Imagine your child were running a race. Your child trained and prepared, lots of practice, hard work. They run the race and all the runners come in. In the award ceremony at the end, the judge says, “It’s so nice that we’ve had this race in which so many put in hard work. They can all be really proud of themselves. That’s why we’ve decided not to hand out awards to any particular runners but instead to emphasize that we’re all winners here.” Then he proceeds to hand out participation trophies to every runner, dismisses the crowd, and sends everyone home. Now, depending on how your child did in the race, you might feel differently about that sort of judgment. If not so well, maybe it would help you and them feel good – we all did good work. If your kid finished first, though, you might not be so happy – because while “we all did good work”, some actually did do better work than others – somebody was actually first and best. That kind of award system would really call into question what it means to be a winner.
St. Paul brings a version of this imaginary situation when he encourages pastor Timothy this morning. He’s trying to give Timothy confidence for ministry and to encourage faithful, hard work for God and his people. And Paul essentially says, “Timothy, you can listen to me because I’m the best…I’m the first.” It’s just that Paul calls himself the first of the worst. He says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man…” And he was – watched as Stephen died for witnessing about Jesus; pursued and imprisoned believers in Jesus, as many as he could catch; finally only became an apostle because Jesus blinded him to everything he thought was real and forcibly opened his eyes to the truth of salvation. Paul calls himself the worst of sinners,” or literally, “[among sinners] first am I.” St. Paul, blue-ribbon, gold-medal winner among sinners.
Paul says that God set him up as an example for those who would believe. Because there’s a part of us that naturally thinks like Paul, the Pharisee did once – that maybe we can run the race well, that we’ve trained and performed – that God loves people who can keep his commands, that ministry and church is about the holy people being that way, that we can gather up here some life-improvement techniques to shave some time off our spiritual run, and that we’re not really the “worst”, in fact “sinners” like that really don’t belong here. There’s a part of us too that finally comes to share Paul’s sad realization: I am the worst. If God wants gentle husbands, some days you have been everything but. If Paul says “first among sinners” some days you have protested – “I’m actually pretty good!” If God wants love for the Savior and his message, sometimes you have hated what he says because of what it says to you or your family or friends. Of this you can be sure – if St. Paul, apostle of Jesus and author of the Bible, is “first among sinners” we’re not far behind.
Paul uses himself as this kind of example for us so that we can understand how things really are. When we’re tempted to pride over what we can do or are plagued by all we’ve failed to do, he reminds us: with God it isn’t about achieving but receiving. This is what Paul says, “I was shown mercy…The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Switch the picture with me for a minute. Literally, Paul says that God’s grace super-abounded. The comparison between what we could do and what God has done is sort of like how every year you might ask for or get a raise – maybe a few extra hundred dollars a month, maybe even an extra zero on the total. But God’s work would be like the largest Powerball jackpot ever: $1.6billion. With an extra few hundred a month you might pay off more debt or go to Culver’s more or load more into your 401K. If you had $1.6billion you could sail for a month on a fully staffed luxury yacht with 100 of your closest friends AND pick up a few tropical islands in Asia AND chat on an iPhone Princess Plus diamond-encrusted mobile phone AND treat everyone in the US to a scratch-off lottery ticket AND when you got back to shore drive off in a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 (worth about $1.5mil) AND go back to the penthouse at Four Season Hotel in New York, your weekend escape for a year AND give every 18yr old in Minneapolis a full ride to the University of Minnesota AND call one of America’s most expensive single-family residences (Copper Beech Farm) your home AND stockpile one ton of 24-karat gold in your garage AND become the new owner of the Miami Marlins AND you’d still have money left over!
How incredibly more abundant, how inexhaustable God’s grace that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” In Jesus Christ, the riches of God’s heavenly glory comes down into the world poor with sin. In Jesus, complete humility is at work as the first and best dies like the weakest and worst on the cross. In Jesus, we find that our worst sin, our every sin, is zeroed out and in our account is the achievement of Jesus credited to us – what we could never achieve God freely gives. And, with faith in Christ Jesus and love from him that we do not deserve there is the promise from God that we can love him with confidence.
This is the essence of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy – we’re winners because God’s grace is abundant for sinners, but also in a particular way. Did you see it, in the gospel? The Pharisees didn’t like that Jesus hung out with “sinners”. Jesus didn’t argue with them about how truly bad the Pharisees were or how the prostitutes or tax collectors weren’t that awful. Instead, he talked about how good God is – that God has “perfect patience” to search out sinners and to save them – like a good shepherd who searches for a lost sheep or a woman who clears out the house to find one coin. We’re winners with God, his first-place, chosen ones, because God patiently uses sinners for his purposes. God sought out and chose Paul. By faith he’s sought out and chosen you too.
This is how Paul relates that difficult “worst of sinners” idea to the world around us through you. He says, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example…” “Example” might mean something like what you see on that show Shark Tank. Entrepreneurs bring in some prototype or working example of a principle or process in the hopes that the sharks will invest – and that there will be a payout. Like Paul, you are a prototype for others. You can let it be known that you are weak; that you aren’t better than those around you; that, in fact, you’re the worst. You’re not different than the rest – you’re just an example of how patient God is. You can say from personal experience (whether you share your many sins or not), how patient with you God has been in forgiving your sins and showing you grace and mercy again and again in Jesus. You’re a prototype “for those who would believe on [Jesus] and receive eternal life” – something they can see and agree is an outstanding example of God’s grace and mercy that can work for them just the same.
Examples of God’s love like Paul and Timothy and us can confidently serve our Lord because he empowers us to serve. You and me and Paul give thanks to Jesus Christ who gives us strength to live and witness for him. Strength is not in you, the example. Strength is in the truth you portray – the truth of God’s love that you find in his Word and his Sacraments. He promises there to strengthen you to be examples by forgiving your sins and firming up your faith as you enjoy the story of salvation in Jesus Christ over and again.
The Lord considers you faithful to serve. Ask this question alone in your lives: “If by faith, God considers me, a weak sinner, worthy and faithful to serve, who am I to say otherwise?” Almighty God has chosen in love to use you as his example. Serve him!
The Lord has appointed you to serve. Not in the same way as Paul. But God has appointed you in ways like these: he hasarranged/appointed you as parts of the body of Christ to use your gifts to God’s glory1; he has appointed you to receive salvation in Jesus2; he has made you a new creation in Christ and “has committed/appointed to us the message of reconciliation,” so that we can appeal to the world to be just like us, “reconciled to God”3 – sins forgiven and useful for his service.
And if the almighty God can empower, consider, and appoint someone like me, like you, like Paul – sinners – to be examples of his love and serve up a message like that – then we truly are winners. And can we really live any other response, say any other thing than what Paul does at the beginning and end? “Thanks Be to God…And to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”