The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Faith’s Foundation: To Save Sinners
Proper 19, 12 September 2010
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (1 Timothy 1:2a) Amen.
You may not know who Leo Tolstoy was, but you’ve probably heard of his brick-heavy novel War and Peace. But he also wrote a book in 1879 called A Confession, which tells the story of his search for meaning and purpose in life.
Rejecting Christianity as a child, Tolstoy left his university seeking pleasure. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, he drank heavily, lived promiscuously, and gambled frequently.
His ambition was to become wealthy and famous, but nothing satisfied him. In 1862, he married a loving wife and had 13 children; he was surrounded by what appeared to be complete happiness. Yet one question haunted him to the verge of suicide: "Is there any meaning in my life which will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death, which awaits me?"
He searched for the answer in every field of science and philosophy. As he looked around at his contemporaries, he saw that people were not facing up to the first-order questions of life ("Where did I come from?" "Where am I going?" "Who am I?" "What is life all about?”). Eventually he found that the peasant people of Russia had been able to answer these questions through their Christian faith, and he came to realize that only in Jesus Christ do we find the answer. Citation: Source: Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life (Kingsway Publications, 1993), pp. 14-15; submitted by David Holdaway; Stonehaven, Kincardinshire, Scotland
What was the answer for Tolstoy? The same answer that was given to Paul and Timothy. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He came to save you. To Save Sinners—that is why Jesus came. That is what Christianity is all about. That is the message the Church believes, teaches, and confesses. That is why this congregation is here.
I understand if you are thinking, “Well Pastor, of course! What you’re saying there is obvious!” If that’s what you’ve been thinking so far, I’m glad. I thank the Lord for that.
How about we dig a little deeper? If a Christian hears, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”–if a Christian hears that, he or she will most likely agree. So far so good.
But what happens if someone asks the typical American Christian, “What’s the most important thing about Christianity? What has been the most important thing about Christianity to you?” How will that typical American Christian answer? It’s very likely he or she will say something like, “It taught me and my kids good morals,” or “I get a weekly pick-me-up,” or “It helps me feel like a better person,” or even, “I just go because I have to.” Those things are a far cry from, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He came to save you. This congregation is here to proclaim that trustworthy teaching.”
Do you see the point? Many Americans, even many American Christians think they know what’s at the heart of the Christian faith, but are unable to volunteer that Jesus is the Savior from sin, death, and hell, or witness to that fact on their own. They might be able to pick out the name, “Jesus,” if He showed up on a multiple-choice exam, but would have a hard time remembering “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” if it were an essay test.
We think we know what it means to be a Christian, but too often forget the basics. We slip back into the thoughts of our sinful human nature that say, “At least I do better than that guy. God will surely let me into heaven. I do the best I can.” And we’re back to living under the law, trying to earn our own salvation without Jesus. No wonder people in the culture complain that Christians are judgmental, goodie-two-shoes hypocrites.
We think we know what it means to be a Christian, but too often forget the basics. Some groan when we revisit the basics of the faith in the Small Catechism, but could the ones groaning pass the Confirmation oral exam before the elders without some prior notice and a night to cram?
In the Holy Christian Church, the message of the Gospel is faith’s foundation. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, including sheep, coins, and prodigals—more about that later. We need to be reminded of that because we are all sinners in need of grace, just like St. Paul.
He wrote, I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Paul does not hide from his past sins. He openly confesses them. He openly confessed that he was a poor, miserable sinner long ago and was forgiven. His slate was wiped clean. He was reconciled to Christ Jesus by Christ Jesus. Saul the Pharisee and persecutor of Jesus became known as Paul the Apostle and proclaimer of Jesus.
Before, he had acted ignorantly in unbelief. How much more precarious is our position when we behave sinfully after having known the truths of the faith! The forgiveness of sins does not give us license to sin! Going ahead with something we know is wrong and spiritually deadly: like willful divorce, habitual lying and gossip, adultery, theft, living together, or staying away from God’s good Gifts. We cannot plan to repent later—we should do so before we act and repent of planning to sin.
