I Timothy 1:12-17
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Several years back I got an instant message from a young man who had grown up in the church I was serving. He was attending the state university and we had had lunch the summer before he left to talk about vocation and how God might be calling him- not necessarily to church service, but to service of God through whatever course of study he pursued. He explained in his message that something had happened on campus, and he wanted my take on it. You see, he had come across a campus evangelist. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced one of these. It was a man who spent his time going from one major university campus to the next, usually at the invitation of some local college ministry group that would sponsor him. But instead of a scheduled lecture in one of the buildings on campus, he would set up shop on a quad or some other outdoor common space and begin preaching- a la the apostle Paul at the Areopagus in Athens. The goal of such evangelists is to make a case for Christianity in the heart of an academic setting they consider hostile to the gospel. As such the language they use can be pretty over-the-top and hyperbolic. The young man had caught this guy’s schtick and was particularly taken aback by the evangelist’s insistence that he deserved hell. He’d never heard anything remotely like that in his Presbyterian church growing up. It didn’t sound right to him. He liked to think that while he wasn’t perfect, he tried to be a good person. Or as someone recently related to me regarding the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ “I know I make mistakes, but I’m not sure that makes me a wretch.” It’s a fine line for a Calvinist to walk. The satirical church site The Babylon Bee once ran a headline, “Calvinist Dog Corrects Owner, ‘No one is a good boy.’” If that’s the case, then maybe the campus evangelist is right. On the other hand, who wants to hear that they’re a miserable sinner all the time? And what do we do with the saying from our reading this morning that the author insists is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners? Maybe it would help if we were to clarify our terms, because for too many people once you start throwing around words like ‘sinner,’ and ‘hell,’ they’re ready to start running for the hills.
One of the most common Christian narratives goes something like this. God made humans good and gave them everything they could ever want or need, but humans got grabby and wanted to be like God and that’s when all hell brook loose. Once on the outs with God, they could never get completely back in to God’s good graces, that is until Jesus came along and died for all the things that they had done so they could go to heaven. The good ones go to heaven with God when they die and the bad ones burn forever in a pit of eternal torment. In this telling hell is the bad place, and everyone Jesus doesn’t save is going there when they die. So, when a young man on a college campus hears that he deserves Hell it’s a little confusing because that makes it sound like he’s one of the bad ones. Only he didn’t think he was one of the bad ones. But if you’ll notice, in our letter this morning, the saying this writer (presumably Paul, although many scholars dispute the authorship of this and other letters) asserts as sure and worthy of full acceptance only says Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. It’s doesn’t say what he came to save them from. He also goes on to suggest that when it comes to sinners, he is the foremost. So it isn’t as though he’s wagging his finger at everyone else and not himself. He is naming sin as a universal human condition that is terminal, meaning none of us escape it. And if that’s the case, then maybe sin is about something more than simple misdeeds. Maybe sin is a little more endemic than that.
American Jesuit priest James Martin has observed that when we read the gospels, the sins we see Jesus calling out in his sayings and stories look quite a bit different than the what we’ve typically been taught when it comes to sin. We’ve been taught to think of sin in terms of human weakness, the person who tries to do what is right but ultimately fails. But what Martin says is that when you look at what Jesus calls out, the sins are of those that come from a place of human strength-the person in a position of blessing or privilege who makes little to no effort to do what is right, who ultimately fails to conform to what it is that God wants in the world- that is ultimately indifferent. So it may be that what Jesus comes to save us from isn’t so much hellfire in the afterlife as much as the kind of indifference to the needs of others that tends to create our own hell on earth.
That’s Paul’s story, whether he penned this letter or not. And it’s a story that continues to inspire and inform those of us who would follow in the Way of Jesus Christ. Paul wasn’t down and out. Paul wasn’t living on the margins of his world. Quite the opposite. In fact, in one of the letters that is believed to have been written by him he makes this argument about his own resume, how it is filled with the kind of status and achievement that the world tends to reward. Paul was in the driver’s seat, so to speak. And at the moment that his life changed he was heading to Damascus with the full authority of his own religious leadership to raid the synagogue there and round-up the so-called “Christians” that were regarded as dangerously misguided. On the other side of his dramatic conversion he comes to see all that power, all that authority, all that status as something that made him a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. On the other side of his conversion he sees all too well the way his strength made him indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the way of Jesus Christ. He understands that sin is less the collection of misdeeds that violate some legal code and more an existential condition from which he needs to be saved. On the other side of conversion he recognizes that the things that he thought made him a good person, an upright person, a righteous person, were the very things from which he needed saving. Saved not so that he could go to the good place when he died instead of the bad place, but saved so he would enter into the goodness of this place as God moved in and through it.
Here’s the rub. If we think we’re a-okay, or at least not so bad as to have to worry about a fiery afterlife, we’re kind of missing the point. Faith isn’t really about how one’s ticket gets punched after we die. In his blog this week, Seth Godin wrote about memory as remembering what we’ve rehearsed. We rarely remember things as they happen, we remember things as we remember them, as we tell and re-tell them, as we rehearse them. When we don’t do that the memory of that thing fades. And, he says, if the memory we are rehearsing isn’t serving us, we should stop retelling it. Only it turns out that stopping isn’t so easy. We can be told time and again that something isn’t really as we remember it, only to dig in and insist that it is so. Seeing ourselves as basically good people who don’t deserve hell is a story that doesn’t serve us because while we may not think we deserve it, hell is actually what we create when we insist on our own goodness from a place that is indifferent to the needs of another. We should stop telling it. Not so we can beat ourselves up over being sinners. That isn’t salvation either. Salvation isn’t found in beating ourselves up. Salvation is found in Jesus who comes to tell a different story about who we are. It is a story in which the worst that we have done doesn’t disqualify us from being a part of what God is up to in the world. Rather, the worst we have done uniquely equips us to be about God’s business because God isn’t in the business of saving strong people, capable people, people who have it all together. God is in the business of putting right all that has gone wrong, binding up the broken hearted, giving sight to the blind, setting captive people free, and making people who have become dead in their sin alive again.
So maybe instead of ‘sinner’ we should just use the word human. And instead of hell, we should talk about the kind of lives we try to make for ourselves out of our own sense of strength and indifference. Then the saying would be sure and worthy of full acceptance that Jesus Christ came into the world to save humans from themselves, of which each and every one of us is the foremost. So that to trust the story Jesus tells instead is to come alive to something more than a life that is the sum of our strength minus our failures. To trust the story that Jesus tells is to be saved from that for a life that is eternal.