16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, September 12, 2010
(Five volunteers are asked to come and hold up poster boards with these words on them):
Welcome to our Sunday School.
(After a moment, switch the “Sunday” sign with a sign that says “Sinner”).
Welcome to our Sinner School.
After all, that’s what we have, isn’t it? We have sinners teaching sinners. Sinful teachers leading sinful students. From our little children all the way to our adults in Bible study, we have sinners gathered to learn from other sinners.
Welcome to our Sinner School.
I thought about putting this on the sign out front of church. I wasn’t sure how comfortable y’all would be with that. The big sign out of Bethel Lutheran Church saying, Welcome to our Sinner School. Would that have been OK? Anybody a bit uncomfortable with the idea?
So I didn’t put it on the sign, but believe me, I got the idea from Scripture, from the reading today from 1 Timothy. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, a young pastor, and Paul shows humble honesty. Paul calls himself a sinner, the worst of all sinners. And I figure if Paul can be humble and honest about himself, then certainly we can do the same thing.
Welcome to our Sinner School.
Maybe you’re not convinced yet. Maybe you’re not so comfortable calling our Sunday School a Sinner School. Maybe we should talk about this a bit before I go putting it on the sign out front.
(Volunteers can sit down).
Let’s go back to the letter to Timothy. Paul wrote the letter to encourage Timothy who was pastor in Ephesus, but remember Timothy was Paul’s student, his helper. Everything Timothy learned about being a leader in the church came from Paul. In fact, Timothy was in Ephesus as pastor because Paul asked him to stay there. Timothy had been traveling with Paul, but Paul said he needed Timothy to stay in Ephesus, to take care of the church there.
So you got to remember that Timothy must really look up to Paul, must treasure every word that comes from his teacher, so when this letter arrives, Timothy must have been overjoyed to hear from Paul.
Paul starts off the letter with some instructions, but he quickly kind of interrupts himself with the section we heard today. He interrupts the instruction and says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service.”
OK, so far so good. Paul is simply thanking God that God made him to be who he is, made him to be a missionary and servant of Jesus. But then Paul has to continue and say, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Why’d Paul have to go and bring that up? Why’d Paul have to mention his past when he persecuted Christians, spoke violently against Jesus, and had Christians killed?
I mean, if I’m Timothy getting a letter from my teacher, my mentor, I’m so excited to share his words with everyone, and then I start reading these words. . .and I’m embarrassed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to think of my mentor as someone who spoke lies about God, who persecuted others, who is violent. We kind of like to keep our mentors on a pedestal, thinking that they’re somehow better than the rest of us.
But here Paul is showing his cards, Paul is admitting who he was and who he is. He goes on to call himself the “worst of all sinners.” This is a humble honesty, the kind of humble honesty that might make us uncomfortable, the kind of humble honesty behind calling today the beginning of Sinner School. Are we really ready to go there with Paul? Are we really ready for that kind of humble honesty?
Are we ready to admit that we are starting our Sinner School today? Are we ready to admit our Sunday School, our High School Bible study, our Adult Bible studies, our preschool, are we ready to admit that all of our Christian Education classes are sinner classes, led by sinners for sinners? Are we ready to put ‘Welcome to our Sinner School” on the church sign out front?
Maybe not, but maybe that’s because we haven’t yet remembered everything Paul said to Timothy. Paul didn’t just admit that he was a sinner. Paul didn’t just admit his violent past. There was a reason Paul could have such humble honesty. There was a reason that Paul wasn’t afraid to admit that Timothy had gone to sinner school, that Timothy had learned how to be a pastor from a sinner. There was a reason Paul was willing to be so honest.
Paul says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
That humble honesty of Paul, admitting that he was the worst of all sinners, well, all that means is that he was admitting that he was saved by Jesus. It means admitting that what Jesus did on the cross covered his sins. It means knowing that there is salvation, eternal life for him. It means being fully confident in what Jesus has done for us so that there’s no reason to hide our sinfulness. There’s no reason to hide our sinfulness because Jesus forgives our sins. Jesus gives him the freedom to be humbly honest.
So there’s no reason for Timothy to be embarrassed that Paul had a violent past. No, instead, Paul’s humble honesty just shows what Jesus came to do—save sinners like Paul. Paul’s humble honesty, therefore, is our way of life, our way of living as Christians, because we don’t have to pretend to be something we’re not. When we admit we’re sinners, we’re admitting that we need Jesus, we’re admitting that what He did for us on the cross and in His resurrection, well, that’s exactly what we need.
So our lives are characterized by humble honesty, characterized by freely admitting that we’re sinners, freely admitting that we’ve got a sinner school, that we’re a gathering of sinners in this place.
I mean, I know that might confuse people outside of the church, they might get confused if we call this a sinner school, but maybe they’d also realize that we’re humbly honest, we’re not trying to be something we’re not, we’re not here because we think we’re good enough to be here, we’re here because we realize we’re not good enough.
