The Purpose of Evangelism
Scripture: 1 Timothy 2: 1-7
Today, I’d love to talk about a word that I have trouble pronouncing: pseudepigraphic. Pseudepigraphic simply means that one author is writing under the name of another, often done for a very particular purpose. Our scripture today from 1 Timothy claims to be from Paul, but far more likely it is… pseudepigraphic. Paul the Apostle was actively writing around the mid 50’s to mid 60’s CE, before being executed by Rome in 67. 1 Timothy was likely written around 130 CE, some 70 years after Paul would have been able to write it. So why attribute this to Paul? It seems like we have a falsified letter, something that some random person made up to convince us of their own selfish thoughts on Christianity, and frankly we shouldn’t trust it. But that would be to fall into the same trap that plagued early church historians, who, like when we talked about the book of Hebrews, felt they had to know that the author himself was a reputable Christian in order to allow it into the canon. It was this insistence that authors be known, that caused the anonymous letter to the Hebrews to be probably falsely attributed to Paul, and was again a major question when resolving the acceptance of 1 Timothy. But was this author simply trying to pass themself off as Paul and trick these early Christian leaders, or was something more benign happening?
Here’s a more modern example of pseudepigrapha that might put this in perspective. Whether we still get a physical copy of the newspaper or not, most of us are likely familiar with the immensely popular advice column “Dear Abby.” Dear Abby is a simple column where the author, who was originally Pauline Phillips, responds to questions that readers have, often with sassy commentary mixed with the real-world practical advice, and in fact it is still featured in several papers and online. Of course, Abigail Van Buren, who purportedly wrote these snippets of wisdom, is not a real person, but a pen name. And Pauline Phillips is no longer the author behind that name, but Dear Abby lives on through the writing of her daughter. If her daughter had used her real name, you could imagine that readers would be a bit confused. The voice which had been so carefully cultivated over several decades would cease, and the weighty history of earnest advice and saucy language would be lost. The new author would be locked out of that history, and would lose the connections and subtle allusions back to older posts, limiting what could be said, and certainly lessening the impact that the advice guru had spent so long building amongst fans. Is it so wrong, then, that Dear Abby continues on, in spite of the death of the original author? Or is it simply a choice, something that was done intentionally not for just financial gain, but for exploring intentional connections to an earlier era where the internet didn’t offer every possible solution for any potential problem? That is so often what those writing to advice columns are seeking – not a specific solution, but to know that a real person has read their need and sees them as a human. The pseudonym here, then, serves to connect readers to something important that would be lost without that particular name.
Likewise, according to modern scholarship, this letter is very likely not from Paul, but that does not decrease its importance. In fact, it may offer us insights that would be lost were the actual author to use their real name. Ultimately, what I believe this author is saying, previously because of their decision to write pseudepigraphically, is tied to both today’s baptisms and the central message of Christianity itself. And that message is to spread the gospel by living it.
Now, any letter naming both Paul to Timothy would help readers remember another known letter involving the two – Philemon, which is pretty convincingly Paul’s own writing. Paul, along with traveling companion and co-author Timothy, writes to a Bishop in Colosse named Philemon, about a possible escaped slave (or at least, someone estranged from the intimate house church Philemon presided over). The purpose of Paul and Timothy’s letter to Philemon is the reconciliation of two people who were at wildly different social positions – a good, upstanding, wealthy Christian leader and an escaped slave, who possibly stole money from the church and was imprisoned. This is not insignificant, and this very same question arises in 1 Timothy – who ought to be reconciled?
Remember, 1 Timothy is written around 130, as evidenced by other ancient writings. That places it at the foot of the Third Jewish-Roman War, with the first coming right before Paul’s death and the second occurring about 15 years before this letter. Outside of these wars, the Roman caesars were not exactly favorable to Christians or Jews. In fact, Nero, who was the Roman emperor while Paul was active, blamed a massive and devastating fire in Rome on Christians, and ultimately was responsible for a pervasive sense of hatred against Christians. Known for his tyrannical ways and his liberal use of murder as a political tool, Nero is the source of many seemingly-fantastical stories of gruesome treatments of Christians – feeding them to lions, setting them on fire to use as nightlights, and beginning the First Jewish-Roman War. It was during this war, ultimately under the command of future Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus that Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Ultimately, after the Third war, the Jews were even barred from entering the city of Jerusalem, and Christians were lumped in with them by the Roman state. It was in the aftermath of this cataclysmic event that Jews and Christians began a more rapid and permanent sense of separation and difference.
