Sunday 25 • 18 Sep 2016

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Rev. Chris Udy

Today’s Epistle reading
comes from 1 Timothy -
the first of a group of letters
called the Pastoral Epistles.
The Pastoral Epistles
mostly contain advice to early Christian leaders
on how best to order and guide the Church,
and how to live a life
that brought respect from other people.
The first two are addressed to Timothy,
a young Greek Christian
who travelled with Paul on his missionary journeys -
someone Paul trained and trusted
to be his successor in leadership.

Most scholars would now question
whether Paul really wrote these letters though -
because they are very different in style and tone
from the rest of Paul’s writings,
and they seem to focus on issues
that were problems for the Church
some time after the date of Paul’s death.
But whether they were written by Paul or not,
the Church in history has consistently included them
within the canon of scripture
and published them in the pages of Bible;
our Church also says we hear God’s inspiration
and authority in these letters,
and we need to learn from them.

1 Timothy is a fascinating letter.
It talks about the way
the early church ordered
and organised their lives,
and it lets us see
how the first leaders of the Church
exercised their gifts.
It’s also a letter that raises many arguments.
It’s the letter
that some of our brothers and sisters in other churches
are constantly fighting over -
because it includes verses like this:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission -
I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.
She must be silent.”
The argument some put up
is that this verse means women cannot be ordained
to the Ministry of the Word in the Church -
and that any community
that allows women to teach or to preach
has rejected the authority of Scripture
and is no longer properly Christian.
The irony of that argument
is that the Christian communities
who use this verse and others like it
to argue that women shouldn’t be ordained,
are completely dependent
on the gifts and dedication of women
to run their schools and education programs,
to care for their children, and in many cases,
to keep the Church running,
both pastorally and financially.

Our response in the Uniting Church
is that these verses in 1 Timothy
reflect the time in which they were written,
when social roles and attitudes were vastly different,
and that Christians can no more support
prejudice and oppression based on gender
than we can support slavery -
which is also defended
in the letters of the New Testament.

1 Timothy also gives advice and direction
about Church order and organisation -
with passages that describe
what kind of people should be Elders
and Deacons in the Church.
It says Elders should have only 1 wife,
be gentle, disciplined, above reproach,
able to manage the family
and see that their children are obedient,
not a lover of money,
and not given to drunkenness -
although the letter also says - to Timothy -
stop drinking only water -
take a little wine, for your stomach’s sake.
I’m very pleased to tell you
that our Elders measure up to these guidelines very well.

The Pastoral Epistles
also contain the verse that reads
(2 Tim 3:16-17):
All Scripture is inspired –
(literally, the word means “God-breathed”) –
and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting
and training in righteousness –
so that the people of God
may be thoroughly equipped
for every good work.
That verse also leads to many arguments -
because some have interpreted it
as describing the Bible as we have it now -
and saying that the Bible
has been directly received from God -
so that every word
is God’s holy, true and infallible revelation.
But just one of the significant problems with that view
is that when these letters were written
was no New Testament scripture.
The Scriptures that the letter talks about
are books of the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament -
and we really aren’t sure
which books were included even in that.

Often in times of disorder and confusion
people will try to find something solid and reliable -
and when we can’t find it, we build it.
We construct idols and institutions
and we place them between ourselves and chaos,
hoping that the fierceness of our loyalty
will give these things strength and power.
But faith and hope are never satisfied
by things we can make for ourselves,
or by anything less than God -
who reveals himself to us,
not in an idol, or an institution, nor in a book
or even a community - but in Jesus Christ.
The Bible points to God - it leads us to God -
and God is revealed
in and through the Bible
but God is not shut up
in the pages of
any book,
and we live, not by a book of law and regulation,
but in a relationship of love and trust
with the living God,
who speaks to us through prayer
and in the Councils of the Church,
as well as through the Bible.

So - 1 Timothy is a letter
of considerable importance to us -
and we need to read it carefully
and give it some close attention.

This week’s reading starts like this:
“I urge then, first of all,
that requests, prayers,
intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone
- for kings, and all those in authority –
that we may live peaceful and quiet lives
in all godliness and holiness.”

I said earlier that there’s some question
among scholars of the New Testament
about who wrote the pastoral epistles.
That also means there are questions
when the letters were written -
and there are suggestions
that 1 Timothy first appeared
any time between the year 64AD and 180AD …
this is not an exact science.
But one thing seems pretty clear.
This letter was written at a time
when the relationship between the Church and the State
was strained and awkward -
but probably wasn’t openly antagonistic.
We know
that the first organised persecution of Christians
was authorised by the Emperor Nero in the year 64AD.
Christians had been blamed
for disturbances in towns and cities
throughout the empire -
and Nero had friends
who said that Christians were subversive -
that they were traitors and rebels,
who refused to do the things
that loyal citizens of the Empire would normally do -
like sacrifice to the Roman Gods.

