1 Timothy 1:12-17
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
I remember in college a young girl who asked me, “Is it possible to forgive someone who is dead?” She asked it after our college youth ministry team was leading a lock in and several of us had shared about forgiveness. I had shared about my father walking out on my family when I was 14 years old and how my forgiveness of him was important to my spiritual growth. After the program, she felt she needed to forgive to be able to grow in her faith. As we inquired about the question she told us that her uncle had died a year ago. When she was very young he had abused her in ways that were disturbing and atrocious. Now that he was dead, she wondered if forgiveness was possible and if her relationship with God was in danger.
My first reaction was connected to the kinds of examples we had shared in our time with the youth and how insignificant they were to the level of wrong done to this young girl. Second, as I thought about it then and have thought about it since, I have asked this very human question. “Does that guy even deserve forgiveness?”
Paul, in this passage of scripture today, is also reflecting on some very personal things with his young protege, Timothy. Paul says, “I am grateful to Christ who has strengthened me…even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence.” Paul is sharing his own personal confessions with young Timothy. In a wonderful moment of gratitude, Paul sums up the central understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to forgiveness, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is true and worthy of full acceptence. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am foremost.”
Wow! Talk about authentic and self-revelatory (and I remember my preaching professors telling us to never use our personal lives as examples!) This is quite a confession, but the confession is not really the focus here. For Paul, the focus is the grace and mercy and forgiveness showered on us in Christ Jesus.
When we declare each week that we believe in the forgiveness of sins in the Apostle’s Creed, we are first and foremost giving thanks to God in Christ Jesus who forgives us.
Theologian Stephanie Mar Smith, refers back to Martin Luther (1483–1546) when reflecting on this passage because of his similar emphasis upon the mercy of God in the face of human sinfulness. In his early years, Luther was ridden with anxiety because he believed that he could not live up to God’s righteous standards. Then, as he studied the Scriptures, he realized that the righteousness of God was not a standard to which he must attain, but rather a gift from God: a mercy by which persons are made righteous through the righteousness of Christ.
The depth of sin was revealed, which Luther interpreted as the human arrogance that attempts to justify oneself before God (I am sure this doesn’t apply to anyone here – no arrogance and no one who attempts to justify their actions before God and others). In addition to the revealing of our sin, God justifies us and declares us not guilty through the righteousness of Christ, who acts, loves, and believes on our behalf. This is important to grasp, because many of us don’t really think we are that bad. We don’t believe we are really deserving of punishment – certainly not hell. But in order to understand how God’s grace works in forgiveness, we must first grasp the grace and mercy God has shown to us for our sins – which is what Paul reveals in this morning’s passage.
The first thing we have to do is get in touch with our sinfulness. As Methodists, we don’t really preach those kinds of “hell, fire, and damnation messages.” We prefer the “you are loved of God” messages. This hasn’t helped our people understand the need for extravagant forgiveness and mercy. While I am certainly not encouraging us to beat each other up, a healthy dose of our position before God would help us deal with our arrogance as it relates to sin. How can you really be thankful for forgiveness if you don’t feel you need it? Which leads to another problem as we begin to think about forgiving others…
If we truly believe God has forgiven us, then it is easier to forgive others as God forgives us. Jesus indicates in the gospels that if we do not forgive others, we in turn cannot receive forgiveness – not because God chooses not to forgive us, but rather because we choose to close off the channel of grace.
Simply put, I like to think of grace flowing through us like a drain. If we identify our deep need for forgiveness and receive great mercy and grace, we are more motivated to forgive others. If we really don’t feel we need that much forgiveness, we don’t have that much grace to share with others. Also, if we refuse to forgive others, we do not allow the grace of God we have received to be shared with others which shuts down our ability to receive grace. When the drain is clogged nothing comes out…and nothing more can go in. Forgiveness is a spiritual act between you and God. We must forgive the other because if we don’t, our spirits become narrow, distorted and selfish. That in turn keeps us from receiving the grace of forgiveness from God. When you forgive another, it is something that takes place in the spirit – you are set free to be a channel of grace again.
Forgiveness is required and necessary. I will never forget that brave young girl in that small church in South Georgia who desired to be a whole person and a vessel of grace. I don’t know where she is now or what she is doing, but I can tell you this. If my God is willing to forgive me…and if that girl was willing to forgive her uncle…than, by God’s help, I can forgive anyone who wrongs me. Lord, let your grace and mercy flow through me.