This sermon was delivered during a service of Morning Prayer at St Remigius’ Church, Roydon on the 15th of September 2019. It was the second of three sermons preached on this day.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The reading which Mark read for us from the first chapter of the first letter to Timothy is basically Paul’s testimony; yet it’s not just Paul’s testimony, it’s also The Christian testimony which resonates with all of us sitting here today.
How can I say that? How do I know what will resonate with you? Well, of course I don’t know exactly what resonates emotionally with you specifically. Indeed when preaching it can be interesting hearing from people which bits stood out to them about what you said. Sometimes I’ll think they key aspect someone will take away will be XYZ, but people will say that ABC or MNOP meant a lot to them. However, while the details of our lives are distinct not just from each other’s live, but also and especially from Paul’s life, there are common themes here which are universally true of all Christians – including, though this may be controversial, those Christians who have grown up in the faith. I say this as one of those Christians.
Paul’s testimony begins with the words, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord”.
Practising gratitude is a spiritual/emotional practice which is commonly suggested these days and it has a lot of merit to it. By taking a moment each day to write down three things you’re grateful for it forces you to pause, slow down and to perhaps change your perspective from one of worrying and anxiety to one of thankfulness, appreciation and hope.
This is a good thing to do. I have friends who find it an enormously beneficial part of their daily routine. Yet however helpful reframing your perspective from pessimism to optimism may be, as a practise it can only introduce limited changes to our situation, that is our lived experience of reality.
And Paul is about to unpack something of that by looking at the condition as it was expressed in his life.
“I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”
This list of three, a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence, is indicative; it’s a list of examples rather than a complete catalog of every conceivable possibility.
These three things encapsulate Paul’s biography as we encounter it in Acts; that he rejected Jesus as Lord, that he wanted to arrest Christians, and that he cheered on the stoning of Stephen.
However, these three principles are not just narrative descriptions. They reach into the heart of the non-christian experience.
Even the most polite, well-mannered, and kindly person who would never swear is a blasphemer if they say “There is no God”, or “I believe in the Universe, not a man called Jesus”. This may seem like a harsh thing to say. We normally think of blasphemy as being derogatory or offencive to or about religion. This is true, yet if we consider that God is not only real but a living God who responds to us then rejecting him, denying him is blasphemy. It not only offends God but permeates every aspect of our lives because by so being estranged from God we are not aligned with the source of our life and being and thus are on a trajectory away from life and health.
We see this repeated pattern with persecutors and violence as well. It’s an all too common experience on social media to encounter militant atheists, those who are confident and proud of their atheism on the basis of arguments which not only make sense to them but also come to define, to varying extents, their own sense of identity. These are the kinds of people who criticises those who express sentiments such as “thoughts and prayers” for those affected by tragedies. As a critique, it has its place; we should pray yes, but if able we should do something practical to assist. However, the trajectory of persecutors is to say “I can grow just as good a flower as you without needing the water which you need to live”. Their efforts to oppress ideas and people of faith ultimately are parched and unable to be sustained as their trajectory also fades away from life and health.
The same holds with people of violence. It’s not that there are no circumstances where physical acts of violence may be warranted, though that’s a topic for another day, but rather that the mentality of those who, like Saul, are ‘breathing threats and murder’ is one which is aligned not towards health and well being but towards death and destruction; both in this life and the life to come.
These three themes could be joined by many others such as jealousy and envy, adultery and hedonism, or fraud and greed, to name a few. Each of them are united by the human condition which tends us away from God, away from health and life to death and darkness – living lives which are thoroughly and inescapably conditioned by the reality of sin.
This is certainly the experience, even if they would not wish to define it as such, of the non-christian. Paul describes it as ‘acting ignorantly in unbelief’. It’s also, if we’re honest, the experience of the Christian. We who are growing in the faith find that we try and follow our faith forwards yet are buffeted by the winds of sin and temptation with every step.
Paul’s testimony doesn’t stop there though. He continues:
This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Jesus Christ is the Lord our God and Paul says “the Grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
A Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners.
Sometimes when we hear that we are sinners we are inclined to resist that definition. We want to protest “I’m not THAT bad..” However all of humanity wrestles with the reality of sin decaying our lives from living up to their full potential in line with the way in which we were created. To deny that we are sinful is to say that we don’t want the solution which saves us from sin. The Apostle John says, if any man says he is without sin he makes God to be a liar and the truth is not in him.
One way to look at it is that we have particular needs in order to live. Food, water, shelter, community. And one of those needs is the Holy Spirit. To reject our need for food is to starve. To reject our need for water is to thirst. To reject our need for shelter or community is to risk dying from exposure and or to be alone. With each of these, one can manage for a spell without, but long term it’s not sustainable nevermind optimal.
The same is true of the presence of God and the Holy Spirit. We may be able to live ‘successful’ lives without him, but without him there is no abiding meaning or health – and certainly no chance of eternal life.
Paul had a profound understanding of this. As such rather than wanting to deny his sinfulness he stressed it, and emphasised it – claiming that he was the most sinful of all sinners.
It’s not that he had done more ‘sins’ but that all who are affected by sin face the same most serious consequence of sin.
It’s here that we encounter one of the most joyful words in the new testament: But.
You are sinners, but…
We are all sinful, but…
There is no life in us, but…
But because we are sinners, we have recieved mercy because of the grace of our Lord which overflows for us in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus!
It was the faith of Christ which led him to the cross for us. It was the love Christ has for us which led him to surrender his life to the power of death and to die as we shall die.
Yet death and the grave could not contain him; his faith was too great, his love too abundant that the life of God himself overflowed, overturning death into a resurrection life which shall never end.
He has taken our trajectory away from life and health and he turns us about, we repent of our sinfulness, and by the power of his Holy Spirit patiently guides us forward as an example of his love to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
Jesus is the example which Paul follows. Paul was an example which the Church follows, and we are to imitate him as he imitates Christ. More than this, by our living example of our faith in Jesus we are to be an example to those around us here in Roydon.
Roydon is a place which is full of sinners, and we are the foremost sinners amongst them. But the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance – That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Let us pray for this place that they may see our example and encounter the overflowing love of God for them and come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.
To the king of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.