The grace of our Lord overflows for you with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. You have no reason to doubt that you are forgiven. Therefore, as a forgiven saint in Christ, go and sin no more. When you do sin, practice daily contrition and repentance, remembering that you are a baptized child of God. St. Paul has come a long way since Jesus appeared in a vision on the road to Damascus saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” You are a recipient of God’s grace, too.
Paul repented. There are sins that bother you. Be free! Confess them. Receive Christ’s forgiveness. Abandon those long-term, culturally acceptable, habitual sins. Live no longer in ignorance, unbelief, or with an unrepentant heart. The grace of our Lord has been poured out on you abundantly. Don’t reject the gift!
Paul was a sinful human being. He wasn’t perfect. He was forgiven. And the Lord appointed Paul to His service, to tell the Good News About Jesus, even though he had formerly been a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. Listen for how he describes his sinful condition and his Savior.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…You’ve heard that before. Did you remember that Paul considered himself the very worst of sinners, or as the hymn goes, “Chief of Sinners though I Be?”
You regularly confess that you are a poor, miserable, sinner. Paul knew he was, too. He knew what he had done. He approved of the murder of Stephen. He persecuted Christians. At the time, he thought he was doing the right thing, but had since realized his sin. He was honest with himself, his conscience, and with the Lord and His Word.
Is such honest self-examination and confession painful? You bet. Is it pleasant to examine yourself thoroughly by comparing your thoughts, words, and deeds, actions, and inaction according to the Ten Commandments? No, it’s not pleasant. We’re often afraid of pain or difficulty just on principle, blind to the benefit of what comes next.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. What comes next? But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
There’s always something next, even after the “Amen.” Even though Paul was a sinner, he received mercy. We are all sinners, too. You have also received the same mercy, in that God does not give to you the punishment you deserve. That’s mercy. And He is gracious, too, giving you faith now, so that you may believe in Him for eternal life.
Your baptism into Christ took place, or, for some of you, will take place at a specific time. The benefits, the “what comes next,” are with you the rest of your life. You have been given the gift of faith to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin, death, and Satan. What comes next? Eternal life. That’s God’s promise to you in Christ.
Will the wait for that eternal life be easy? No. You will lose loved ones to death. You may suffer other kinds of physical and emotional pain and loss. You may even be persecuted for your faith in Christ. And you will die, as we all will. Remember that God’s mercy has a purpose. Your pain and suffering have a purpose.
What did Paul confess? But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
When people see Christ’s strength as the only possible explanation for what keeps you going, that is a powerful witness to your Savior. In your pain, you can witness better than in your prosperity. When you bear the cross, others can see Jesus in you. They will be able to hear with their eyes when they see Christ’s patience in you. And you might even have an opportunity to verbally say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, including sheep, coins, and prodigals.
Today’s Epistle from 1 Timothy connects really well to Ezekiel 34 and Luke 15. Ezekiel prophesies about Jesus, The Good Shepherd who searches for His lost sheep Himself. That is echoed in Jesus’ first parable in Luke 15, where we can picture Him and our pastors searching for the lost sheep of our congregation and our community. But we dare not stop there.
There are second and third parables in Luke 15 that we should not ignore. In the second parable, a woman searches for a lost coin. It’s hard to picture Jesus as a woman. And the New Testament is clear that the Lord has not given women, nor all men to be called and ordained to the pastoral office. This picture would be a good description of the Church seeking the lost. It’s not just pastors who are to care about those who haven’t heard the good news about Jesus. It is not only pastors who should be concerned about those who haven’t been in Church, Sunday School, or Bible Class. The members of the congregation—that’s all of us together—should love one another enough and care about one another enough to seek out those we have missed at Divine Service. Write a note, make a phone call, send an email, or drop by. Greet those who are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Enjoy fellowship with those who live on your own street. It’s not going to kill you to be friendly or ultimately be a friend. This is a way of life—not just once or for a day, a week, a month or only a year—a way of life.
And then there’s the third parable. It’s not included in the first ten verses of Luke 15, but you know it well. It is a parable about a lost son. You know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but a proper title should draw more attention to the surprising love of this Jewish Father. It is heartbreaking to families, especially parents, when a child falls away from the faith. We still love that person, but we love them enough to care about their eternal future and not just about getting along at Thanksgiving Dinner.
