the church there is no salvation.” This makes the statement from our Scripture lesson problematic, to say the least. When you take that point of view, it’s hard to believe that God “desires everyone to be saved.” And so we have come up with a number of “adjustments” to make this bold declaration more palatable to us. Some will say “God desires everyone to be saved,” but “everyone” equals all kinds of people, not all people. Others say “God desires everyone to be saved,” but “everyone” equals all those whom God has chosen for salvation, not all people.[3] The conclusion seems unavoidable that what they are really saying is that “God does not desire everyone to be saved”![4]
I think there are a variety of reasons why we take this verse of Scripture and twist it around to mean the opposite of what it says. For one thing, we want life to be fair. If you’re like me, and you’ve been in church all your life, it can seem unfair that God offers salvation to everyone without conditions. I’ve had a long-standing member of a Presbyterian church ask the question, “If God is going to save everyone, then why do we go to church?” Of course, this betrays the assumption that we can somehow earn God’s love by attending church. In reality, that kind of thinking has it all backwards. We don’t go to church in order to earn God’s love. We go to church because we’ve encountered the incredible love God gives all of us, and in response we want to live our lives by loving God in every way we can.
I think another reason for this kind of thinking is that we think that people ought to get what they deserve. It can seem like “cheating” for someone who has lived however they pleased to get to experience God’s salvation just the same as those who have tried to practice kindness and compassion and justice. I also had a church member tell me “There are some people I want to go to hell!” Again, this misses the point of the gospel. The gift of salvation isn’t something we can somehow do enough good to “deserve.” The message of Scripture is that none of us can ever “deserve” God’s love. That’s why it’s a gift—for everyone. That’s a good thing for all of us—regardless of what we think we “deserve.”
I can accept and endorse the fact that there are different interpretations of the Christian faith.  There always have been, and there always will be.  But I never have and never will embrace a view of God that excludes the vast majority of humanity from the gift of salvation through Christ. I choose to take the Scripture at face value when it says “God desires everyone to be saved”!  And I believe it is valid both biblically and theologically to hope for and believe in God’s eventual redemption of all people.[5] The foundation for this faith is nothing less than God’s character: it’s who God is—God our Savior.[6]
I realize this sermon may leave some of you scratching your heads. It may not sound like any sermon you’ve ever heard before.[7] Unfortunately, the idea that we have to please God by earning God’s love and by doing enough good to deserve salvation has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, sheer repetition has reinforced this idea so much that many of us assume it to be true. But I would say that it is not consistent with the message of Scripture. The Bible teaches us that God loves us simply because that’s who God is. And there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve that love. The flip side of it is that there is nothing we can ever do to lose God’s love. The good news of the Gospel is that God loves us all, and because of that love he “desires for everyone to be saved.” That is the purpose and the goal toward which God has been working throughout the centuries because it’s who God is: God our Savior.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/18/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 136, where he (as a Reformed theologian) points out that the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of dual predestination “has caused much uncertainty and has robbed many Christians of the joy of the Christian faith.”
[3] An interesting variation of this view is the one that says that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God knows in advance will actually believe if they have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Cf. Douglas R. Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. by S. Gundry, et. al, 198. They actually say it this way: “anyone who dies without hearing the good news is a person who would not have believed had he heard.”
[4] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1, where he says “since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation … those whom God passes over, he condemns.”  Calvin was influenced by Augustine of Hippo, who argued that God’s desire for “all people to be saved” only applies to those whom God has predestined to salvation, and excludes all others, even infants who die without being baptized. See Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.44; On the Predestination of the Saints, 18.36; Enchiridion, 27, 103; cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I:321; Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV:443.  On infants, see Augustine, On the Soul and its Origin, 4.11.16; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition I:297-98.
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is directed towards that divine future in which God will have all his creatures beside him to all eternity. That is to say, our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Many throughout the history of the church have endorsed this view, beginning with Origen of Caesarea.  See J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, I: 151-52; V:116-17, 224; J. Quasten, Patrology II:87-91, quoting Origen, Contra Celsus 8,72: “stronger than all evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man.”  Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 26, who claimed that even the “inventor of evil” would eventually be healed by God’s grace.  See Quasten, Patrology, III:289-90
[6] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus” New Interpreters Bible XI:798, where he says that this is “a statement that is as clear as any assertion of ‘Christian universalism’: God wills the salvation of everyone. The God who wished to save Paul, ‘chief of sinners’ (1:15), could hardly want anything less for everyone else (v. 4); the earlier Paul had spoken with equal boldness (Rom 11:32).” He continues (ibid.), “The fact that God is one (the primary Jewish confession, Shema; Deut 6:4) leads inevitably to the conclusion that God is God of all (as in Rom 3:29-30) and, therefore, is concerned for all. … In a formulation pushing toward universalism (“gave himself a ransom for all”), the limitation of effective mediation to Christ Jesus is not to exclude from salvation those who have not heard of Christ, but to affirm that effective salvation, wherever it is experienced, will be found to have been mediated through Christ.”
[7] W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 93–94, offers a more palatable solution to the problem: he argues that in light of the context, the point of this passage is that the church at Ephesus is to include all people in their witness and prayers. In my opinion, this simply avoids the question whether we have confidence that God is able and willing to accomplish his will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Dunn’s solution is preferable (cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:799-800): “The problem with any theological system that turns its back on universalism, for no doubt good reasons of logic and self-reassurance, is that the resulting system postulates either a less generous God or a less omnipotent God than 1 Timothy envisions (cf. Rom 11:32). Here as elsewhere theological assertions need always to be qualified by the note of eschatological reserve. God’s ultimate purpose is ultimate and, therefore, still unknown, as well as the divine means of achieving that purpose. All human judgment is subject to eschatological verification. At this point, theology must simply give way to wondering worship (as in Rom 11:33-36).”