So the author of 1 Timothy
wanted the Christian community
to take their civic responsibilities seriously -
to show that they were good citizens,
and to do everything they could
to avoid suspicion of disloyalty or subversion.
Christians have often had
a difficult relationship with the State.
The Roman Emperors actively suppressed Christianity
off and on until the year 303,
when the Emperor Constantine was converted,
and Christianity became the official religion
of the Roman Empire.
From that time, through the dark ages
and up until almost the end of the last century
Christian faith and European culture
were seen as almost the same -
although there were fierce and bloody battles
between those who thought one brand
was better than another.

But over the 20th century
that picture quickly changed.
As European cultures moved away from state religions
the Christian community become less and less western.
Africa, and South America, Asia and the Pacific,
have seen an explosion of Christian faith,
and today Christianity
is no longer predominantly rich, white, or European.
Today also, Christians are less and less likely to live
in a sympathetic state -
and being Christian
at best means being dismissed
as irrelevant and unfashionable in a post-modern world
where economics and technology
are the ultimate authorities -
and at worst,
being at risk of attack
from corrupt and savagely oppressive authorities.
The world-wide Christian community we belong to
has many things in common
with the Christians who first read
this letter to Timothy.
So what’s our relationship to those who rule us -
those in positions of power?
The author says we need to pray for them,
offering supplications, intercessions
and thanksgivings for people in authority,
“that we may live a quiet and peaceable life
in all godliness and dignity.”

There’s not much doubt
that our rulers need our prayers.
All around the world
authorities are struggling
to keep even an appearance of order
over events and movements
that are obviously out of their control.
Whether their problems are global or personal,
rulers seem less and less able
to offer their people a vision of the future
that offers even a hint of peace and quiet,
let alone dignity or godliness.
Many have given up
on trying to meet the hopes and needs of all the people,
and instead,
they aim to enlist the support
of one group against another,
the strongest against those who are weaker,
the majority against the minority.
So communities splinter into parties and interest groups,
where divisions are emphasised and played upon,
and everyone watches the fights and the arguments
with suspicion and cynicism.

But the prayers of Christians
aren’t meant to be an attempt
to enlist the ultimate lobbyist
for the benefit of the Christian party.
We don’t pray
so that God will intervene for our self-interest.
In 1 Timothy the author continues -
“[Our prayer] is right, and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour,
who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”

One of the greatest moments
in the life of the Christian Church
came in the revelation
that the Gospel was not limited to the people of Israel.
When first Peter, and then Paul
understood that God was calling gentiles
into the Christian community,
the connection between race and religion was broken.
God was no longer Jewish -
or Greek, or Roman.
Christ had been born -
and lived and died and was raised - for all people -
“God desires everyone to be saved” -
and God’s vision
is for a world where everyone
can live “a quiet and peaceable life,
with godliness and dignity.”
So when we pray,
we don’t ask God to install Christians,
nor do we ask for a government
that will be biased in favour of the Church -
we pray that those who lead and rule us
will catch a glimpse of God’s vision
and work to fulfil God’s purpose of justice and peace.

We pray like that
because ultimately we can see
that God can no more be identified
with any particular party or ideology -
than God can be trapped in an idol,
or caught in the pages of a book.
God’s authority isn’t limited by political ideas,
and the closest we get
to an exclusive revelation of God’s vision and plan
is in Jesus -
who, as our reading from 1 Timothy says,
gave himself a ransom for all.

One of the marks of inspiration in scripture -
and one of the things we look for in a true leader -
is that echo of something bigger behind the words.
We hope for someone with a sense of servanthood
and personal sacrifice -
selflessness that rises above personal gratification
or party spirit,
and inspires people to work
for something greater than self-interest,
something that draws people together
across their natural divisions and differences.
When we read scripture,
even when we recognise
that it was written for a specific community
in a particular time,
we still hear that echo of something bigger -
something that remains true
beyond time and place -
and when we read carefully and give close attention,
God reveals something of his grace and power.
And when we pray for our leaders,
we aren’t praying for political platforms or policies,
we’re praying for women and men
who recognise that their responsibility
is greater than their loyalty,
we’re asking
that they will make the decisions rulers must make
with the wisdom and compassion
that echoes God’s vision and love for all people.
"I urge then, ...
that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving
be made for everyone” -
for Prime Ministers, and Presidents,
and Opposition leaders,
“and all those in authority -
that we may live peaceful and quiet lives
in all godliness and holiness." Amen