First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 17

William Loader

Pentecost 17:  15 September  1 Timothy 1:12-17

Some people held Paul in very high esteem. Others saw him as far too radical and as destroying the foundations of the faith. The issue of the Bible, in particular, the Law, became a major point of contention. It seems that resistance to Paul and his heritage continued for many years, probably decades. 1 Timothy begins in a way which suggests that Timothy is having to cope with rival forms of Christianity, many of which would have some similarity to those of Paul's day, at least in the sense that they had to do with how one approaches scripture. The letter gets straight to that point in 1:3-11.

It is likely that this letter stems from the period well after Paul's death when new generations were having to cope with problems similar to what Paul faced but with some differences. Our passage portrays a statement by Paul about himself. It might just as well have been written by Paul, himself, but is more likely to have been written by someone seeking to protect his heritage and stand with his authority. Such practices were not uncommon. It happened also with Peter, James and Jude. It was the author's way of saying: what I write you should treat with the same authority as if it had come from Paul, himself, because I seek to represent him. Such explanations were not deemed necessary. Instead people simply wrote in Paul's name. It was an innocent and well motivated practice, but could be abused and later there would be a need to limit such methods - especially as the distance between Paul and the authors' time spun out to many decades.

From another angle we can join the author in imagining that this was how Paul might have seen himself and if we are convinced that Paul did in fact write the letter, we can still look at that (self-) image. Paul portrays himself here as a slanderer and persecutor (1:13). This we also know from Paul's undisputed letters and from Acts. The statement that God showed him mercy because he had acted in ignorance is somewhat strange - more like the view that Luke takes, sometimes, in Acts in describing the crucifixion of Jesus and matching his image of the prayer of Jesus: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing". This is a more complex thought than first appears. To what extent is ignorance an excuse? Here it appears as a partial justification for God's mercy towards Paul. In his undisputed letters Paul never makes such a qualification. Grace and compassion are totally unmediated. God is not shown as 'finding it easier' because Paul didn't know what he was doing. If anything the ignorance was a deliberate refusal to know, but nevertheless God reached out to him in love.'

It matches Paul's understanding of himself that the passage makes a link between Paul's forgiveness and his call to ministry. This passage also appreciates that responding to God's compassion is not receiving a guarantee for a future gift, but taking up an offer on a relationship with a God who is going places. We are invited in grace to get on board and go along with this God who is on a mission and where there will be a role, often a distinctive ministry, for us. That was Paul's understanding.

Paul became a model of conversion, a hero for many early Christians (including Luke). That understanding comes through in the passage (1:16). His switch from being a persecutor to becoming a bearer of mission was legendary. Luke tells the drama no less than three times in Acts (9, 22, 26), each time with new slants and embellishments. It is a celebration of God's generous grace. Paul the hero is also Paul the authority for Paul's churches. Probably some of them still had to cope with ongoing suspicions about Paul. Our passage sets up Paul as a model partly because it is to Paul's authority that the letter appeals and with which it wants to achieve its ends.

1:17 is an acclamation of worship. The passage keeps us centred on God. It has inspired the great hymn, "Immortal, invisible, God only wise". "Wise" appears in a number of later manuscripts of 1:17. In its context this worship praises God for transforming compassion which can turn around someone like Paul. It is not as though we should see the sense as: as well as being compassionate God is also the immortal and the invisible one worthy of glory. Rather, this is the God we adore (to reflect another old hymn), the one who reaches out to restore sinners. This old evangelical truth remains fundamental to our faith. The passage declares it as a truth which is "faithful and worth fully taking on board" (1:15). It represents Paul well to highlight this central character of God. Our struggle is usually to resist the dualism which says: despite God's awesome and wondrous being, God loves. We are still learning to say: God's awesome and wondrous being is love.

Gospel: Pentecost 17: 15 September Luke 15:1-10

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