A Sermon preached at Church of the Ascension of May 15, 2013
Years ago, I read a book with the title They Like Jesus butNot the Church. The book chronicled the attitudes of the unchurched towards organized religion and the church in particular. The predominant feelings towards the church, even among those with an openness to Jesus, was suspicion and distrust. I’m sure you all know people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Maybe you are one of them. There is no doubt that a lot of this wariness and disillusionment is entirely justified.
One doesn’t have to dig very far to find reasons not to like the Church, the unending in-fighting and lawsuits, the hypocrisy, the dishonesty, and even the horrid corruption of sexual abuse.
Many sincere and morally minded people have concluded that they would rather not be involved with the church. After all isn’t it just as possible to connect with God by reading your Bible in your home or on a Sunday morning nature hike? Such people say, “My faith is a personal relationship not a religion.”
I want to be clear, I believe that having a personal and heart felt relationship with Jesus Christ is essential, but the Lord also wants us to have a corporate relationship with his Church. Jesus loves the church, despite her many failings as his very own bride. Saint Peter writes, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.(1 Peter 2:9 ESV)
The Church has a very special role in God’s plan of salvation. Our Epistle reading today describes it as, “the pillar and buttress of the truth.”
Scholars have often described the Pastoral Letters—1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus—somewhat negatively as the domestication of the radical movement of the Early Church. They say that the message takes a shift from the radical, world-changing, message of Paul’s early ministry to more conservative and institutionally focused concerns.
In some ways they are right. There is a shift taking place. The age of the Apostles is coming to an end. The Apostle Paul wants to assure that the Church he has labored so hard to establish is preserved and the Gospel that was entrusted to him is defended from the encroaching threat of false teachers. It is imperative that the Church be left in the hands faithful leaders of godly character.
Those entrusted for the care of God’s people, as shepherds of the flock, are called epískopos which means overseer or guardian. It is also where we get the word Bishop. However, the office isn’t exactly the same as that of bishop as we would understand it today.
In the New Testament the offices of episkopos and presbyter-- which means pastor, priest or elder—were basically synonymous. It isn’t until the following generations that we see the three fold ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons securely in place.
The office of bishop, as we understand it today, has more to do with continuing the role of the Apostles. The Apostles, appointed leaders, such as Timothy, as their heirs and charged them with the ordination of leaders and the defense of the gospel.
It is to that end that Paul instructs Timothy that, those who aspire to the office of overseer desire a noble task. Because of the awesome responsibility involved in being a pastor, It is essential that those ordained to this role be people of character who will not bring reproach upon the church.
There was a video making the rounds on Facebook of a school bus of children from my home town, acting absolutely appallingly. Somebody happened to capture the scene on their cell phone. It gets so bad that the police need to intervene! Needless to say it has caused a bit of a scandal. Whenever kids act up in this way the most natural response is to ask, “what is wrong with these parents?!” Parents are responsible for setting an example for their children, disciplining them if needed, and teaching them the appropriate way to behave. When parents do not have a strong character themselves, its absence in their children isn’t too surprising.
In the same way, pastors are to set an example for the church through their manner of life. They must not only be competent teachers, but also must be people not easily overcome with vice. They must be generous, self-controlled and faithful to their spouses.
It is important that they manage the affairs of their own house well, not only for the sake of their reputation, but also as proof of their competency to lead the church.
The home has been described as the “domestic church.” Any life of virtue and devotion has to begin with one’s own family and loved ones. It is often far easier to maintain your virtue with strangers!
It is also important that a pastor be someone who is mature and experienced in their faith. One must learn the humility of being a follower and a student, before one is ready to be a leader and teacher. It is all too easy to allow a quick rise in status to go to one’s head. Those in positions of power and authority need to always be on guard that they not be consumed with pride.
Paul then turns his attention to the qualifications for diakonos and diakonissa, what we would refer to as deacons. There is some debate whether diakonissa refers to a female deacon or the wife of a deacon. The context seems to suggest that these are indeed female deacons or deaconesses that are being referred to. Paul is talking about the qualifications for leaders, it would seem odd that he would shift gears to talk about the deacon’s wives especially since he did not do so for the role of overseer (bishop). There is also a president for female deacons in phoebe who Paul refers to in Romans 16:1-2.
The title deacon comes from a common Greek word referring to a minister or someone who serves, especially at table. The qualifications for those ordained as deacon are very similar to those of overseer. They are to be people of virtue and self-control and must be mature in the faith having been tested. They are to be people of clear conscience who cling to the “mystery of faith.”
What is meant by this enigmatic expression? Paul uses a similar phrase a few verses later, declaring, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness.” The term mystery was a common expression in religious life of the Greco-Roman world used to refer to secret esoteric knowledge revealed to a select inner-circle. Mystery cults were committed to keeping this knowledge a secret and withholding it from outsiders.
Paul turns this concept inside out. The mystery of godliness, “the mystery hidden from ages past but now revealed to the saints,” is what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin refers to as an “Open Secret.” Open in the sense of being declared to the nations, but secret in the sense of being manifest only to the eyes of faith. The content of this open secret is God’s surprising and unexpected work of salvation in Jesus Christ and the community that declares his name,
“He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
This short phrase, perhaps taken from a hymn, is meant as a summary of the gospel proclaimed by the Apostles and entrusted to the church. The Church is called to be a steward of this mystery, upholding the gospel and declaring it to all the world.
As the bride of Christ united to him as one flesh, the church herself is a mystery, declaring God’s plan to unite all things in Christ. Although she is broken and sinful she is simultaneously righteous in Christ who sanctifies her through the washing of water and the word (Ephesians 5:26).
Sinful, human, leaders often fail the church and fail to honor the nobility of their office. Many are wolves in shepherd’s clothing. Christ, however, has promised never to leave nor forsake his Church. He is with us even to the end of the age. He himself is our High-Priest, the shepherd and overseer of our souls, and our exalted king who comes to us as one who serves.
How exceedingly wonderful and precious are the riches and glory of this mystery revealed by faith which is Christ in you, the hope of glory!