"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

“…to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost…”

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Pentecost 17C 11 September 2016 1 Timothy 1:1-17  SJE Edmonton ©2016 (updated for delivery)

Pray.  We’re starting a sermon series today concerning what it means to be part of “the Body of Christ” based on Paul’s writing in 1st Timothy.  It’s always appropriate to reflect on the question of what it means to be a part of this mystical body, and particularly so when we’re in the midst of search for a new associate priest, and just finished welcoming a new youth pastor.  In engineering when you’re faced with a problem no one has previously solved, our usual option is to return to “first principles”, foundational concepts that are the base of all derived work.  Reflecting on our membership in the Body of Christ requires us to engage theological first principles.  In doing so we ask the question which Christians throughout history have asked: what does it mean to us locally, when we assert that we are members of His mystical church, which is the blessed company of all believers (prayer of thanksgiving from the BCP Eucharist)?

In this regard we have this letter to Timothy in Ephesus.  That distant place and time was not so different from today – an ethnically diverse and belief-diverse community.  In some ways, more spiritually diverse than what we experience today – with temples to many gods available everywhere.  Paul begins this letter with a caution against false teachers and returns to a first principle, Paul’s salvation through Christ Jesus.  That principle, the person of Christ and His work on earth, is Paul’s consistent focus in all writing and teaching.  Not surprising considering that was the turning point in Paul’s life, the literal and total remaking of the person he had been…and it’s difficult to find a parallel to that conversion as an example today.  It would be something like a religious leader of the Taliban or ISIS, set on the murder of those who do not believe properly, suddenly showing up on our doorstep today and asking to preach about God’s love.

OK, into the text.  My first comment has to do with 1st Timothy overall.  As we heard today, there are portions of the text which you may fine directly challenging of your convictions.  Much ink was spilled in explaining why Paul didn`t really mean what he wrote.  Even more ink was spent on arguments that this text was not really written by Paul, but by an author who was seeking to use Paul`s authority to make his own point.  This movement to identify the `true` author of a given text has been very popular for the last few decades, most famously by the Jesus Seminar.  I was listening to a New Testament professor speaking on 1 Timothy this week, and part way through her presentation she asserted that most of the Bible had been written by other people than those credited.

I find these discussions highly problematic and I won’t spend any time on this aspect of Timothy.  There are two primary objections that keep me in a place where I`m willing to accept the canonically-assigned authorship.  1) The arguments about authorship are all based around what you might call `derived` sources…that is, using historical criticism or form criticism, by saying things like, ‘This is not the way that Paul would have written.’  This approach leaves much opportunity for personal biases to enter into the analysis, and at least a part of that movement exists for the intent purpose of removing or blunting difficult readings.  Secondly, those who formed the canon of Scripture in antiquity saw fit to include these letters ascribed in authorship to particular individuals.  There is good evidence that 1st Timothy was used by the group known as the apostolic fathers, early theologians of the 1st and 2nd century.  I`m not sure how I or any other reader 2,000 years downstream can presume that we can do a better job than those early Christians.  I would call that the height of cultural arrogance.

I am immediately suspicious of any work with Scripture that makes me more comfortable with what is written.  My desire is always to seek that which makes me feel righteous and if it can permit me to do those things which I ought not to do, all the better.  I recall a conversation I had with a seminary classmate about the story of the adulterous woman in John`s gospel (John 8).  Recall the story, the woman is about to be stoned for being an adulterer.  The Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus and ask about the Law of Moses.  Jesus replies, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’  As he writes in the dirt, all the accusers drift away.  Now comes the punch line.  Jesus asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.”  My classmate quoted this and then said, wasn`t it wonderful how Jesus accepted the woman in her sin, saved her from the religious apparatus of the day, and allowed her to go about her life?  Jesus didn’t judge her like the Pharisees did.  Did you catch the bit of the punch line that was missing?  I said to my classmate, but you’ve left off the end of the passage…and she said what?  When I told her that Jesus’ parting word to the woman was ‘Go forth and sin no more.’ She grabbed a bible to look up the passage, and then said, “I’ve never read that part before.”

