Lectionary Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 1:12-17 Too Religious

Believe it or not, there is a great danger of being too religious. What do I mean by that? I mean, we can become so focused on our religion that it can become a shield that blocks out the light of God.

Being religious has to do with what we believe and practice. The word is a descriptive word from the Latin “religio” meaning respect for what is sacred, conscientiousness, sense of right, and moral obligation. It is a word that describes what we think is important. A person may do something habitually and we say they do it religiously because it is so important to them. Every human being is religious, even atheists. They are religious in their belief that God does not exist.

When religion is taken to excess it becomes fanatic. It can produce a myopic vision that can be destructive. We see this in the suicide bombers, political idealization, and in the cults and fundamentalism that is intolerant of any variance from the dogma, teachings, and rituals they adhere.

Paul, when he went by the name Saul, was such a person.  Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:5-6, “I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.

Paul did more than harass the church.  He hunted down followers of Jesus.  In the book of Acts, chapter 9, of the Scripture, we are told, “he [Paul] has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.” (Acts 9:13-14 CEB)

Paul thought he was doing good in persecuting Christians.  He thought he was doing what was right.  He thought his actions were moral and just.  Paul was defending what he religiously believed was the truth. However, in these verses today we find that Paul discovered he was wrong. This is what it means to be too religious.

But how was that behavior different from the religious faith Paul embraces now? Is he still not a fanatic for the faith?  Isn’t this the guy who said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Yes, it is the same Saul who became Paul.  Ok, what is the difference between the religion Paul had and the one he professes now? The difference is found in a faith grounded in humility rather than pride.  It is the difference between a relationship founded upon experience rather than pronouncements. It is the difference between grace and entitlement.

Paul understood that the only way he escaped the darkness of his ignorance what through the grace of Jesus. He knew that grace was not what he deserved. He had done things that haunted him. He had acted in ways he now believes were shameful. He did not defend God but betrayed God in the name of doing what he thought was right.

But this is the mistake of humanity, doing what we think is right. This is why there are wars, violence, crime, hatred, prejudice, abuse, and neglect because people think they are right, religiously right.

Let me give you a hypothetical example of what I mean. A young man went to work for a company that manufactured very expensive precision parts for medical equipment.  His job was to monitor a special machine that fashioned these precision parts. The machine was very sensitive and needed constant monitoring. The young man was trained to monitor the machine and notify the supervisor if the machine needed adjusting. The young man did his job well. He would call the supervisor if an adjustment was needed.

However, as he watched the supervisor, he began to understand how the machine worked. One day, while the supervisor was on the phone, the young man noticed the machine needed an adjustment. He thought to himself, my boss is busy, I can make this adjustment, and so he did. 

Within seconds, the machine began to shake, smoke, and then destroy the parts it was fashioning. Alarms went off and the machine shut down. The supervisor came running up and said, what did you do? The young man said, “I did what I thought was right because you were on your cell phone.

Did the young man do right? Did he think he was doing right? It does not matter if we think we are right when what we do is wrong.

Our current fallen situation is because humanity was tempted to have the power of God to decide what was right and wrong.

When what we do is what we think is right can lead us into the worst kind of wrongs.

So much of being religious is about pride. Grace is about humility. Pride focuses on what the self can do, grace is about understanding what Jesus has done. Pride focuses on what we think we know. Grace focuses on our being known by a God who knows us and loves us anyway. Pride judges, grace embraces.

Pride and religiousness focus on our means. Grace depends on Jesus’s mercy. Mercy is Jesus entering into our chaos, our darkness so that we can see God’s light. 

Now here is the key, the main way to avoid becoming too religious. It is found in verse 15, “This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”– and I’m the biggest sinner of all.”

Here we need to be careful not to let the darkness keep us in ignorance. Paul says Jesus came to save sinners. The word for save is a word indicating an ongoing event, a process. It is not something we do, but something we need to let Jesus do. It is not a singular act, not an imagined ritual, but an action in which our lives can be restored to what God wants and longs for rather than what we think God wants and desires. 

Paul says he is an example. Ultimately, we all are going to be examples.  Either we will be examples of grace, mercy, and love or examples of ignorance, arrogance, and stubbornness.  What kind of example do you want to be?

In order to be saved, we must let God be God. We must Jesus become more important to us than our desires, and we must let the Holy Spirit convict, convince, cleanse, convert and create in us a relationship of humility and love to take the place of the darkness, distance, and deception that comes when we think we are right. 

There is a prayer that helps me. Perhaps it can help you as well. It is the Serenity prayer. Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.