Until then, however, what happened to the Jews also happened to the Christians – Christians were considered a fringe group related to the Jews by the Romans. And so, with all this destruction, the world to Christians and Jews is once again uncertain in the face of a vast massacre and there is not a particularly hopeful sense that anything is going to improve. The author of 1 Timothy, then, by invoking Paul – who himself was already a martyr, killed by Rome – offers an immediate reminder of the response of the Church to that first wave of destruction they faced under Nero. In spite of persecution, Paul was all about no more divisions, no more separation, all being welcomed into the Christian life and Body, even as their oppression of Christians led to his death, and nowhere would that be more obvious that in his and Timothy’s co-letter to Philemon. By writing as Paul and invoking Timothy, we immediately are being asked to remember that the Romans are included in this, even Nero and Vespasian and Herod and Titus, in God’s plan for a renewal and resurrection of all things.
The beginning of 1 Timothy states that the letter is all about preventing heresy and ensuring that readers see the correct doctrine. And after a lengthy introduction where the author makes it very apparent that his goal is the correct teaching of Jesus, immediately after that we find our Scripture for today. Correct doctrine, according to the author of 1 Timothy involves a three part process: It begins with recognizing God as king and is followed by praying for earthly kings even while those earthly kings are in direct conflict with God.
So how do we justify praising God as King and praying for kings who do not recognize God? Is it that A): prayer will change them, allowing us to live in peace (they’ll be changed enough to avoid conflict and continued oppression/murder) or B) that prayer for all – especially our enemies – is the very heart of the Gospel?
Praying for kings, as they murder Christians and make a martyr of Paul, and as they undermine religion in general, is so much more unsettling and impossibly hard, than simply being willing to pray now for a person you didn’t vote for. Praying for kings stood against everything those early Christians stood for – physical safety, the ability to worship God, and the chance to spread the Gospel. And yet, this is apparently ‘right doctrine.’ Perhaps that doctrine is taking seriously the command of Jesus to love our enemies, which leads Stanley Hauerwas to say, “The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount (including the call to love our enemy) is not what works, but rather who God is.”
If we take seriously verses 4 and 6, which remind us that God desires that ALL people be reconciled, and we hold in mind that allusion to Paul’s earlier care for restoring the relationship between the runaway slave thief and the wealthy bishop Philemon, we are left with an understanding of the Gospel which commands us to be evangelists, no matter who is listening. Evangelism can be one of the most terrifying words in a church, so let me explain a bit more. There is a difference between evangelism and proselytism. Imagine there’s two groups of people on either side of a giant wall. Proselytism is sneaking over to the other side and forcibly launching people back over. Evangelism is the process of tearing down that wall.
You find proselytism in street corner preachers who yell at passersby about hell and damnation. You find proselytism in threatening tracts being left in public places, or worse, tracts that are meant to look like money but on the back feature a “how-to” guide for getting on the right side of God’s judgement. Proselytism is scary because it is confrontational, a way of saying ‘I am right, you are wrong, you must bend to my will.’ Similarly, proselytism can appear invitational and friendly, but is far from the Gospel when done for the wrong reasons, like trying to build church membership because we’re scared we won’t be able to pay all the bills each month.
Evangelism, however, is the at the heart of the Gospel. What is the Gospel itself? That Christ came, the Christ died, and the Christ was resurrected. That new life comes from death. Evangelism is nothing more than the living out of this belief. Because if this is something we truly believe, we can’t help but be changed by it. If death is nothing to fear, if the brokenness around us, whether it is in politics, culture, our families, our relationships, or even brokenness within ourselves, can be given new life and resurrected, our actions and our prayers and our behaviors will not be the same.
Division cannot exist in the face of the Gospel. Death exists by separating us, brokenness is the reflection of things that are no longer joined together. Two people fighting and estranged, two people scared of one another because of skin color, two people who won’t make eye contact because of the gap in how much they each earn, two people arguing about the ‘proper’ way to bow in prayer, these are what is broken and what lead to death. Evangelism, the living out of the Gospel, says, “no. No, this is not alright, this is not what God wants for us.” Evangelism says, “be joined back together. Be in community. Tear down the barriers, however scary, and don’t let the world tell you it’s ok to let hate or fear or difference divide us.”
Not everyone has this message or this mindset. But what if the world did? What if the estranged were reconciled, the wealthy and the poor shared together, the Black and the brown and the white and the other all lived and ate together? What if we took seriously the call to be the good news, to remember in our own baptisms the calling to find resurrection in the face of death, to let our lives illustrate that God cares for all, for the sinners and the saints alike, the Neros and the Pauls, for the murderers and those they murder, for those outside of the walls of the church and even for those hiding inside? This isn’t to say that we’ll never be hurt by others if we just open up – we’ll be hurt far, far worse, in fact. But the Gospel reminds us that even out of death, Christ has risen. May we go and live the same. Amen.