We’re here because we need Jesus, we need His forgiveness, we need to be saved from our sins. We’re here because we realize we need something, someone besides ourselves. We’re here because we can’t do this by ourselves. We’re here because we need Jesus. We’re here because Jesus invites us to come to Him as we are—warts and all. Jesus invites us to come and receive forgiveness and know the promise of eternal life. Jesus gives us the freedom to be humbly honest.
In a couple of weeks our Elders together with the Board of Evangelism are going to spend an evening trying to make phone calls to every household in the congregation, a way to encourage people, to see if people have needs, but mainly just to say, “We’re thinking of you.”
Makes me think of a man I knew in a previous congregation, we’ll call him Bob, and Bob had a heart for going to visit people who hadn’t been in church for awhile. Now to go and visit someone who hasn’t been coming to church, now that can be a tough conversation, but Bob had a gift for it. He said that sometimes people would say that they didn’t come to church anymore because the church is just a bunch of hypocrites. They got turned off because they knew how these people lived during the week and it just drove them nuts that then these people would show up in church on Sunday. No, they didn’t want to go to church with a bunch of hypocrites.
And you know how Bob responded? When somebody would say the church is a bunch of hypocrites, Bob would, “You’re right. I’m a hypocrite. I’m a hypocrite. I say one thing about God and following Him, and I do another. And for that I need God’s forgiveness.”
I imagine there was an awkward silence there; it’s awkward to have someone be so humbly honest. That’s the humble honesty we’re called to have. That’s the example we learn from Paul. We learn that following Christ means admitting how much we need Him and His forgiveness, how much we don’t live up to His standards. Following Christ means admitting that we’re hypocrites. Following Christ means admitting that we have a Sinner School. Following Christ means admitting that we fall so far short of what God wants that the only hope we have is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Jesus gives him the freedom to be humbly honest.
So we move forward today, so we celebrate the start today of our Christian education Today we commission our Christian education leaders—our Sunday School teachers, our preschool staff, our Bible study leaders, our Board for Christian Education, and everyone involved with Christian education here at Bethel. We commission this people, set them aside to do this work, and ask God’s blessing to go with them.
The commissioning that we’ll use today comes from these words from 1 Timothy, including asking the leaders to admit that they, too, are sinners.
Of course, if I emphasize that they’re sinners, maybe you’ll start thinking that you don’t want them teaching our children or you don’t think they’re qualified to lead an adult Bible study. Maybe these Christian education leaders, these Christian education sinners shouldn’t be commissioned today. Maybe they’re the wrong ones.
But when I say that they’re sinners, I’m not putting them down, I’m not chastising them, I’m not saying they’re the wrong ones, that they’re not good enough to be leaders.
Instead, when I say, “Welcome to our Sinner School,” and when I say that this is a place “where sinners teach sinners,” I’m comparing our Christian education leaders to Paul, the Apostle Paul, St. Paul, the great Christian missionary. I’m comparing our Christian education leaders to Paul and finding them to be very similar. Very similar indeed. Like Paul, they lead with a humble honesty, an honesty about their own sinfulness, a humility that says they can only serve as leaders because God has made them leaders. Jesus gives him the freedom to be humbly honest.
And whether you are being commissioned today as a Christian education leader, or you are another kind of leader or servant in the congregation, or if you are a Christian in your neighborhood or your family or your workplace, think about what Paul is teaching Timothy here, think about how it also teaches us about what kind of Christian we’re called to be. We’re called to have a humble honesty. We’re called to go forward admitting that we’re sinners, because then we’ll also admit that we need Jesus for salvation.
You know, on my laptop computer I have a bunch of stickers. One of those stickers says, “Another Failure.” It comes a band called Andy Friedman and the Other Failures. So if you’re a fan, you’re another failure. I like the band, but even more than that, I like the sticker because I’m OK with admitting that I’m another failure. I don’t live up to God’s standards. I’m a sinner that needs to be saved by Jesus Christ.
And what we learn from Paul today is that there’s freedom in Christ for us to be humbly honest, to have another failure stickers, there’s freedom to admit that we’re sinners and need to be saved by Jesus. There’s freedom to say that we have a sinner school and are a gathering of sinners. There’s great freedom, because Jesus has indeed saved us. Which leads us to sing words of praise, to sing a doxology with Paul, to sing a hymn of praise for what God has done in our lives.
So Welcome to our Sinner School. Welcome to this place where we have humble honesty. Welcome to this place where we know we need Jesus and where we proclaim that He loves us and forgives us and saves us. Welcome to this place where we sing a doxology, sing a hymn of praise like Paul, sing a hymn of praise not thanking God that we’re sinners but thanking God that He still uses us even though we’re sinners.