“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to Saint Timothy. Dear friends in Christ, imagine that you are in prison. Now this prison is filled with hardened criminals, each one of them, including you, condemned to death. Let me repeat: every prisoner in that building is on death row. But there is one that is worse than others. One of the prisoners is a heinous criminal, who has committed unspeakable acts. Everyone in that prison knows who he is; everyone knows what he has done, and there is no question that of all the many prisoners in that place, he is most deserving of death. You may be condemned to death, but you know that when the warden starts carrying out those sentences, that man will be first in line. Now imagine that the governor sets forth a proclamation that every person in that prison has been set free; he has pardoned everyone. The rumor of this pardon has come into the prison: will you believe it? It seems too good to be true. And so all eyes turn to the high security cell, where that worst of criminals is kept. If he is set free, then you can know with confidence that the governor’s proclamation is true; if you watch him leave a free man, you will rejoice that you are now free, too.
That worst of prisoners has a name: Paul. His crimes? Persecution and blasphemy of God Himself, the governor who proclaimed pardon. This governor came in the flesh to win pardon and Paul refused to recognize Him. He knew of Jesus, and he rejected Him. Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I AM?” The whole world is confronted with this question, you, me, and even Paul, and he gave this answer: “You are a false teacher.” And so Paul persecuted the Church; he raged in violence against those who with Peter gave the right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He threw Jesus’ followers in prison, he made their lives miserable. He sought them out and disrupted their gatherings. He even supervised the stoning of Stephen, holding the murderer’s cloaks. It wasn’t enough for him to simply say, “You’re wrong,” he had to persecute them, he set himself to stamp out this heresy once and for all, to eliminate the Church just as the Sanhedrin had eliminated Jesus.
Throughout His life, this Jesus made many powerful declarations of His identity, saying, “I AM the light of the world, I AM the bread of life, I AM the Good Shepherd.” Now in prison, Paul has an ‘I am’ statement of his own: “I am the foremost.” The foremost what? The foremost sinner. Paul had all the human righteousness a man could have, he followed the Law to the letter, he was a Pharisee of Pharisees. His righteous life was undeniable, an example to follow. But his righteous life couldn’t save him from prison, for he rejected Jesus, the very Son of God, he even persecuted His Church, he gave the wrong answer to Christ’s vital question, “Who do you say that I AM?” And for that he is condemned, for that he says of himself, “I am the foremost.”
If there is anyone in that prison who doesn’t deserve pardon, it’s Paul. He is lost, estranged from his Creator. But before we look down on our fellow prisoner, a little self-examination is in order. Paul may call himself the foremost sinner, he may be in the high-security cell, but remember, you are under the same condemnation as him. You, too, are under the sentence of death. Paul at least obeyed the Law to the letter, he was careful to follow all that the Lord set forth. How are you doing with that? Take a trip through the Ten Commandments and examine your life, as you should do each and every day. And don’t just look at the outward meaning; go with Jesus to the heart of the commandments. Haven’t killed anyone lately? How about hatred? Haven’t slept with someone who isn’t your spouse? What about lust? Have you hurt your neighbor’s reputation; do you gladly hear God’s Word? Or the big one: what kind of gods have you made for yourself? Why are you in the prison in the first place? You have been condemned to death because you have violated God’s Law in every way. You were conceived with the sin of your parents, and you have added to your bill ever since. Sinning isn’t a competition, God doesn’t grade on a curve; you aren’t better off because someone else seems worse than you.
You can only draw one conclusion: maybe Paul was a bit hasty in calling himself the foremost sinner. It seems like we may have a claim to that title. I am the foremost sinner, and so are you. We confessed it once again this morning as we began this service. If sinning is a competition, then it’s a strange one, because we’re all in first place; we all deserve the prize of everlasting death. Each one of us is the sheep that went astray, the coin that was lost; not one of us is righteous, no not one.
And so the governor’s proclamation of pardon has filled our prison with nervous hope. You wonder if this message of grace and mercy could possibly be true. How could you be pardoned, how could you be delivered from the sentence of death? You know who you are, you know what you’ve done, and you know that you deserve this prison, this condemnation that has been placed upon you. But then you watch the doors of the high security cell open and that hardened criminal, that worst of vile offenders, Paul himself, is set free. He has been pardoned, he has been released; the man who called himself the foremost sinner has been delivered from his condemnation! How could this happen? Paul himself, that foremost sinner, tells us in our text. “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus showed Paul mercy; He sought out His lost sheep and carried him home upon His shoulders. More than that, Jesus even makes Paul a minister of the Gospel, appointing him to proclaim the message of freedom to the rest of the prisoners condemned to death. When the prisoner is put into a palace, when he receives such a mission, there can be no doubt that he has received undeserved mercy. Paul had nothing to do with it; it is all Jesus. See who’s running the verbs in our text: it’s all Jesus! Jesus gives Paul strength, Jesus judges him faithful, Jesus appoints him to this service, Jesus shows mercy, and more than mercy: grace, faith, and love. Paul hasn’t just been spared from punishment, he has been given every good gift! His cup overflows with faith and love; he now has an eternal treasure in place of his chains, life in place of death, freedom forever in the halls of heaven!
Paul is sent to the other prisoners, you and me, with a message of hope and freedom, mercy and grace: “Because Christ has saved me, let no one doubt their salvation.” “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Jesus did everything: He came, He saved, and now He displays Paul, He shows him forth as the greatest example of grace and love. If Jesus can save Paul, if He can seek out and find that lost sheep, then He can save you, me, and all people. Why? Because Christ died for all people, He died for all sins. Jesus made himself the worst of sinners; He said to the Father on Good Friday: “I AM the foremost sinner.” And He was, for on that day He carried the weight of the world’s sin upon Himself and bore it to the cross. There is not a single sin that Jesus did not die for; while many may reject His forgiveness, there is not a single sinner outside of His grace. Jesus made himself sin for us, and He nailed that sin to the cross. There He died in your place, in Paul’s place. He died the death that everyone in the prison was condemned to die, and with your penalty paid for, you are set free.
Jesus walked out of that tomb victorious over death to seek lost sheep, to open the doors of our prison and set us all free. His open tomb means an open prison and an open heaven. He left that open tomb to seek out Paul and He found him, creating faith within him on the Damascus road, making him an apostle to carry that message of release to the nations. He left that open tomb to seek out you and He found you, in no less dramatic fashion, creating faith within you through the proclamation of His powerful Word and the washing of Holy Baptism. He is the Good Shepherd who seeks out His lost sheep, and He sought out you and showed you mercy, He spared you from death. But more than that, your cup runs over with grace and favor; you have been given an eternal treasure. Take heart; if Jesus can save Paul, that hardened persecutor of the Church, He can save you, and he has saved you, carrying you upon His shoulders back to the Father’s house.
There the rejoicing will have no end, as Jesus Himself says: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Joy is the reaction in heaven and on earth to the found sheep, the found coin, the found Paul, and the found you. That is one of the reasons that we gather here every Sunday morning: to rejoice that Christ seeks out His lost sheep, to rejoice that He has found you and me. Paul can’t contain his joy; having spoken of God’s great grace shown to him, the foremost sinner, he gives a doxology: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” God was glorified when Christ put Himself in the place of sinners and bore their penalty even to death; God is glorified when this same Jesus goes out to find lost sinners and bring them back to their Creator. The doors of our cells clang open and we are set free; as we said in the Introit, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” In the Name of the One who said of Himself “I AM the foremost sinner” so that He could stand in our place for our salvation, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.