Sunday

Quiet, Peaceable, Godly & Dignified

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
—1 Tim. 2:1-2
Introduction: Compromising Situations

We live in a toxic atmosphere. I’m not talking about air pollution or water pollution—though that may be true, too. I’m talking about something else. Our attitudes toward those we don’t agree with are so negative, so bitter, so poisoned with prejudice, that I’m beginning to wonder what our future is. Seeing both sides of an issue is now seen as a weakness, while refusal to compromise is the ultimate strength. Sometimes I wonder if this was what this country was like in the lead-up to the Civil War.

One of the real problems with the current state of affairs is not that it exists—that’s bad enough—but the rôle of Christians in creating it and making it worse. Looking on at the rancor, you’d think that we Christians had a religious mandate to stand up for our beliefs to the point of refusing to be in dialogue with those on the other side of an issue. When we ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” in any given situation, doesn’t it require that we never be wishy-washy, and that we not tolerate compromise?

Now that’s an interesting question. Jesus himself seems to be quite uncompromising. The most condensed and easy-to-read section of any of the four gospels in which is discussed how Jesus’ followers should act in the world is found early in Matthew’s gospel, and we have come to call it the Sermon on the Mount. There’s not much bargaining here. The Christian response to any situation is uncompromising righteousness and unstinting justice—often at our own expense. It’s not just that we’re not allowed to commit murder—that goes without saying—but we’re not even allowed to insult others, because in the eyes of God, it’s the same thing. It’s not just that we’re forbidden from unfaithfulness to a spouse, we’re not even allowed to entertain thoughts of it. Not only are we told not to take revenge, but we’re told to go the extra step when somebody hurts us by turning the other cheek. Be perfect because God is perfect. [1]

I. Giving to Caesar

But please note here that all the examples I just quoted talk about self-control. They’re not intended to be a blueprint for good governance. God may require them of us. We might even be able to require them of each other within the church. But we cannot require them of the nation. Quite the opposite, in fact. For in that same sermon, Jesus also tells us not to judge. He’s just gone to a lot of trouble to tell us what it takes to "look good" in God’s eyes. We’re not to hold outsiders to an ideal that we ourselves don’t live up to.

A little book I like to use in my own devotional life puts it beautifully in a prayer of personal confession: My failure to be true even to my own accepted standards; my self deception in the face of temptation; my choosing of the worse when I know the better: O Lord, forgive. [2]

Judging the world, then, according to Christian standards—insisting that a nation follow the commandments of Christ—will only succeed at one thing. And that is revealing ourselves as hypocrites. The fact that we are to deal with government on its own terms is borne out by Jesus on several occasions. Most famously when he was asked about taxation. Taxation was much more of an issue of justice for people in those days, because they weren’t being asked to pay it to a democratically elected government to maintain basic services, but to pay it to an occupying military force who was extorting it out of them so that they were in essence footing the bill for their own oppression.

We shouldn’t, therefore, take Jesus’ response lightly: Give the government its due—that is, taxes—but give to God what belongs to God—the implication being our whole lives. [3] I'm not saying we should not vote our conscience on such issues as taxation, or even that we cannot speak out either for or against such an issue. I'm just saying that we cannot pretend that people who disagree with us on political issues aren't proper Christians. When Jesus contrasted the things that belonged to the emperor with the things that belonged to God, it was obvious that he meant that a coin with a monarch's head on it, or a bill with a president's face on it, are not theological matters, and therefore our lives matter more than our stance on taxation. And Jesus backed this up on the cross: He handed himself over to a corrupt government which was willing to execute an innocent man, in order that he might give his life to God on our behalf.

II. Praying for Our Enemies

Enter First Timothy.

Let me start off my discussion of today’s text by saying something I am loath to say. The first verse of this letter makes the claim that it’s written by Paul. And it does address issues that Paul might’ve address. And it doesn’t contradict Paul’s teachings. But the style and the language used in it are very different from what we see in the letters that are indisputably written by Paul. And so it’s possible—maybe even probable—that this letter was written in the spirit of Paul by one who was loyal to Paul, but not Paul himself. [4]

But it says it’s by Paul, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I from time to time use the expression, “Paul says…” or “Paul writes…” from time to time.

One of the most important things we read in 1 Timothy he says at the opening of the second chapter. Remember, if it was Paul, this is being written by a man whom the Roman authorities have imprisoned more than once for his beliefs. If it’s written by a friend loyal to Paul, it’s being written after Paul has been put to death by the Roman authorities because of his beliefs. But far from reading an anti-government rant, Paul—or Paul’s successor—tells Christians to pray for all people in general and for monarchs and those in positions of authority in particular.

So just as Jesus encourages his followers to pay their taxes to an authority they might not like, Paul tells us to pray for authorities we might disagree with. This is very much in keeping with Jesus himself, who acknowledged the natural human tendency to love our friends and hate our enemies; but then told us that we were to overcome this tendency by loving both our friends and enemies, and even to pray for our persecutors. [5] Jesus says that this is so we can be counted among God’s children, for God blesses everyone with the common blessings of sunshine and rain. [6]

If Jesus and his earliest followers were able to act with kindness and love toward an empire that in the best of times extorted money out of them, and at the worst of times imprisoned and killed them, then I don’t believe it’s too far-fetched for us to believe that we should pray for our democratically elected government. Instead of demonizing those we have honest disagreements with, our religion requires that we humanize them. It’s in the Bible.

III. S.P.I.T.

There are specifically four kinds of prayer mentioned by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:1. I don’t think this was intended to be an exhaustive list of the kinds of prayer, and I don’t believe that the order in which they were mentioned is part of the essence of what we’re to believe about prayer. The point being made is that there are all kinds of prayer, and that we’re to use all of them.

