One of the last recorded statements of Sir Isaac Newton was this: "I don't know what I may seem to the world. But as to myself, I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me"
What an amazing statement from a man who was in his lifetime, and indeed is still considered, one of the greatest scientists that have walked this earth.
When Cardinal Basil Hume, the former head of the Catholic Church in England was told that he had cancer, his first thought was, "If only I could start all over again, I would be a much better monk, a much better abbot, a much better bishop." But then he reflected, and said "Then I thought, how much better if I can come before God when I die, not to say, 'Thank you that I was such a good monk, a good abbot, good bishop,' but rather, 'God be merciful to me a sinner'. For if I come empty handed, then I will be ready to receive God's gift. God be merciful to me, a sinner."
Two famous names from different fields of work, but one thing very much in common and indeed very much in common with the apostle Paul in our reading from 1 Timothy.
Here's Paul, the great man himself, held in such esteem by the members of the early Church. Now I always imagine Paul as being a man who stood out in a crowd, a natural leader, a real man of authority. Here was a man whose whole life had been steeped in the Scriptures, who had been so spectacularly changed around by Jesus finding and calling him so dramatically on the Damascus road.
Here is the man whose written record in the form of his letters to the early Church mark him out to be the most important leader and teacher of his time. Some have said, and they may be right or wrong, that the Church would never grown so spectacularly, if at all, and the Gospel message survived so intact if it hadn't been for this one man.
Certainly many of the others who we meet in the pages of the New Testament owed a lot to Paul. Timothy, to whom this letter is addressed, was one of those. Paul was like a spiritual father to the young man, and under Paul's teaching and guidance Timothy was to become a leader himself.
Here's a man, it could be said, who had lots of street cred.
And here's a man who's not too proud to say in all honesty, "I was the worst sinner of all!"
I wonder if this passage was in Cardinal Basil Hume's mind when he came to the point of examining his own life. A great man, well respected as a teacher, scholar and pastor, and yet a man who was humble enough to know from where his strength and Salvation came.
This small passage, in 1 Timothy is more of a prayer than simply part of a letter, and I believe it's one that we all should revisit now and again, because it's a great leveler. Let's have a look at what Paul has to say here.
More than anything else, Paul expresses thanks. How often in our prayers do we begin with the "Please give!" and forget the "Thank you, Lord"?
It's human nature, I suppose to think of self first but that's not the way it's supposed to be.
Take as your example the prayer outline that Jesus gave to his disciples, and that we say together each week. It doesn't start with "Give us this day our daily bread." It begins with "Hallowed be your Name."
And it's thanks not only for the fact that Paul had been chosen by God to do this tremendous work of spreading the Gospel of Good News, but particularly "Thank you" for the fact that despite his background, and it was quite some background, God had chosen Paul because He knew that He could TRUST him to do this work.
The Bible is full of unlikely people being used to do God's work, but Paul must rank as one of the most amazing. Here was a man who had made it his life's work to persecute the Church and it's believers - you can read something of this in the early chapters of Acts. The translations don't actually bring out the true extent of Paul's zeal in this persecution; "cruel" isn't the half of it. Paul had been guilty of brutal violence against believers.
The Greek word means a kind of arrogant sadism, describing a man who is out to inflict pain simply for the joy of doing it. Think about all those horror films you've ever watched, with the bad guy laughing as only bad guys do in films, as he turns the screw one more turn. That was Paul. He was not a very nice person to know. He was a man to avoid if he turned up in your town. Believe me, you'd cross the road if you saw him coming.
Yet here was a man who had also known what it was like to be forgiven, and in that respect he is very similar to all of us.
How well do you forgive? If you have ever been bullied through school or in your career, so badly that it really affected your whole life. Have you ever been hurt, physically or mentally by another person.
Could you forgive them? And if you think that you could forgive would you still in some way hold them responsible for the way your life turned out - would you still hold a grudge against them?
Because of what they did to you would you ever be able to trust them again?
