For a pastor, the transition to a new church presents a fascinating challenge: the first sermon. What passage claims highest priority? What signals are sent with that first message?
My wife and I recently moved to Sioux Center, Iowa, where we pastor Covenant Christian Reformed Church. I began my ministry there with the lectionary readings at the time, in 1 and 2 Timothy. Somehow it seemed fi tting. After all, as N. T. Wright says in Paul for Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2004), these letters present themselves as letters written to the young Timothy, pastor of the church in Ephesus, giving advice on how to shepherd the church among those who have been raised to new life in Christ.
As I began the series with 1 Timothy 1:12-17, I found it easy to read myself into Paul’s words: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1:16). I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, a branch of Dutch Calvinism that was especially good at emphasizing the part about being the “worst of sinners.” In high school we studied the Heidelberg Catechism, where we learned that “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor” (Question and Answer No. 5).
Now nothing is wrong with this reading. After all, most liturgical worship services contain confession and reconciliation. We dedicate time to communal confession not because we want to be particularly hard on ourselves but in order to express our shared experience of our need of God’s grace—our need to experience the new life off ered to us in the resurrected life of Jesus.
However, I found myself wondering what would happen if we focused on Paul’s advice to Timothy on how best to pastor the church in Ephesus. To do that, we need to turn to the beginning of the letter.
First Timothy begins with a typical Pauline greeting: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope. To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1:1-2). What comes next is an unexpected but straight-forward command: “Stay in Ephesus.” This should give us pause. Why give the command such prominence? Had Timothy wanted to leave Ephesus? As a member of my congregation pointed out during a Bible study, that might have been so, if Paul feels it is critical to remind Timothy of this right away. As we continue reading, the picture becomes clearer. Paul offers Timothy advice for dealing with false teachers such as Hymenaeus and Alexander, who “have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith” and whom Paul has “handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1:19-20). The overarching picture is clear: The church in Ephesus is divided by dissension. The church is struggling, and Timothy wants out. This letter is Paul’s counsel for Timothy to remain in Ephesus.
In the church, new pastors often enjoy a honeymoon when both pastors and congregants put on their best face for one another. Life during this period is celebration and joy—until reality breaks through.
Church life isn’t simple.
Churches bring together diverse people from across the political spectrum and socioeconomic lines who represent diverse theological views and cultural backgrounds. All that diversity in one place can be troublesome. We don’t get along. We don’t agree with each other or with decisions that the church has made. Matters small and large cause significant dissension. Worship divides us rather than unites us in a shared experience of God’s infinite love. More often than not, diversity in the church feels like a liability. Wouldn’t it be much easier if we were all on the same page and agreed completely with one another?
The reality is church life is meant to be messy. Rather than a liability, that is a space for incredible grace. Where else do people, who are all over every spectrum imaginable and who differ in so many ways, gather together and covenant together to be family? This is the reality of a community bound together more by the shared experience of God’s grace and the calling to live in the reality of the resurrected life than it is pulled apart. In the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to set our differences aside in order to celebrate life with one another.
Church life might not be simple, but it is good.
How, then, do we understand Paul’s advice to Timothy as he wrestles with the difficulties of a messy church—remember that, whoever you are, with whomever you come into contact, you are a sinner in need of God’s grace?
When we begin with the experience of God’s grace and the reality that we have been raised to new life in Christ, we find ourselves empowered to love one another, despite our differences and despite the messiness of life in the church. As another of our Bible-study members observed, our ability to love one another rises out our encounter with God’s grace.
Loving one another is far from simple or easily accomplished. Loving each other is difficult. Loving each other is the hard path. To live into the resurrected life is to be willing to love one another in spite of the differences that divide us.
In Mere Morality (Eerdmans, 1989), Lewis Smedes suggested that part of loving a person is to learn to respect the mystery of that person. Even as we grow to know one another in the church, we can never fully grasp all the experiences that have formed an individual. We ask, “Why does she baffle me? Can’t he see he’s confusing the issue? Don’t they realize they’re getting in the way?” while others mutter similar questions about us.
The resurrected life empowers us to look at others through the lens of grace, to see another as a beloved child of God, and to respect the mystery of that person— even when we don’t see eye to eye, even when we approach the world from opposite poles, even when we just get on one another’s nerves.
It’s not easy. Church life might not be simple, but it is good.
When we are people who have experienced the grace of God, when we are people who are cognizant of our own sinfulness, and when we are people who have come to grips with how deep and wide and wonderful God’s grace and love is in our lives, all the other differences and disagreements—all the things that might set us apart from one another—fade into the background as we recognize the love of God that binds us together.
As Paul describes God’s grace in his life to Timothy, he breaks out into a doxology: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1:17). In commenting on this passage, N. T. Wright suggests, “When your train of thought brings you back to praise this one and only God, you know he is trusting you and equipping you for his service” (Paul for Everyone, 14). Arising out of the experience of God’s grace and call in our lives will be a heart that longs for us to worship—together.
The hope of the resurrected life is to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be bound together more by our shared experience of God’s grace than to be driven apart by what has the power to divide us from one another. My hope is that we “stay in Ephesus” to make walls of division and separation fall. My prayer is that we acknowledge that all of us are a product of the grace of God at work in our hearts and lives. Then we can do the hard work of loving one another, of respecting the mystery of one another.
Church life might not be simple, but it is good.