That is such a good example of what I’m illustrating, that it is so easy for us to snip out the bits of a given text that hit us right where we need to be hit.  As a more humorous example there’s a scene in the Monty Python film the Life of Brian where the crowd is listening to the Sermon on the Mount.  The characters on camera are way back in the crowd, and so they mishear Jesus’ words about peacemakers, and instead hear, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”  One asks the other – what’s so special about the cheesemakers, and his friend replies, “It’s obviously not meant to be taken literally, it means any manufacturer of dairy products.”  //  The ancient theologican Tertullian highlighted this when he describes how believers, then as now, seek an easier path, “A better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind. Of course he forbids you to sin – but only in writing”.  And we know all about restrictions in writing, like how easy it is to take subtle (or not-so-subtle) liberties on your taxes each year.  So there are lots of things written in Scripture, but what do we do with them when they counter something we hold very dear?  This is a critical question for each of us when we’re confronted by something in Scripture that we’ve never heard that way before, or when our first urge is to find some way to blunt the sharpness of what we’ve just heard or read…give up all that I have to follow Christ?  That’s fine as an abstract concept, but I live in the real world, meaning the world where I do as I wish. Our call is to stay in that challenging place.

We continuously seek to mold Scripture to our desires and wants, and we often do the same with our theology which is one of the real dangers of being a human within the Body of Christ.  There are two roads which can be followed from within this Body, one that leads to the fulfillment of our human desires, and one that leads to the fulfillment of God’s desires.  Ideally those two roads are the same path, for a Christian who is following God will ultimately end up right where they are supposed to be.  But, I know the truth for me is I continuously trip over my own feet as I’m following that road, and sometimes I take side trips off into the underbrush because something shiny caught my eye.

What we do understand is that Scripture, read and discerned within community and anchored in the great tradition of 2,000 years of interpretation, brings us closer to God.  This is true whether those texts fuel our hopes or bring us to our knees.  We live in this tension, summed up beautifully by the mystic saint, Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “Some of us believe that God is almighty and may do everything; and [some believe] that he is all wise, and can do everything; but that he is all love, and will do everything – there we draw back.”  While God’s touch is blessing, it is never less than burning, and not a smidgen under our control (Reynolds Price, Letters to a Man in the Fire).  While we like the intellectual appeal of a God of love and compassion, a God who might, at this very moment, be intimately involved in all aspects of our lives.  That is entirely different!

Paul’s words to us come home in a context that is not at all unlike when it was written: competing beliefs in the culture that lead to different doctrines which cause damage to the Body of Christ.  This comes through clearly in the opening caution about false teachers.  Note that Paul does not identify a particular doctrine, but rather speaks in general terms about what marks improper doctrine: it arises from speculation rather than faith; it is marked by a devotion to myths and endless genealogies; by teachers swerving into vain discussion who want more to be seen as teachers of the law rather than those who follow the law.  And this gives us a good test of anyone who presumes to be a teacher in the Body of Christ: do they submit themselves to the same challenging teachings and expectations? (this is the risk inherent in preaching)

The first warning sign for me of those who promote false doctrines or teachings is to look at the possible outcomes of the teaching.  There are a number of things that mark the discernment of God’s Word and will for the Body of Christ, all marked by the reality that these are all independent of how we might feel about the teaching.  Catholic author Peter Kreeft sets out that we should be soft hearted and hard headed, wise as serpents and harmless as doves, identifying that there are errors in either being too soft-hearted or too doctrinal.  He sums this up by saying, In our hearts we should be “bleeding-heart liberals” and in our heads “stuck-in-the-mud conservatives.””

Equally important in our discernment of God’s will for the Body of Christ are actions that force us to look external to our personal will, or even to the will of a particular community in a particular time.  We are all prey to the dominant thoughts in our culture, as much as we try to remain apart, and we must be aware that decisions made in the lifetime of one person may not consider God’s actions being worked out generation to generation.  Think about the people of Israel, moving from slavery to wandering in the desert to the Promised Land over several generations…the cultural winds would shift depending on what part of that narrative you happened to live through.  This is why discernment is a task of the community over generations.

True discernment requires we look at a number of different sources, all held in tension, but which should have some degree of agreement: the witness of Scripture; the teaching of the church, not in what is being taught right now, but what has been taught right back to the first witnesses?  the thoughts of great thinkers and teachers throughout history; what human reason tells us; what prayer reveals; what the discernment of a faithful community reveals.  If there is objection from one of those sources, it is a time for caution.

As a final test of God’s will, look for the presence and growth of the fruits of the Spirit as the outcome.  If the teaching results in the growth of love, joy and peace in the community this is a sign that it might be the action of the Spirit.  If it results in division, pain and grief, it is time to be very cautious.  This highlights another aspect of being in a faith community, that even if we believe God is calling us in a particular direction, if that movement begins to cause pain and suffering for some of our brothers and sisters, the call to the Body of Christ is to withhold from change lest we cause the faith of some to falter.  The strong believer is called to restraint lest their actions cause a weaker believer to falter in the faith which is to sin against those weaker believers.  (1 Corinthians 8)  This is a key aspect of discernment within community-that it is discernment in community…whatever you might individually feel as a result of a particular teaching is not the discernment of the community, which is the company of all faithful believers.  This counters the constant pull of our culture to individualism and the supremacy of the person…here, it is all about ‘us’, not ‘me’.

