Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Pastoral Epistles Commentary, continued

I Timothy 1:12-17

“…I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him…”

Every once in a while, it does us good to recall the life story of Paul. Every time we read one of his letters, or refer to his theological insights, we ought also to stop and remember who he was before he was “Paul,” when he was “Saul.”

Hey, Saul was a pretty evil dude. He was the early church’s number one enemy. He smirked and held the cloaks of the stone-throwers while Stephen died. He relished rounding up men, women and children and tossing them into prison. He had a lot of “rough edges,” we might say today.

We forget this about Paul, because later in life, he wrote such lyrical lines as, “These three remain – faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love,” and “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Those are such powerful words, that we forget that Paul was once Saul!

Of course, if we had been Paul’s contemporaries, we might have a different perspective. It would be harder to forget that Paul had once been Saul! We might find it difficult to divorce the church’s persecutor from the church’s leader. We might have a hard time accepting Paul’s ministry.

Let’s face it – we don’t have that kind of faith and hope in humans. We say, “A leopard can’t change his spots.” “Once a violent man, always a violent man.” “Once bitten, twice shy.”

Even in the church, where we profess belief in such ideas as repentance and redemption, we find it very hard to believe that individuals can and do change. Even as we read the words of a “violent” man who was redeemed and changed by Christ, we find it very difficult to give others a second chance.

This is why the Church historically has resisted the death penalty as an acceptable form of criminal justice. This is why the Church historically has resisted war. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, each and every human life is redeemable. It is never too late for someone to repent and be forgiven. The apostle Paul is exhibit A.

We dare not – in our own shortsighted wisdom and limited patience – snuff out life when there is yet time for redemption and forgiveness. Or else we preclude the opportunity for something new to happen.

A soldier once asked a Desert Father if God accepted repentance. The old man replied, “Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?” The soldier said, “No, I mend it and use it again.” The old man smile and said, “If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature?”