I Timothy 1:12-17
“Yes or No?”
September 16, 2007 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
One of your church Council members had a colonoscopy Wednesday afternoon and was not able to make it to our meeting that night. We heard this news before we started. So the evening began with several of us sharing our own experiences with colonoscopy, either for ourselves or for a spouse.
The reason so many of us on the Council had personal acquaintance with colonoscopy is that some physicians subscribe to a general medical guideline that everyone of average risk for colon cancer ought to have a colonoscopy every ten years beginning at age 50. Because several of us there have attained that magical age, the general rule has specific application for us. In other words, we’ve accepted that medical guideline and made a response more or less like, “That means me.”
Paul does much the same thing in this excerpt from his first letter to Timothy. In verse 15 of chapter 1, he offers what was already then a generally accepted statement of Christian truth: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And he immediately moves from that general truth to a specific application to himself, “of whom I am the worst.” The general prescription is that all sinners need Jesus, and Paul knew, “That means me.”
Those words, “Here is a trustworthy saying…” are a verbal formula which only appears in what are called the “Pastoral Epistles.” You can see it again right here in I Timothy 3:1 and 4:9, and once more each in II Timothy and Titus. These “trustworthy sayings” are almost surely quotations from early Christian doctrinal statements, catechisms of Christian truth which were memorized and taught to new believers. The business of setting down what we believe in simple, memorable phrases so they could be learned by heart began very early and shows up even in the Bible.
So as part of this year’s study of Christian doctrine I want to look at the specific statements or “Affirmations” we make in the Covenant Church. But first I want to be clear that our Covenant Affirmations are not “extras” invented by clever, devious folks who tack them on to the plain truth of Scripture like vandals drawing a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.”
No. Creeds or statements of faith or affirmations or whatever you call them are not extras. They came into being right with the writing of Scripture and are included in the Bible. Just turn the page over to I Timothy 3:16 and you can see another of these early creeds quoted by Paul, “…the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.”
Once you start looking, you see these early “mini-creeds” all over the New Testament. Check out Romans 1:2-4, I Corinthians 15:3-8, II Corinthians 13:14, and Philippians 2, just to start with. People then, just like now, wanted to hear our Christian faith “in a nutshell.” Give it to me “short and sweet.” In the Covenant we continue that tradition of brief affirmations which begins in the Bible.
So whatever our Affirmations might be, they are not an attempt to add something to God’s revelation of Jesus Christ in the Bible. They are simply a continuation of the ancient Christian practice, which started in the early church, of formulating our faith in a way so that it can be taught and remembered well.
That’s why once again this fall, for about the twenty-second time in my life, I’m teaching a class for middle school students in which part of what they will learn is short, pithy statements of Christian faith, “trustworthy sayings,” as Paul puts it here. “Building Blocks” as our Confirmation curriculum calls them. In the first centuries of the church, this was called the “catechism.”
Each Building Block the Confirmation students learn is connected with Scripture, based in Scripture, and includes Scripture. The same is true of our six Covenant Affirmations stated in the folder you found in your bulletin this morning. In fact, our very first Affirmation is centrality of the Word of God. What’s revealed in Holy Scripture—first and foremost, Jesus Christ—is at the center of who we are and what we believe.
It’s true that the way we’ve written our Covenant Affirmations, what we’ve picked out and focused on in these statements, gives our Christian faith a special flavor. That kind of thing happens whenever you choose a center or a focus. Go in your living room or family room. Which way do all or most of the chairs and sofas face? What are the people who sit there looking at? A TV screen? People on the other side of the room? A fireplace? Paintings on the walls? Flowers or books on a coffee table? What we put at the center of a room says something about the kind of people we are. What we affirm as the center of our church life says what kind of Christians we are. Our Affirmations are an attempt to be a certain kind of Christian.
However, one key thing about Covenant Affirmations, and the place where we’re starting this morning, is to recognize that their primary goal is not to make us different from other Christians. That’s why the very first section, before we state a single one of our own Affirmations, affirms “Our place in the worldwide Christian Church.” Before Covenant Affirmations we join in making common Christian affirmations. In a sense, our very first affirmation is that we belong to something larger. We’re not trying to set ourselves apart from other believers. We’re trying to express a faith that connects us with everyone who acknowledges Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, with everyone who also believes what Paul affirms here in I Timothy 1:15, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
So Covenant Affirmations begins by making four statements about the kind of church we are. And the point of these statements is that we a church that does not see ourselves as isolated from other Christian churches. We did not invent or recover true Christian faith when the Evangelical Covenant Church was founded in 1885. God’s Church was alive and well and serving Jesus long before the Covenant came along. We affirm that we stand in a long line, a long history of a people, of a Church that knows and loves Jesus Christ.
