First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

William Loader

Pentecost 18:  22 September  1 Timothy 2:1-7

This passage has a much more settled feel about it than what we find in most of Paul's letters, but it may reflect some of his values. After all, Paul did insist that we see authorities as exercising a God-given role, when he wrote to the Romans. Those who treat 1 Timothy as a letter of the historical Paul might point to such similarity. On the other hand, we do seem to be in a different world. Beyond our passage we hear words which put women into subordination and reflect the values of those who sought to be respectable at the time. Here a community has time and space to reflect on the order of society and to value prayer for those in authority. At one level this is, however, an expansion of gospel values. All people matter. All need to be held up as valuable in prayer before God (2:1).

The focus on political rulers (2:2) has never ceased to be relevant, although at times it has been watered down into a kind of chaplaincy which never questions what they do, but unwittingly sanctions it. Praying for politicians has to mean more than that. It has to mean holding them up before God in the light of the gospel and its challenges about justice and change. It also has to be about more than our living a quiet and peaceable life (2:2). It must include that element of responsibility that creates and sustains free space for people to engage with each other and with God. That is not, however, a matter of individuals pursuing a personal piety which consists of not much more than a certain morality and a focus on a world beyond this one, although such people are very convenient for politicians who prefer not to be questioned. Our prayer for politicians and people in authority has to be with the disturbance of God where power is abused and love not lived out for all.

2:3-4 might be construed in this way, so that the will of God the saviour and restorer is nothing less than a holistic mission of setting right what people have set wrong, of bringing back into relationship what has been alienated. It does not need to be restricted to a narrow view which sees salvation as personal freedom from sin and damnation and the promise of heaven, and sees knowledge of the truth as knowing about this and believing it, as one might read these verses.

1:5-6 seem almost like a summary of what Christians might want to preach in a pagan world. They shared with Jews of the time the fundamental conviction that God is one, that there is one God. This implies that reality is a whole, despite its diversity. This also implies a sense of belonging and that every human being and, indeed all of creation, is of value. The Christian assertion that there is one mediator counters the views that there may be a muddle of competing and threatening authorities which one must somehow buy off if salvation is to be possible. Its equivalent today is where people go around serving a dozen different tyrants in themselves, many of them fickle and irrational, but well ensconced in their consciousness. The sheer plethora of competing demands helps people engage in the business of stress and of placating the "unplacatable".

Our passage says: no such validity should be given to our tyrants, nor to any external ones. Only one needs to be noted to see the truth about God's saving love. That is Jesus. He (or as much of his story as we know) is so transparently an image of God's being, that in him we know that God is there for us and not against us, and that we can dismiss the powers within us and outside us which play god or claim mediator status. This is also true in the church. We are not dependent on a minister or priest or on any of their religious performances or rites. They have no authority of brokerage, as if they can decide for God or manipulate God for or against us. At most they can witness to the story and interpret it. They can celebrate the generosity of the one broken for us. But they cannot usurp God's place, even though the "will to power" is such that they will often pretend they can.

Our passage see the mediation, as Paul would have, particularly in relation to the cross as an act of vicarious atonement. Christ died for us. Variously expressed, this essentially means that in Christ we are assured that God's grace is there for us freely. It is less about Christ persuading God to do something which God was not inclined to do and more about seeing Christ as part of God's initiative and determination to declare an end to all that interferes with love and restoration. That confrontation led to Jesus' death, but the same event at the same time declared its truth. God is the kind of God to whom it makes sense to offer prayers for all, because God's interest and compassion is that wide.

2:7 returns almost self-consciously to Paul. It could be Paul's own assertion if he wrote it. More likely it is someone seeking accurately to represent what Paul might have said and doing so because it is relevant to his context where some still doubt Paul and his authority. Notice how it has Paul assert he is telling the truth and not lying! Either way Paul and all who engage in ministry in his tradition - to the present day - can own their identity as also a gift from God's compassion. We are here, not to be mediators or controllers, who seek status by the power we seek to exercise, but to be heralds and envoys of God's generosity, which frees us from the need to assert our value by holding power over others. We are powerful as bearers of a tradition which sets people free, but our role is not close the gates, but hold them open. If there is a role of mediation we fulfil, it is solely to pass on what we freely receive, not to play god. People have enough trouble struggling with their gods than for us to place ourselves in that pantheon.

Gospel: Pentecost 18:  22 September Luke 16:1-13

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