Throughout my ministry, I’ve been blessed with mentors who have helped me to understand my role and the life of a pastor. These have been friends, colleagues, and mentors, both inside and outside the Wesleyan tradition, who have taken me under their arms, and helped me to see something I might not have on my own. They gave me the necessary wisdom I needed to care and serve God and others.
No matter your career of choice, we can probably all think of a mentor or friend who has helped us to navigate our jobs or the challenges of life. We need those friends to help us, to inspire us, and to keep us focus on what is before us.
That is exactly what Paul is doing in our text, this morning, from 1 Timothy 1:12-17. We’re jumping into this letter that is equal parts fascinating and controversial. It is a difficult letter to read, because we struggle with both its content and context. 1 Timothy, along with 2 Timothy and Titus, make up what we call the Pastoral Epistles. These books are a collection of letters where Paul writes the two individuals who made up the next generation of church leaders to encourage them in their ministry.
Right there, that gives us a glimpse into what this particular epistle is about. He writes Timothy to give him some pastoral advice and leadership guidance as he prepares to take up on the mantle and Paul begins to step into the shadows.
Much of what Paul deals with in the letter focuses on the conflicts that Timothy and others will inherit. We like to romanticize the early church and claim that they were without issues, especially since they were so close to the time of Jesus. The early church had the same problems and concerns about how to follow Jesus and how to effectively reach people that we do. Conflicts in the church are not new to our time. At the core of the conflicts Timothy would inherit, however, were a group of people who sought to distort what it meant to follow Christ based on salvation through the law alone. Paul wanted to give some advice on how to deal with that particular situation in those particular moments.
So, when we read 1 Timothy we have to ask ourselves this question: How much of it is relevant for us today? If Paul is writing a pastoral letter to his apprentice to deal with specific issues of that time, what can we take from it to apply to our lives today? Is there anything? Yes, a good bit of it is contextual that deals with a specific moment in time, but this particular passage is intriguing. It is intriguing for what Paul says to Timothy about his own life and, in turn, what it says to us if we hear it as a way to reflect upon our lives in Christ.
This letter was written somewhere between 62-64 AD. It is an important note, because it gives us some understanding into Paul’s life. He was likely out of prison for a brief period of freedom during this time. He would later be arrested for the final time and then executed for sharing the gospel. Up to this point, he has been focused on sharing the message of Christ to the Gentile – non-Jewish – community of Asia Minor (mostly around modern day Turkey).
Ephesus was among the cities he spent time in during his missions. This was a church that was filled with conflict. It was likely there that he meant the young Timothy. Paul wants to encourage him as Timothy rises into leadership in a community that he knew all too well.
He does so through a story that was very familiar to Timothy. We all have those stories that we love to tell over, and over, and over again. One of mine is how I was yelled at by Tiger Woods at the 2005 US Open. I’ll tell you about it later, if I haven’t already. We tell these stories because they are formative and help others to understand a little bit more about who we are.
One of those formative stories for Paul was his own faith experience and conversion. Not everyone has a dramatic moment of conversion as Paul did on the Damascus road out of Jerusalem. He doesn’t get much into the detail of the story of his conversion other than to tell the story, likely once again for Timothy, of what that moment meant for him. He writes about how it amazes him that God would use him. Paul was astounded that God would take someone who blindly persecuted the church and blasphemed the name of God. He tells his story of faith.
Let’s break that out a little bit more to really describe what Paul did before his conversion. Paul, then known as Saul, was an educated religious leader, a Pharisee, and someone who believed in defending the faith of the God of Israel. As a result, he struggled with the message of Jesus, as many religious elites did, and saw it as a blasphemous mission that was an afront to God. As a result, Paul took it upon himself to seek to destroy the movement of the Way, which is what the church was known by at that time. He lashed out. He abused. He stood there in approval as Stephen was killed. He was the main opponent to the early church.
That is until that moment on the Damascus road when his eyes were opened to the presence of Christ in his life. Even though Paul worked against the church, God never stopped loving him. Even as he was doing the very worst things that you could imagine, God never stopped being concerned for Paul and wanting him to know the depths of the Lord’s love.