As you see written both in your bulletin and in the Covenant Affirmations folder, we make these statements about our part in common Christianity:
¨We are an apostolic church
¨We are a catholic church
¨We are a reformation church
¨We are an evangelical church
Each of those statements expresses a kind of connection with the larger Church of Jesus Christ. They are ways of saying we are part of a bigger family, a larger body than the 750 churches and 120,000 people or so who make up the Covenant church in North America. If that’s all we are, the Covenant is smaller than our metropolitan community, Eugene and Springfield together, and a drop in the bucket in relation to the world. But as Christians we belong to something much, much larger.
To get a better grasp on these common Christian affirmations, let’s get back to Paul and his short simple trustworthy saying in verse 15, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” To begin with, that is an apostolic truth. The apostles witnessed Jesus saving sinners. They heard Him with their own ears forgive the sins of a crippled man and the sins of woman caught in adultery. They sat beside Him as He sat beside the dregs of society at parties no respectable person would attend. And along with Paul, they felt the plain truth that they themselves were sinners, some of the worst. They heard Jesus berate them for their lack of faith, their failure to persevere. Peter even heard Jesus call him a devil and then completely failed Jesus when He was arrested. The apostles knew Jesus came to save sinners and they knew they were sinners.
So when we say we’re an apostolic church we’re saying that we believe and teach and continue to experience the truths first known and experienced by the apostles. We read what they wrote down and try to live it out in our own lives. When someone wants to be a Covenant pastor, one of the criteria is, “Is he or she apostolic?” That is, does this person believe and teach the faith that came to us through the apostles who walked and talked with Jesus Christ?
“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” is also a catholic truth. As you can read in your bulletin, “catholic” literally means “universal.” A catholic church is a church for everyone. And that’s exactly how Paul understands Jesus saving sinners. That salvation is for any and everyone. Jesus came “to save sinners—of whom I am the worst,” says Paul. Because it’s catholic, because it’s universal, it applies to me too. It applies to anyone. Jesus can save anyone. He can save you and me. He can save your annoying neighbor next door, and He can save your ex-wife, and He can save Osama bin Laden. Jesus is catholic. He’s for everyone. So we need to be catholic too, be a church for everyone that Jesus is saving.
Being a catholic church also means we affirm the universal catholic tradition. The old formula is that we believe and practice what the church “always and everywhere” has believed and practiced. Jesus is the Son of God. He died on the Cross and rose again. He’s coming back. There is a Holy Spirit. Baptize Christians and feed them the Lord’s Supper. Those things are the heart of a catholic faith, a faith that comes down to us from the apostles, through Christ’s universal Church over the centuries.
So with most other Christian denominations the Covenant uses the “catholic” creeds, traditional, long-standing statements of what Christians have always and everywhere believed. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creeds are the best known, but we could include the Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds as well. We’ve inherited these wonderful documents out of long history of Christian people trying to be clear about what we affirm. We affirm these creeds not as documents added to Scripture, but as clear and succinct statements of what Scripture teaches. They serve as check and balance on our personal interpretations of the Bible. If what we’re thinking the Word teaches doesn’t match what a catholic creed teaches, then we realize our private interpretation may run against what the Christian church has always thought, and we might want to change our interpretation.
Our third common Christian affirmation is that we are a reformation church. That’s partly an historical statement. We come out of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic church in the sixteenth century. But it’s mainly a statement about our connection with a key biblical, apostolic and yes, catholic truth that the Protestant reformers re-emphasized. We are saved by grace. When we say Jesus came to save sinners, we are saying what Paul says in verse 14, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly…”
As a reformation church, we believe that grace is the only way Jesus saves sinners. We reject ideas that corrupted some Christian thinking for awhile in the middle ages. You don’t get saved by working real hard at being good. You don’t get saved by paying money to have your sins forgiven. You don’t get saved by being a nice person most of the time. You get saved by receiving the grace of Jesus Christ poured out on sinners like Paul and like you and like me. As Paul says here in verse 16, we don’t make ourselves worthy of being saved. We are unworthy and the Lord shows us mercy, shows us grace.
