Let’s turn to God’s word. So, we are looking at 1 Timothy chapter 3 and verses 14 to 16.
Paul is writing to Timothy and he says,
So, in the first part of this letter, just to catch us up, Paul has been giving various instructions to the church in Ephesus displaying at times a concern for the direction that this church has taken.
There are some worrying things happening with false teachers and things like that and this is also shown here, in this passage, in his desire to visit them as soon as possible. He’s concerned enough that he feels a trip is in order.
In the meantime, they should consult this letter if they want to remain on ‘the straight and narrow’.
We should not lay all the emphasis of the situation on this specific church because, what Paul is writing here applies to the church across the ages and I guess that includes us.
The passage we have before us this morning reminds us of this fact in no uncertain terms because it shows us that grounding all the specific instructions Paul is giving to Timothy, there is a stable and universal foundation.
For Paul the church was not something that was being built on his own expertise and unique gifting and calling even.
If that had been the case, then the most important thing would have been his advice and his physical presence.
Paul knew however, that the church was being built on something far more powerful and the key lies in one word from verse 15.
There we read that the church is ‘the church of what?’ ‘Of the living God’. The living God. It may be just one word but it’s the word that makes all the difference.
You see, there have been many gods who have taken their place on the stage of history, at the heart of the life of the church, however there is a living God who has entered our lives and, if this is true, then everything else starts making sense and falling into place.
For the first 40 years of his life Leo Tolstoy didn’t really concern himself with matters of faith. He was already very famous and very wealthy and set in his ideas, when he began to think through these ideas seriously, talking about, thinking about God and faith. And, in his book A Confession, he retells the journey of how he moved from this starting point of complete indifference to Christianity, to belief in Christ.
Now, obviously, the whole work of work is worth reading but for now I just want to note one key idea that emerges from the narrative that I think helps us here.
Tolstoy writes that the only religion that he followed up to that point had been the religion of progress. For him, the only thing worth believing in was the inevitability of human betterment through scientific discovery and increasing knowledge. This was the way to a brighter future, or so he thought.
He came to a point however, where he realized that all the people around him who believed in this idea of progress had literally no idea where it was taking them. And this remained with him as he observed that every time the question of ‘how we should live’ was raised, the answer was always: ‘Well, obviously, according to the latest developments’, whatever those may be.
This got him thinking about how death frustrates everything, all our plans and progress, and projects; and how, suddenly, all his achievements, his wealth, even the family that he had built, ceased to have any kind of meaning for him.
Just like that, he lost his appetite for life. And he writes that he remembered how Socrates had said that the destruction of life is a blessing, how Schopenhauer, another philosopher, wrote that the passing into nothingness is the only good thing that will ever happen to us, and how the Buddha had said that our main responsibility in life is to be set free from it. And so, he realized that this is where the wisdom of the world takes us.
He even reached the point of having to hide all the ropes in his house so that he wouldn’t succumb to the temptation of taking his own life.
What Tolstoy had understood is that the greatest challenge in life is not how to improve it but how to make it possible at all; how to face up to life itself. And this is what he wrote as his conclusion:
“One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is. There is nothing either amusing or witty about it. It is simply cruel and stupid.“
We may not have reached this point of considering life a mere fraud but all of us have experienced to some degree this feeling of desolation that he is describing here; of wanting to enjoy life but not being able to.
In Greece, one of the anarchist slogans that you often find written on the walls of the city is:
‘I look forward to the resurrection of the living.’
It’s a play on the words obviously from the Nicene Creed which says:
‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead.’
But what they are pointing out here is that death is not the only challenge that life offers us. Life itself is an equally big challenge.
We feel this challenge when we experience deep loneliness for example, even while surrounded sometimes by loving relationships, and we wonder ‘who is missing?’ And how will we feel when one day they knock on our door. We feel it when we experience a sense of being ‘spiritual orphans’ and we wonder ‘who is the parent we are trying to reconnect with?’ We feel it when we experience this world as aliens even in our own body and we wonder where our true home really lies.
This then is our subject this morning, nothing less than life itself. And if we turn to our passage, we see that, for Paul, godliness and life are two interrelated realities.
Godliness and life. And, of course, this immediately presents us with a problem. Because as soon as we hear the word ‘godliness’ our first instinct is what? To turn up our noses.
In the Greek, it is the same word that is often translated elsewhere as ‘piety’ and both these words, godliness and piety, have broadly negative connotations in our culture today; they take us back to an age where religion supposedly played a repressive and limiting role in people’s lives.
Who remembers the expression ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’? Yes, something you tell small children in a very scalding way. It all seems rather sterilized, strict, and old-fashioned, doesn’t it, this word ‘godliness’?
If we take verses 15 and 16 together however, what is ‘godliness’ according to the apostle Paul in the Bible? It is something very different. It is connection with the living God.
Godly living, far from being a kind of sterilized, fearful existence, is something closer to a sacred intoxication, a sacred intoxication.
Through godliness, your soul is stimulated and brought back to life.
Godliness therefore is not ‘instructions on how you’re supposed to live’, it’s the way we live once we have found, in Tolstoy’s words, ‘that without which there can be no life‘.
You are not just searching for a notion of God, Tolstoy tells us, you are searching for the irresistible pull of life itself, the pull which having felt it once in your soul, you know you cannot live without.
And this is what happens, Paul tells us, when we encounter the person of Jesus Christ. The whole of verse 16 is conveying this one simple, all-encompassing truth to us. He is the mystery of godliness which is now being revealed to the world.