“The Here-and-Now Afterlife”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But 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.
17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.(NRSV)
According to most biblical scholars, the writer of Timothy while certainly a student of Paul, was not the apostle himself. The greeting is one indicator. Authentic Pauline writings begin with expressions of gratitude to God, while Timothy thanks “Christ Jesus our Lord.”1 Another unique feature of the letter is the fact that, unlike Paul’s letters, this epistle is addressed to one specific individual – a young disciple named Timothy, who is being prepared for his own apostolic work. Whoever wrote this letter wants his young protégé to know that in Christ there is always the promise of deep and thorough redemption.
Speaking as Paul, Timothy’s mentor uses himself as an example. “I was…a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” he says. “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of the Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
The attributes of the writer’s alienation from God – blasphemy, persecution, and violence – speak volumes. In the case of Paul and his followers, blasphemy meant more than just saying sacrilegious things about God; it meant assuming to speak for God – more specifically, to speak as God. Because Paul was so certain that his will and God’s will were in perfect accord, he believed that he could do nothing wrong. He felt neither reserve nor remorse about persecuting other human beings, especially Christians. Indeed, he apparently believed that he could impose any level of violence he chose and credit himself with righteousness in the name of God and country.
Taking on the persona of Paul, the writer declares that Jesus delivered him from that sin-soaked mire. And it was no simple transformation. Timothy’s mentor makes the dubious claim of having been the best at being the worst. In his mind, his unrivaled sinfulness required the “utmost patience” from Jesus in order to redeem him and to make of him an example for others. It’s enough to make you want to bless his heart, isn’t it?
Laying aside the rather sad grasping for attention and affirmation by claiming superlatives for oneself, the author of the letter is trying to illustrate a fundamental principle of Pauline theology: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2Cor. 5:17) And isn’t that the foundational announcement of Easter? Whatever may be, or may have been our reality, in Christ all things are being made new. By the gracious initiative of God, we and all things are in the process of being restored to our original goodness and wholeness.
One contemporary problem with all this before and after testimony is that the saying no longer appears to be all that “sure.” And there are fewer and fewer people willing to give it serious attention much less “full acceptance.” It seems that the “utmost patience” is needed not by Jesus for us, but by humankind for Jesus – or at least for his so-called Body, the Church. Let’s face it, as an institution, we’ve spent most of our patience capital on clergy sex scandals, on being more concerned with protecting wealth than welcoming the stranger, and on cozying up to power for the sake of perishable privileges Jesus never enjoyed, encouraged, and certainly never promised to his followers.
There’s the rub: The “sin” in which humankind is mired allows individuals and communities to justify self-aggrandizing idolatries of blasphemy, fear-fed persecutions and rejections of “the other,” and addiction to all forms of violence: militarism, consumerism, pornography, neglect of “the least of these,” and all the competitive meanness human beings sling around as if by divine right.
Now, I love all of you. You’re sweet people, but I can’t name a single, sin-free individual, myself included. If we don’t actually do the things we know are inconsistent with the call of Jesus, at some level, we willingly benefit from them. Unlike Paul, we are not acting “ignorantly in unbelief.” There’s just too much in our first-world arrangements making us feel comfortable, or even “blessed” to make us willing to repent.
As often as not, being redeemed and made new by Jesus is not something we really want, at least not at first. In all likelihood, the merciful redemption of Christ will lead us into lives that feel more demanding and less secure. But isn’t that the point? The here-and-now life of faith is our stage-one afterlife. It’s fraught with the mystery and paradox of Resurrection, and we enter it through open-handed trust in the one who was resurrected. We call the here-and-now afterlife “discipleship” because it requires discipline. It requires the intentional practice of a Christ-like approach to all of our relationships and decisions.
The here-and-now afterlife will make us political, but it puts us at odds with party politics. A here-and-now afterlife will make us fierce in the fight for justice, but steadfast in the universally beneficial means of compassion rather than the universally destructive means of violence. And in the here-and-now afterlife, our words will simply proclaim the eternal and merciful heart of Christ. They will not presume “equality with God.” (Phil. 2:6)
Contemporary author Anne Lamott has lived all her life in Marin County, CA, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. She was raised by devout atheists and lived her first thirty years in the throes of addiction, reckless promiscuity, depression, and, as she calls it, “raging narcissism.”2 When she was thirty, she had an experience of the real presence of Jesus. The next Sunday she found herself in a Presbyterian Church, and she’s been there ever since. Anne Lamott is not the kind of Presbyterian that all Presbyterians are comfortable with. In her speech, she remains edgy – and I’m being polite. She’s outspoken with her progressive political views. She’s nakedly honest about her past, her doubts, and her continuing struggles. And she’s also refreshingly grateful, even now in her 60’s, to have a new life to live.
In Anne’s beforelife, a setback or emotional darkness would send her scurrying for the liquor store or some other self-indulgent distraction. And while she acknowledges that she’s still a “work in progress,” she says that now – in what I’m calling the here-and-now afterlife – “when I’m in a bad mood…I’ll go out…and flirt with old people at the health food store, and if people need me, I will listen. I will bring them water, and I will listen, and that’s basically what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I will take away your problems…’ Jesus said, ‘I will keep you company, and I will be here if you need me.’ That’s what I try to be in the world, and some days go better than others.”
Anne Lamott does much more than just be nice to people, of course. She writes openly about her Christian faith. She’s an activist for peace and justice. She teaches Sunday school. She’s a new creation living her own here-and-now afterlife. She’s living redeemed and redeeming relationships because she’s living in a new relationship with the God revealed in Jesus.
Indeed, like the writer of Timothy, Anne Lamott might be willing to say that Jesus “display[ed] the utmost patience, making [her] an example [of the real, here-and-now presence of] eternal life.”
1Mitchell G. Reddish in his article Exegetical Perspectivein Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010. P. 67.
2All references to and quotations by Anne Lamott are taken from her essay, “Lives Well Lived” in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the Worldby Bob Abernethy and William Bole. Seven Stories Press, NY, 2007. Pp. 379-386.