Would you be prepared to forgive so totally that you could give them real responsibility even within your family and among those you know and love?
It's not an easy one to answer, is it. On the surface we can probably all say "Yes, I think I could forgive" but inside it's often a different story. Inside is where the hurt lies, and to forgive so totally that the hurt is lifted and replaced by love doesn't come very easily ' and I speak from experience.
Yet here we have Paul, forgiven so totally and completely by Christ that he has been entrusted with the most important work that could possibly have been given to him, by the very person to whom his hate had been directed. The persecutor has now become the Ambassador.
And Paul knew the score. This is the amazing thing about the man. In his previous life he must have been a real arrogant pig of a man. He struck fear into all who came into contact with him. He was a really nasty piece of work. Now we have this complete turnaround. Here is a man who is so filled with humility that he will openly admit to everything that he was guilty of.
In Paul's eyes it was all so bad that he considers himself the greatest sinner of all.
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This saying is true, and it can be trusted. I was the worst sinner of all!But since I was worse than anyone else, God had mercy on me and let me be an example of the endless patience of Christ Jesus. He did this so that others would put their faith in Christ and have eternal life."
It's often difficult for us as individuals to understand where we fit into the grand order of things. Paul however seems to have been more than confident as to his role. And it's not the obvious one. We think of Paul as the great theologian, the spiritual powerhouse behind the emerging Church, but that's not really how Paul saw his part in God's plan.
In his eyes, Paul was granted so much mercy and forgiveness that others would look at his life and see that God's forgiveness and Salvation really must be for everyone. That there was no-one who could be considered beyond redemption.
"Look at me" says Paul. "If you want to know just how much patience Christ Jesus has, if you want to know just how far his love will stretch then all you have to do is look at me."
In Paul's eyes this was his purpose since conversion, as the ultimate example of a sinner forgiven totally, so that others would see him, acknowledge the change that had happened, come to faith and receive the gift that is eternal life.
It was a life of service to which Paul was chosen, and again, in this explanation we see Paul's humility shining through again.
Paul's message to each one of us is twofold. Firstly it's a reminder, if we needed it, that God's love and forgiveness is not limited by our own frailty, or by the sort of person we are. We might at times consider ourselves to be unworthy of God's attention, but that's not the way that He sees it. God looks at us in terms of our potential, and within the Church and within our neighborhood and working environments we are people of real potential for God's Kingdom.
How can that be? Because as we live out our daily lives we come into contact with others, and they seeâ€¦ whatever we let them see. I don't see the newly created Paul going around continually appearing grumpy and complaining about his lot in life. I think wherever he went people saw the outward expression of his faith through his face, his expression, his words and his actions.
And at that point our lives can also connect with Pauls. We need to become like magnets. People need to look at us, our actions and our words and see what a difference it has made to our lives to know the forgiveness of God and the gift of eternal life.
It's the way that the early Church grew from such a small beginning and it's the way that the Church has always grown. If we're miserable and complaining whenever we meet people then what have we as a Church to offer our neighbour or friend?
We are all called to a life of service, as Paul was. We are all called to use our lives as examples to show the forgiveness of God, through word and action, and if we do that then the effect on our world would be immeasurable.
I said that this passage was a prayer, and how it seems to mirror in many ways the Lord's Prayer. There is the expression of thankfulness, the hope for Salvation for all, an acknowledgement of sin and forgiveness, and finally a wonderful statement of his faith and trust in his Lord and Saviour.
I pray that honor and glory will always be given to the only God, who lives forever and is the invisible and eternal King! Amen.
This is a passage that we need to revisit again and again. Because it's not only Paul that needs to remind himself of his sin and forgiveness received, so do we. It's not only Paul that needs to remind himself of who Jesus is and why He came into the world, to save sinners, so do we.
It's not only Paul that needs to remind himself of the primary role of a Christian, that of service, so do we. And it's not only Paul who needs to remind himself of who it is that the Glory and Honour and Power belong.
So do we.