That’s the funny thing about God’s grace. God never stops loving us. In fact, God often loves us in spite of ourselves. God’s mercy was there for Paul. He didn’t earn it. He didn’t work for it. He didn’t beg for it. It was there, because our God is the true God of mercy, grace, and love. All of which is freely shared and made known to us because of the life of Christ and the act of Christ on the cross.
Paul describes himself as the worst of all sinners. We understand what Paul is saying, because we’ve said it about ourselves. Sometimes we see ourselves in that way. We know the sin that we have committed, those known violations of God’s holy love, and we wonder how could God still love someone like me? Didn’t God see what I did? Didn’t God see what I said? Didn’t God see how I treated that person? How could God love me, when I don’t like how I can be sometimes? If we’re honest with ourselves, we have all had some of those thoughts. Perhaps those thoughts are circulating around our hearts this morning.
God’s answer to all of those questions is an astounding, “Yes! Yes, I still love you!” The amazing thing about God’s love is God’s grace, mercy, and compassion is available to all no matter who we are or what we have done. Grace – God’s pardon that leads to a transformative life – is not based on us doing anything to deserve it. God’s grace is God’s response to our actions in this world and our sin. That response was to love us and to share mercy with us. That grace isn’t shared with us because we say the right things, do the right things, or have the right theology. It is there because Christ loved us enough to die for our sin of thinking of ourselves more than God and others. That is, after all, the root of all sin. God’s response was to share love where we might expect punishment or revenge. The powerful nature of God’s mercy is that it is free, it is available, and it leads us to a new life in Christ’s grace and love.
Paul says that story of God’s love that changed his life is what led him to be an example to others of the nature of God’s grace. He tells Timothy that his life is an example to others of how much God is willing and able to forgive. His life is the story of grace and hope for all.
In my office, I have a book that was written by one of my favorite seminary professors. When it came out, Abbi went to the seminary bookstore to have her sign it. Inside the cover is an inscription with words she would often share to us in our class: “Tell the story, and tell it well.” That is what our lives are to be about in response to what God has done for us.
We are called to be people who give an example to others of the amazing nature of God’s holy grace. After that Damascus road experience, Paul spent every moment of his life sharing the love of God with all people. He wanted his life to be shared with others in such a way that they knew how much God loved them. Paul’s life became an example to others of just how deep, how wide, and how amazing God’s grace is that if the Lord could forgive someone like Paul, the Lord could forgive someone like you.
Grace calls us to do nothing else but to be an example towards others. We like to think that grace is just for ourselves. We see it as a ticket out of this world and into the world to come. We want the benefits and the rewards of grace, but we want to keep the story to ourselves. Oh sure, we’ll put on our cars that “I’m forgiven,” or sing with passion the words to “Amazing Grace.” That is unfortunately where it stops for many of us. Grace never moves beyond a personal encounter and seldom leads us into its deepest purpose of being an example of grace for others.
If we have experienced God’s grace, if we have experienced God’s love in spite of ourselves, wouldn’t we want everyone else to know it? Wouldn’t we want to shout it from the rooftops, live with a passion for others, and live with every moment of our lives with a sense of hope to share God’s grace with all?
God’s grace is never just for us. We have a story that we are called to tell. A story of how God loves us in spite of ourselves. A story of how God’s redeeming love is available regardless of who you are, where you are from, or what you have done in your life. A story of how God redeems the drug addict, sex addict, murder, adulterer, and, so many more. A story of God not only loves us enough to forgive us, but calls us into a new life to leave behind what was and to claim the possibilities available to us all through God’s grace.
That story is what inspires others. Buildings, as nice and beautiful as they are, don’t lead people to God’s grace. Good programs don’t always inspire people to see God’s love. What inspires people are stories of how God has been at work in our lives and how God is at work in their lives.
People want to know if this life means anything. They are looking for us to share our story, because they are wanting to see the story of God’s grace for themselves.
This morning, see yourself in the picture of God’s amazing love. God loves you no matter who you are and what you have done: God loves you. Claim that love. Receive that love. But, don’t just claim that love for yourself. Share it with people by living your life as an example to others that if God is willing and able to redeem someone like me, he can redeem someone like you.