3 November – God’s blessed rage for disorder
1 Timothy 3:14-16
In a sentence:
The ‘piety’ of Christians always joins them to the broken world, and never separates them from that world
Working constructively with 1 Timothy in our reading over the last couple of months has proved more of a challenge than I expected – certainly more than was the case with Hosea and Ecclesiastes earlier in the year. This is partly because the Pastor – the writer of the letter – doesn’t say much I, at least, find especially interesting. With a couple of important qualifications, there is nothing wrong with the letter but that in itself doesn’t make it enlivening or even necessary.
The principal theme of the letter is summarised in our snippet from the middle of this morning’s short text: ‘how one ought to behave in the household of God’ (3.15). In this connection the letter expands on how bishops and deacons ought to conduct themselves, and women, and widows (apparently a kind of religious order), and elders and slaves, and Timothy himself. All of this is directed towards ‘a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity’ (2.2).
And who would not want this: a community carefully ordered so that all know and prosper in their station?
And yet, this might also be characterised as what a poet once called a ‘blessed rage for order’, ‘blessed’ in the ironic sense of ‘damnable’ (Wallace Stevens, ‘The idea of order at Key West’). There is a rage for order which seems to be required – which seems to be blest – but which may finally be blesséd – cursed.
For alongside the Pastor’s encouragements we have texts like today’s beatitudes (or ‘blessed-s’) from Luke. Luke’s beatitudes differ starkly from Matthew’s, in that they seem to allow a stark identification of the groups blessed or threatened by God, according to economic and social categories: the poor, the sad and the powerless, over against the rich, the happy, the powerful.
But we’ll allow Luke his own take on things and notice instead the contrast between the order of the world in Luke and that of the Pastor.
While the Pastor is right that there is a virtue in good order, his rage for such order must be held in tension with the blesséd disordering which is the work of God Godself.
Where the Pastor will have it that a woman will not speak in the orderly Christian assembly, Luke allows for a God who disorders and makes her the means by which God will be heard. Where the Pastor will have it that the upright bishop or deacon will be all good things to all good people, Luke allows for a God who does not need such good order, a God through whom even poverty or grief or brokenness might yet be blessed.
The kind of life to which the Pastor calls us is a good one, and rightly commended. Yet such life always carries the potential of the error of the morally and religiously upright. We heard of this last week, when Jesus contrasted a Pharisee and a tax collector together in the temple. There the self-contained and orderly religious hero poured scorn on the one whose righteousness, or order, could only come from God.
Against this, Luke’s beatitudes present the righteousness which can only come from God. This is not foreign to the Pastor although he doesn’t make much of it (perhaps apart from the biography of Paul himself [1.12-17]). At the end of our short text today we heard again doxology which has been part of our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over the last 5 or 6 weeks.
The translation is not straightforward. We heard ‘great is the mystery of our religion’. In fact ‘our’ is not in the Greek, and ‘religion’ can also be translated ‘piety’: great is the mystery – or great is the ‘secret’ – of piety. This mystery or secret is Christ (or God – also unclear in the Greek) ‘manifest in flesh’. The secret of piety is God in the messy midst of ‘flesh’ – God in our messiness.
At the heart of Christian confession is this rage for a new order out of disorder, even ‘in’ disorder. The holy life is not simply ‘in the household of God’, as if holiness could limited only to that place. The life of holiness is ‘in the flesh.’
Among ‘the saints’ the temptation is great to separate themselves –those who are saved from those who are not, those predestined from those not, those who know from those who do not, those who have from those who do not. This temptation, of course, is not merely a Christian one. The same rage for the same kind of order is heard each day in school-yard bullying, on talk-back radio, across the chambers of parliament, in the bombs rained down on distant enemies or carried into their midst in backpacks. This is a purity which atomises and isolates, the purity of ‘holier than thou’.
But a piety which begins with God manifest ‘in the flesh’ disrupts the order of the pure and separated. It is no ‘holier than thou’ but ‘holy for thee’. This is a holiness which makes holy, which brings ‘value’ to other things, other persons. Such value – true holiness – is only ever received; holiness is always gift.
The holy, saintly life is certainly one of action, and so is properly about ‘how to behave in the household of God’. Yet it is always first an activated life, activated by the God who would be manifest even in our unholy lives.
‘Unholiness’, then – ‘unsaintliness’ – is that attitude or orientation which will not receive or give such ‘value’, which will not be disrupted or disrupt orderings which seek to constrain God.
Jesus himself was both an ordered life such as the Pastor describes and the presence of God’s own blessed disorder. Blessedness is turned on its head – or not; when this God is the source of holiness, we can never know quite how orderly we are. We can only know that, in the end, it will have been God who has set us straight.
To worship this God is to give thanks that God meets us wherever we are, for, in the end, the household of God is the whole wide world.
To worship this God is to be willing to be drawn forward from where we are to a new and better place, and to be willing to call and draw others there with us.
So, saints of God, lift up your hearts, and see what God does with you.