Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Endless Patience

Endless Patience
1 Timothy 1:12-17[1]
We are not patient people. Not typically. We have become accustomed to instant everything. Microwave ovens, the internet, and cell phones have gotten us in the habit of getting what we want right now. Of course, there are some notable exceptions among us, but I would say that patience is not something most of us come by naturally. We have to learn it. Life has a way of breaking down our impatience, and the more life experience we have, the more patient we’re likely to be. Many of you may be like me: I learned patience mostly from my children. Not that they were patient, but I had to learn patience in order to raise them.
I would say that, at least at first, St. Paul was not a patient man. In his early adulthood, he was climbing the ladder as fast as he possibly could. By his own confession, he had been a zealous Pharisee, devoted to obeying every rule in Judaism in every possible way.  As a result, when confronted with the gospel, Paul’s initial response was violent.  He considered the gospel to be worthy of a death sentence.  What made Jesus’ gospel outrageous to someone like Paul was that it presents a God who loves everyone so much that he goes out searching for those who have lost their way! That was an intolerable upheaval in the image of God for Jewish zealots like Paul.  It was outright blasphemy![2] And so he set about to eradicate it as quickly as possible.
That’s not some kind of exaggerated picture of Paul intended by his opponents to slander him. Most of it comes from Paul’s own confessions about his life. And so in our lesson from First Timothy for today,[3] we hear about how Paul had formerly been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Tim. 1:13). The sobering fact is that he did all of that on God’s behalf, as an expression of his faith.[4] That may seem impossible to believe, and yet I think it was part and parcel of his impatience. When confronted with something he could not reconcile with his own cherished ideas about God, he didn’t hesitate to act in anger and violence. People of faith still do it all the time.
But something happened to Paul that changed him dramatically. He came face-to-face with the risen and exalted Christ, who loved Paul enough to die for him. And as a result Paul received mercy and grace “poured all over” him (1 Tim 1:14, CEB). That was enough to convince him that he was headed in the wrong direction. So he turned his life around completely. But more than that, Paul received a commission: he was “judged faithful” and “appointed” to serve Christ. And so, as he says elsewhere, Paul began to proclaim the good news he had formerly tried to destroy (cf. Gal. 1:23).
Some might be tempted to say that this is a special case. They might think that God made an exception for Paul because he was Paul. But that’s not what our lesson for today suggests. In fact, it suggests that the reason why Paul experienced such extraordinary grace and mercy was to show that this is the way God deals with us all. As the Scripture lesson puts it, Paul’s experience was to demonstrate that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Since Paul could consider himself the “foremost,” or a “worst-case” sinner, our lesson says that he received mercy so that “Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16). In the words of another translation, Paul experienced God’s “endless patience” (1 Tim. 1:16, CEB) that he shows toward us all.[5]
I think some of this might come as a shock to us. After all, it is “Saint Paul” we’re talking about, preacher and teacher of the gospel, founder and pastor of churches, and writer of about a third of the New Testament! Most of us would consider ourselves much worse sinners than Paul! But I would say our lesson insists that the reason why Paul experienced such amazing grace and mercy was to show there is no one who is beyond the love of God. He had blasphemed Christ and viciously attacked and even murdered Christians. If he could be forgiven for that, then there was no one who could not be forgiven. Since Jesus came into the world to save sinners, that includes us all. And Paul was the prime example of God’s “endless patience” that is available to everyone, everywhere.
Our Scripture lesson for today comes from the end of Paul’s life. The message that God’s grace and mercy and love are for all people was an important part of the gospel Paul preached from the very beginning. In fact, the idea of God’s “endless patience” can be found in Scripture long before Paul’s life, even before Jesus died on the cross. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God displays grace and mercy to his wayward people again and again.[6] And yet, not only was this a fundamental part of Paul’s scripture, but also this was something Paul I think knew by personal experience. Over the course of his lifetime, I’m sure St. Paul had many occasions to observe God’s “endless patience” at work in his life.
I think the point of our lesson for today is that God’s “endless patience” is not just something that was true for a select few or for special cases like Paul. It’s true for us all. God shows us all extraordinary grace and mercy.[7] Christ Jesus came to save us all from our sins. There is no one who is beyond the love of God. This is the way God deals with us all—the same way he dealt with the people of Israel and the same way he dealt with Paul. It is the same way that God has always related to the human family. And I would venture to say that there are a number of us here today who have had many occasions to observe that God has worked in this same way in our lives. Just as God always has, so he always will show us “endless patience.”