One of the interesting things about this list (and its order) in our translation is that Supplications, Prayers, Intercessions, and Thanksgiving create the acronym S.P.I.T. Early in the week, I entertained the idea using some form of the word spit in my sermon title. Something like Spit It Out to God! or Prayer: You’re Not Spitting into the Wind! …but decided against it (I hope the reasons are relatively obvious).
But I did choose our hymns based on the four different types of prayer mentioned.
  • Our first hymn was an example of the P in S.P.I.T. Come, Thou Almighty King is a prayer—specifically a majestic prayer for God’s presence with us as we being our worship.
  • The Navy Hymn which we sang between the two scripture readings is actually a very beautiful intercessory prayer (the I in S.P.I.T.), each stanza addressing God in a different way (“Eternal Father, strong to save…” “O Savior, whose almighty word…” “O Holy Spirit, who did brood upon the chaos wild and rude…” and finally, “O Trinity of love and power…”). And each of the first three stanzas ends in a particular intercession: “Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”
  • The first letter of S.P.I.T. stands for supplication, a particularly humble prayer. And we’ll sing such a prayer after the sermon and as a benediction response, for the hymn God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me acknowledges a deep need that we need God to fill.
  • And finally, the T, which stands for thanksgiving. For that, we’ll sing the fun German hymn Thank You, which we originally did back in April. Though its tone is lighthearted, its theology is sound, giving thanks to God for just about everything, and closing by thanking God for the impulse even to give thanks.
Depending on what’s going on in our lives or in the world around us, there is an endless variety of the kinds of prayers we can lift up to God—not just for ourselves and those we hold dear, but for everyone, especially those in authority.

A bit of practical advice: I know that not all of us are particularly good at praying. But one thing about prayer is that there’s not just one kind of prayer and there’s not just one way of praying. I recommend praying the psalms, because they help teach us to pray. But I also recommend praying our mood, for it reflects our own spiritual state. And if we do this, we’ll also probably discover that we are better at some kinds of prayer than at others. This is okay. For as you are giving thanks for a particular person, there is probably somebody else out there praying that that same person will have a change of heart. No matter who you are, the church has you covered.

Conclusion: A Question of Integrity

To me, when we pray for others, we’re doing more than just letting God know what we think they need. Just as importantly (and maybe more importantly) we’re changing our own attitude towards them. I read a book not too long ago that helped me understand how we can love our enemies when I thought it should be the case that Christians have no enemies. It’s a twelfth century classic called Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx. In it the medieval monk explains that we are to love everyone, but that to have friends is a special blessing; and that it’s okay to differentiate between those we love because they are human beings created in God’s Image, and those with whom we share the blessing of friendship.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors, and this latter commandment is repeated by Paul in his first letter to Timothy. We may have friends, brothers, and sisters in the church for whom we know we ought to pray (and probably do so automatically). But we must also pray for those outside the church. For their sake and for ours. For in doing so, we call God’s blessing upon them and call upon God’s power to change them. And we also place them in our own minds as somebody worth praying for. This gives integrity both them and to us.

The church should pray for everyone’s well-being, because no one is outside the church’s love. “The young Christian movement was not an anarchistic revolution, but was concerned rather to be a positive force in and for society.” [7] Part of the reason for this is somewhat self-serving. To show love and concern for authorities who have no love or concern for us gives us some degree of protection from their wrath. It’s not a guarantee that Christians won’t be persecuted. But at least it’s a way of not drawing attention to the revolutionary nature of the Christian gospel.

Some might see this as compromising the church’s principles. But that’s not fair at all. We might live in a society where our voice is heard, and where we can peacefully speak and gather and vote. First century Christians had no such bill of rights to protect them. They simply wished to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” A change in government wouldn’t have brought about the kingdom of God back then.

Nor will it today. When we equate our own political beliefs with God’s kingdom, it’s a false equivalency. There are devout Christians who have very different politics from my own, and some of them hold public office. It may certainly be the case from time to time that I must exchange my own peace and quiet for standing up for what I believe in. But when I exchange my peace and quiet for something that is not the gospel, then I have also given up my godliness and dignity.

In the end, I don’t believe God smiles on me when I dehumanize a Republican because I am a Democrat, or a Democrat because I am a Republican. Nor do I think I have a God-given right to judge everyone who is not like me. 1 Timothy 2:3 tells us that God wants all people to experience God’s wholeness. If there is anyone who is beyond God’s love, then it’s not up to us to decide who that is. Praying for everyone helps us to love everyone. And loving everyone reminds us to pray for them.

In the end, it’s a question of integrity. As a Christian, do I have more integrity when I spew forth vitriol against the person I disagree with, or do I have more integrity when I give thanks for them, when I pray for their needs, and when I pray for my own needs in light of their actions?

We are to pray for them for their own sake certainly, but here in 1 Timothy we are specifically called upon to pray for rulers and all who are in positions of authority, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. For the sake of our own dignity, then, let us be kindly toward others.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
NOTES
  1. Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 38-39, 48. 
  2. John Bailley, A Diary of Private Prayer (New York: Scribner, 1949), second day: evening. 
  3. Matthew 22:15-21; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-25. 
  4. For further discussion of this issue as regards this biblical book, see James D.G. Dunn, The First Letter to Timothy, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), pp. 770-772. 
  5. For further discussion of how this might work as a practical matter, see my sermon of 28 August 2016, Not Mere Angels, section I. 
  6. Another reference to the Sermon on the Mount, this time from Matthew 5:43-44. Matthew 5:45. For an excellent overview of how and why God cares for those who believe in as well as those who reject God, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book One, Chapter 16, and Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, Chapter 11. 
  7. Dunn, p. 797.

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