There was a later development in the reformation, a disturbing trend in doctrine. If we’re saved by grace, people began to think, then what we do and how we live doesn’t really matter at all. Just believe the Christian faith and trust in grace and you can still sin all you want. You don’t need to come to worship, or help the poor, or leave off your shady business dealings. Grace covers it all. Trust in Jesus and go right about the same old business you’ve always done. A group that became known as Pietists stood up and said no, that’s bogus grace. Real grace doesn’t leave you doing the same old things. It changes you.
It was catholic truth all along. The grace of Jesus Christ changes us, changes the way we behave, makes us better, makes us more like Jesus Himself. You can see how that got mixed up in the middle ages. Folks thought they had to change first, had to do better first, before they could receive grace. But it got mixed up in the Reformation too, so that Christian people thought, and a lot still do, that they don’t have to change at all. But as a reformation, pietist church, we in the Covenant focus on transforming grace in Jesus, grace that raises us into a new and better way of life. We know we can’t believe in Jesus and live the same old way.
The fourth common Christian affirmation of the Covenant is that we are an evangelical church. “Evangelical” means many things these days. One meaning carries a political agenda from the right with it. Evangelical can mean you’ve read The Purpose Driven Life or sent your kids to a Christian college. But the root of the word is the Bible term “Gospel.” As an evangelical church we are committed to the Gospel good news of new life Jesus Christ. So when we say with Paul that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, it’s good news. It’s a fresh start, a new beginning for anyone who believes.
As an evangelical church we aim to help people make that fresh start. Right here in our own families and around the world we seek to continue the work of Christ Jesus and show that He’s still saving sinners. As Paul says about himself in verse 16, part of what Jesus does is to make our lives examples of grace for others, so they too may believe in Jesus and receive eternal life.
To go back to colonoscopies for a moment, to be evangelical is to say that we want everyone to not only believe the general truths of the Gospel, but to make a personal application of it, to believe and receive God’s saving grace in Jesus. Just knowing that a colonoscopy is a good idea won’t help you. You have to accept that truth for yourself and say “Yes” to the procedure.
As an evangelical church, we are committed not just to good doctrine, not just to general affirmations and confessions, but we make these affirmations so that each and every person we encounter has the opportunity to say “Yes” in affirmation to Jesus Christ.
Last week during our praise singing, a message that some bit of software needed to be updated popped up over our projected song words. My daughter Susan was running the laptop computer and we all watched as she moved the mouse pointer to close that box. But then we all groaned with her as another box came up, one of those annoying, “Are you sure?” messages. But it was phrased confusingly something like “Do you really want to end this program?” “Yes” or “No.” Susan feared she might stop our PowerPoint songs and we watched as her pointer hovered over “No.” I could hear several of us breathe out what we were thinking, “‘Yes!’ You want to click ‘Yes.’” You could feel the tension in the air, waiting for that click, for that “Yes,” for the affirmation that would set things right.
As Jesus taught in our Gospel reading for today, the citizens of heaven—the angels and the saints already there—are hovering in breathless anticipation of a “Yes” from every lost sinner on earth. Each time a person hears the truth that Jesus came to save sinners, they wait like you and I before that computer projection, “‘Yes!’ Just say ‘Yes!’” Those angels and believers who’ve gone before are longing for men, women, youth and children to affirm what they affirm, the grace of God in Jesus Christ who saves sinners and gives them eternal life.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This, like every general Christian affirmation, needs to have added to it that deeply personal sense “This means me.” In the church I grew up in we used to sing an old hymn with a chorus that went, “‘Whosoever’ surely meaneth me.” It was referring to those verses like John 3:16 where in the King James language we read of the catholic nature of Jesus’ salvation: whosoever believes, whosoever will may come, whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord, whosoever. Jesus is for everyone. That means He is for you and for me. But I need to know and believe that “meaneth me.” I need to affirm it, not just as general truth but as personal truth.
So one night a long time ago as young boy I knelt down by my bed and prayed and said “Yes” to Jesus, affirming that being a sinner meant me, but that Jesus coming to save sinners also meant me. “Whosoever” surely meant me. It surely means you. It surely means our neighborhood and our community and a whole world of people waiting to hear you and I make our affirmation of Jesus Christ, so that they can know it means them too. Let’s say “Yes” this morning clearly and definitely and with all our hearts.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj