Paul the Ploughshare
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
What’s going on in this letter? Paul is writing to Timothy. Let’s consider Timothy to be representative of your average well-intentioned churchgoer. A lightweight to middleweight sinner, if you will. Paul says to Timothy, “Listen, if God can forgive ME…ME of all people, you’ve got nothing to worry about! God forgave ME, which in and of itself shows folks that when it comes to this forgiveness and mercy stuff, God means business. I’m definitely late to the party, but God was even more patient than I was late!” Why is Paul really hammering home how miraculous it was that God forgave him?
Well…Paul was a jerk. He was more than a jerk. He was a violent persecutor of a religious minority group. And then, one day, on the road to Damascus, he was confronted by a vision of Jesus, calling him out on his violent ways, imploring him to turn things around. Paul “saw the light” you might say. He experienced forgiveness and grace, which is the focus of this part of his letter to Timothy. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost,’ The letter says. He continues, “But 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.”
A New Testament Scholar and Professor at Oxford University Andrew Keith Adam puts it this way: “God extends forgiveness and reconciliation not solely to middleweight sinners such as most well-intentioned church-goers; God offers mercy even to "the foremost sinner””.
We talk about this every Sunday in worship - about the radical forgiveness and love that God eternally gifts us, but how many of us have ever really stopped to think about how….frustrating that can be. I mean, it can be very encouraging to remember Paul’s implied message that, “if God can forgive ME, the biggest most violent sinner in town, then i think your chances are looking pretty good”. But also, what does it mean that God forgives Paul in the first place? I guess what I’m really getting at is: is it really that easy for us humans to accept that God could forgive a violent bigot who enjoys squashing the little guy?
Every once in a while, you hear a story about someone who, at one time in their life, had been wrapped up in hatred and racism and bigotry and misogyny and all of the oppressive systems that Jesus fought so ardently against, and then one day they renounce their past, and try to make a fresh start, or attempt to right some of the wrongs they caused. There’s Christian Picciolini., a former white supremacist and Klan member, who has now committed his life to trying to dismantle white supremacy, ‘de-program’ it’s acolytes, and repent for the hatred he helped sow in the world.
There are politicians who have taken to public forums like twitter to express regret for past actions or causes they took up, whose consequences they now believe to have been disastrous. I even learned recently that John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, was once a slave trader, who eventually denounced the institution and worked to abolish it.
But…here’s the thing though… Where I get hung up sometimes is that for every 1 white supremacist who rededicates his life to dismantling the systems he once worked to build, for every former slave trader who became an abolitionist, there are thousands…thousands! of folks who’ve been fighting white supremacy from the get-go, there were hundreds of abolitionists who never saw slavery as anything but an abomination. As your everyday, run-of-the-mill person who tries to follow Jesus as best I can, it can sometimes be hard to see folks like that getting forgiven, praised even, for finally just achieving what I’ve been taught is the baseline for moral or Christian behavior. Anyone else ever felt that way?
I look at Paul and think how he’d have been exactly the kind of person some of us might not want to accept into the fold, even though he said he’d seen the light or the error of his ways. Sometimes I wonder if we really want people to come around and ‘see the light’ in the first place. I don’t mean on the big consequential stuff, like if oil companies suddenly changed course and all switched to renewable resources, or if all the multi-billionaires took Jesus’ advice in Luke and gave their money to the poor, I think we can all agree that those would be blessed turns of events.
No, what I’m talking about is in those small, every-day interactions, about issues. Particularly those that take place on display in the news media or on social media- like talking heads from opposing parties going at each other on cable news, or facebook arguments that happen in the comments section of a post. I confess, that sometimes I love a good facebook argument.
It’s not very pastoral of me, but I’ve definitely gotten into it a bit with extended family members or folks on my hometown’s facebook forum, often about justice issues, like the waste collector strike that’s going on right now in Marshfield, though sometimes it’ll be over something like the New England Patriots and how “deflategate” was definitely fake news…and I’ve realized that as I descend further and further into snarky one-liners and self-righteous talking points, I’m not actually trying to change that person’s mind, or heart, but rather I’m mostly just stroking the ego of my own sense of righteousness.