A lost sheep. A lost coin. A lost son. What was lost is found and there is much rejoicing as a result. That’s what the three have in common. Pastors, congregations, and families should be concerned about those who do not confess Christ, do not believe in Him according to the Scriptures, or do not regularly receive the Lord’s Gifts—Gifts Christ died in order to give.
The parables have much in common. Consider how each is still unique. The sheep wanders away out of ignorance. The coin is lost by the woman. It isn’t the coin’s fault. The son, however, willfully leaves the Father’s house for the den of iniquity and sin.
The sheep wanders away out of ignorance. Bad things happen to good people—and sheep. Sometimes a week or two away from the Lord’s House and the Lord’s Gifts on the Lord’s Day becomes a habit. Bad habits can become family traditions. The next generation learns from the example of the parents. Leaving the 99 temporarily, pastor and people together should care enough to reach out and invite these sheep back to church.
The coin is lost by the woman. It isn’t the coin’s fault. In this case, it appears like it was the woman’s fault. When you get a group of sinners together, we should not be surprised when sinners sin against one another. It’s unavoidable. It should also be unavoidable that sinners are to forgive one another, but that doesn’t always happen. Grudges begin. Hard feelings solidify. Anger seethes. The body of Christ is divided by unforgiven and sometimes unrepented sin. You can immediately see the problem. Sometimes the human side of the church sins against a Christian. Sometimes bad Christians happen to good people. But what does the woman in the Gospel do? She tirelessly searches everywhere, literally bending over backwards to find that which is lost. Shouldn’t we also pull out all the stops and search everywhere and also repent and reconcile sooner rather than later?
The son, however, willfully leaves the Father’s house for the den of iniquity and sin. He knows better. This is the one we usually don’t want to talk about. Willful sin. Planned sin. Presumption. Delaying obedience to the Word, repentance, and receiving our inheritance in Christ until later. “God will always forgive me, so I’ll just live this way for now.” Eventually “for now” becomes a lifetime. Sudden death means you don’t get to plan a deathbed conversion. Genetic family and Christian family should be concerned about these prodigal sons and daughters loved by Our Father in heaven. Yet, we should not be a hypocritical Pharisee like the older brother who stayed home. He looked loyal on the outside, but inside he was just as much a prodigal sinner as his brother who wasted his inheritance on sin. Can we love one another that much to say, “no” to a brother or sister in Christ who wants to play with the devil’s fire? Do we actually care in our heart of hearts or are we just going through the motions of piety and Christianity? May the Lord grant us repentance and abundant forgiveness in those areas, too.
A lost sheep. A lost coin. A lost son. What was lost is found and there is much rejoicing as a result. That’s the end result we pray for: repentance, faith, and reconciliation. For the sheep and the son, the road from the flock and family to the wilderness works just as well from the wilderness to the flock and family. For the coin, it can’t find itself. We must seek it out. Seeking and finding and rejoicing also work well with sheep and prodigals.
And rejoicing. That’s a preview of heaven, when saints will only be saints and not saints AND sinners. Jesus sinners doth receive. Hallelujah! Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Thanks be to God! We know the main message of the whole Bible is “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Period. But that message is obscured when people are rude, ignorant, and clueless, as well as when Christians appear to be unloving, uncaring, unconcerned, and also unfriendly. Christians are given to remove any stumbling blocks for believers and unbelievers. Therefore we love and care enough to share hospitality. We practice to be friendly to everybody at church, whether they are long-time members or one-time visitors. We work toward intentionally looking for members of our congregation who haven’t been around in a while. We take courage and learn to say “We’ve missed you and want to see you again this Sunday,” and to show that in loving actions. Another short phrase doesn’t hurt either: “I was wrong and I’m sorry.” Perhaps that’s the hardest thing to say in any language. And we plan to invite others to church who don’t have a church home. Why? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He came to save you. To Save Sinners—is why Jesus came. That is what Christianity is all about. That is the message the Church believes, teaches, and confesses. To share that trustworthy teaching is why Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church is here.
To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Receive the blessing St. Paul gave to Timothy:
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. (2 Timothy 4:22) Amen.