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/11/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-29, where he points out that Jesus “demonstrated God’s eschatological law of grace towards those without the law and the transgressors of the law, through his forgiveness of sins. By so doing he abolished the legal distinction between religious and secular, righteous and unrighteous, devout and sinful. He revealed God in a different way from that in which he was understood in the law and the tradition and was perceived by the guardians of the law.” Cf. also ibid., 142, where he speaks of this as a “revolution in the concept of God”: “God comes not to carry out just revenge upon the evil, but to justify by grace sinners, whether they are Zealots or tax collectors, Pharisees or sinners, Jews or Samaritans, and therefore, also, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.”
[3] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus” New Interpreters Bible XI:779-80, where he discusses the question of the “Pauline” nature of the Pastoral Letters, which have been questioned as authentic letters of St. Paul for over 200 years. He suggests viewing the issue from the perspective of “what we might call the concept of ‘living tradition.’ That is, within Israel's history we can readily discern several different streams of tradition, each originating with an authoritative earlier figure, but elaborated and extended within the immediate circle of that figure's disciples and retained under the name of the originator of the tradition. The Pentateuch is generally recognized to have reached its final form in this way, and the present book of Isaiah to be the work of two or three generations. Just as David was remembered as the originator of a still-growing collection of psalms, so also to Solomon was attributed a sequence of wisdom writings (most notably Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). A close comparison of the Gospels, even of the Synoptic Gospels alone, indicates that there was a basically similar elaboration and extension of the Jesus tradition within the Gospel format. John 21:24 attests to the activity of a circle around the Fourth Evangelist, who had at least some hand in the final form of John's Gospel. The Pastorals can be readily seen in similar terms.” He therefore concludes, “The Pastorals would have been deemed authentically Pauline; therefore, their attribution to Paul would have caused no problem. Already, in this early judgment, the canonical definition of what was and what was not ‘Pauline’ was being determined.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:199, where he says that Paul is “an opponent and persecutor of the community simply because (cf. Rom. 9:4f.) he stands for Israel, for its election and calling, for its mission to the world, for the course and development of its history as the history of salvation, and therefore for the faithfulness which is to be shown to God in the form of the faithfulness of Israel, its obedience to the Law which He has given it and its trust in the promises which He has made to it, in short, for faith in the Word of God which has been spoken and is to be received in and with its existence. He persecutes Christians because he sees that this economy of reconciliation and revelation is questioned, transcended, relativised and outmoded by them, i.e., by their proclamation of the person, work, lordship and authority of the Jesus of Nazareth rejected by Israel and delivered up by it to be crucified, by their declaration of His Messiahship, election, calling and commission, of His history as salvation history, of the demand to obey Him, to trust in the promise given in Him, to believe the Word spoken in His existence.”
[5] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB IX:794, where he reflects on the “trustworthy saying” that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” by adding, “Paul had been the worst of these ‘sinners,’ so that the mercy he received could serve as a model of the full sweep of God's patience toward those who were to believe subsequently.” Cf. also W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 57: “It is the Jewish rabbinic argument of the harder to the easier (qal wāḥômer): if God’s mercy can extend to someone as sinful as Paul, surely it can reach anyone.”
[6] Cf. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 58: “The OT frequently pictures God as being patient with the world, slow to anger and abounding in love (Exod 34:6 …; Num 14:18; Pss 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; cf. Rom 2:4; 9:22; 1 Pet 3:20).”
[7] Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:31, where he speaks of God’s grace and mercy toward us in terms of God’s great “Yes” to us all, a “Yes” that God says “without any if or but, without any afterthought or reservation, not temporarily but definitively, with a fidelity that is … total and eternal.”

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