Would my argument ‘strategy’ or approach be different if I were genuinely trying to change someone’s mind about an issue, say, marriage equality, or access to reproductive healthcare? If I were actually trying to change someone’s heart, I’d probably be listening a lot better instead of mentally preparing my next snarky retort.
It would feel more like a conversation, an act of relationship-building, and less like a competition or a tug-of-war or a take-down. How might our lives be different if we were to accept the changes of heart of the Pauls in our lives? If we were to say, “well, if they’re worthy of God’s forgiveness, perhaps they’re at least worthy of my acceptance, too”. It’s hard! Ya know, we might all agree to leave 99 sheep to recover the lost one… but what about the bigoted one? The violent one? Would we welcome back the prodigal son with a feast and refrain from holding his fiscal irresponsibility over his head thereafter? I’m grateful that even as I struggle sometimes with these moments of grace, God has it down pat. And that’s perhaps what Paul is getting at.
Paul says to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost, but 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.” Jesus reminds us time and time again that we are none of us without sin, for we are all human beings, and yet Jesus, when given the opportunity to condemn us, does not.
John’s Gospel tells us a story of how when confronted with an adulterer, someone who had broken a sacred covenant, Jesus refused to join in the ritual of public shaming and punishment, persuaded the crowd to disperse, and simply offered the adulterer a fork in the road, “go and sin no more”. If sin is what separates us from God, salvation is in the act of connecting, reconnecting, building and rebuilding. It is in the act of relationship-making, of community-building.
And if we believe what Jesus says about how loving our neighbor is of the utmost importance, of how beloved community is the key to living God’s kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven, then we can’t help but start connecting and building and communing. I mean, we do it every Sunday when we pass the Peace.
Any time someone is able to ‘see the light’ and repent, to turn things around, and work to build community or repair relationships, they are taking part in an act of salvation. We should be clamoring for a piece of that bread of life. To taste a slice of salvation as it’s happening, fresh out of the oven.
Sometimes it takes a while, though, for the aroma of all that saving to make its way into our nostrils, for our souls to realize what’s going on, what we’re bearing witness to. Sometimes we’re reluctant, fussy eaters. Sometimes we feel like we’ve lost our appetite.
And yet. Paul says, “Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe”…
God’s patience lasts as long as it takes for us to come around, to get our act together, to see the light, to be found by the shepherd, and God is always prepared to welcome us back into the flock. God’s business is reconciliation, wholeness, and salvation.
Lutheran Pastor and Seminary Dean Mary Hinkle Shore reflects, “Saving…is not moving a name from one column to another. Saving is certainly not ignoring sin and the harm it does. Saving is recommissioning someone for new work. Saving is the human equivalent of fashioning swords into ploughshares”. Repentance means to turn around, to stop in your tracks and choose a new path. To take on a new purpose, to refashion yourself from a sword to a ploughshare.
Would we refuse the offer of a ploughshare, one that could be used to till the soil that could feed a community, would we refuse it were it stained with the blood it had shed back when it was a sword? Would we consider the crops that grew on the land it tilled as tainted, unfit for consumption, unable to provide real nourishment? Or would we give thanks for the miracle of transformation, that agents of violence could become instigators of peace. That that which has wreaked destruction and injury can be re-forged in the furnace of God’s love into something that sustains community, that tends creation and nourishes our neighbor, that encourages growth and harvest and wholeness. And if that miracle of transformation and re-forging is offered to folks like Paul, or Christian Picciolini, so to is it offered to us. What’s our new purpose going to be this week? What sword in our soul are we going to ask God to help turn into a ploughshare?
The very ploughshare that once was a sword may prepare the land for the grain that is baked into the bread of life. For this is the stuff salvation is made of.