What Paul identifies as at the heart of all wrong teaching is a misapprehension as to the nature of God, which is why after the opening verses about false teachers, he immediately turns to talk about his call.  Remember that Paul was previously first among those who persecuted Christ and His followers, we hear Paul say in Philippians 3, “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”  This is a direct illustration about what Paul has just written about false teachers – by restating that he was a false teacher, a blasphemer, persecutor and insolent opponent before he was saved through Christ.  This is the key message of this first part of 1st Timothy, for it is the witness of Paul’s life, and particular his willingness to admit his failure to be who God called him to be, that adds credence to his witness.

This is a radical departure from the values Paul’s place and time, and from ours as well.  What would you think if you went to visit a physician, or an investment advisor, and the first thing they did was describe to you all their failures?  Yes I’m willing to be your physician, but you should know that some of my patients didn’t get better…or I will invest your retirement savings, but you should know that I filed for bankruptcy last year after I made a series of poor investment decisions.  How long would you stick around in that office?  In the case of the Body of Christ  this is a key test and the reason why Paul is so forthright stating how he was saved from himself, from the magnificent person he had created through his own efforts, and how that all became for nought when he encountered the living God that day on the road.  While you may not want to be treated by a physician who says, “I’m the most diseased person in this city” when you are looking for leaders in a faith community, always start with the one who sincerely states, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.”

As a final illustration of this, there was an article about Omar Khadr and King’s University making the Facebook rounds this week. It highlights the journey of the King’s community in accepting the call to minister to the prisoner, even to the point it places them at risk.  When this story was posted on Facebook by a classmate of mine, he added a comment, “It may seem strange for an atheist like me to share this article; some of my friends might also remember that I am not a fan of religious universities of any stripe. However, there’s good happening here…”.  One true test of belief is what it does to those around us – does it result in the growth of fruits of the Spirt and the building up of the community?

So, as Christ held himself up on the Cross as an example for his followers to embrace, so too Paul holds himself up as a sign of what it means to be a teacher of the Law by the way he has lived his life.  This is the way we are all called to live together in sometimes difficult community, in this place and abroad, as it is the measure of how we live our lives in Christ that illuminate Christ for those around us.  May be ever be mindful of this holy calling, as we join together as brothers and sisters in the faith.  Amen.



Omar Khadr story: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/welcoming-omar-khadr-kings-university/

Monty Python cheesemakers clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xLUEMj6cwA

“For 1 Timothy reminds us what Scripture is and what Scripture isn’t. Scripture is not just a list of easily apprehended propositions with which we can agree at all times. Scripture is not just a collection of sayings that might guide our daily walk. Scripture is not just a perfect text free of discomfiting content. Scripture is as human as we are. But we also trust that God speaks through these texts, whether these texts resonate with our hopes or create a dissonant sound in our midst.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3034

Reynolds Price, Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care? “We can ask for relief, for healing and respite; we can beg for our loved ones.  But the hands we’re in, at all times, are neither predictable nor intimately knowable.  They may cushion us, even deck us out with unasked-for gifts; but they’re never less than burning to the touch; and they acknowledge no guidance, no compass but their own.”

Peter Kreeft, on discernment: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/discernment.htm

  1. Have a soft heart but a hard head. We should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be “bleeding-heart liberals” and in our heads “stuck-in-the-mud conservatives.”
  2. All God’s signs should line up, by a kind of trigonometry. There are at least seven such signs: (1) Scripture, (2) church teaching, (3) human reason (which God created), (4) the appropriate situation, or circumstances (which he controls by his providence), (5) conscience, our innate sense of right and wrong, (6) our individual personal bent or desire or instincts, and (7) prayer. Test your choice by holding it up before God’s face. If one of these seven voices says no, don’t do it. If none say no, do it.
  3. Look for the fruits of the spirit, especially the first three: love, joy, and peace. If we are angry and anxious and worried, loveless and joyless and peaceless, we have no right to say we are sure of being securely in God’s will. Discernment itself should not be a stiff, brittle, anxious thing, but—since it too is part of God’s will for our lives—loving and joyful and peace-filled, more like a game than a war, more like writing love letters than taking final exams.

I wrote about holy discernment in a blog two years back that presented thought similar to Kreeft:


“I have known cases where what the patient called his “God” was actually located – up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be”, our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation – this real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose.”  -Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis

Also influenced by Arthur Manuel’s book, “Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call” which I’m reading this week.


Written by sameo416

September 9, 2016 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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