The Heart of the Gospel: Jesus Came to Save the Lost

“The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners [who are lost].” (I Timothy 1:15a; cf. Luke 19:10; Mark 2:17. Emphasis added in brackets. RSV)

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It was a beautiful fall day. And Mother Nature was all-decked-out in her finest fall fashion – with glorious prints of bright gold, purple, and maple reds. It was also to include one of the most tender moments I’d ever experience in my years of parish ministry…

Now, nearly fifteen-plus years ago, I’d gone to visit a member of our family of First Lutheran at Dow Rummel Village (here in Sioux Falls). Ralph was now in his mid-90s. And as a former school principal, he was still known around the Village for sporting a “suit ’n tie” every day. (Sweet!) When I arrived … shortly after the noon hour … the nursing staff said they were surprised they hadn’t seen Ralph at lunch. He never missed. And he always loved to “work the crowd” with his attentive ear and sharing a few Norwegian jokes.

“Pastor John,” they said, “we don’t know where Ralph is. However, his friend, Norm has gone to look for him.” “Where is Norm now?” I asked. (Since I’d known Norm from back in my college days at Augie, when I’d worked at his clothing store. And he was likewise famous for wearing rather loud Hawaiian shirts!) The staff continued … “Well, last we heard, Norm was heading over to Covell Lake – thinking perhaps Ralph had gone over to feed the geese and then became disoriented. (Ralph had early onset dementia.) So, I began to make my way across the campus to Covell Lake, which is only a couple of blocks away.

As I approached the lake, here came Norm and Ralph … walking homeward from the banks of the lake … side-by-side. Ralph of course in his “suit ’n tie” and Norm in a bright and garish Hawaiian, floral print shirt. … Norm, with his gentle spirit, had his arm draped over Ralph’s shoulders for reassurance. And as I met them, I reached out to take Ralph’s free hand that was trembling like a leaf. “Are you OK, Ralph?” He paused, his eyes filling with tears. “I didn’t know how lost I was until Norm found me.”

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If you know anything about the backstory of St. Paul (please read Acts 9:1-22; 22:1-16; 26:9-18; and Philippians 3:4f), he was anything but someone who considered himself lost: either existentially or theologically. He was so convicted in his own self-righteousness (using his Ph.D. as a Pharisee and knowledge of the Jewish tradition in vain attempts to cover his pride) that Paul even had himself commissioned to schlepp all over the Mediterranean in order to hunt down and persecute those who’d converted to the Christian faith (e.g. Acts 26:12).

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And so it is, as we commence with our preaching series on the “Pastoral Epistles” of I and II Timothy (this coming weekend’s text is I Timothy 1:12-17) … that we listen in to St. Paul composing his first of two letters to a young protégé in the gospel, Timothy. It is here that Paul is confessing how it was that not until God found him (Paul) – knocking-him-off his “high horse” and eating a few “road apples” (Acts 26:14b) – that only then did Paul fully realize how lost he truly was. “I didn’t know how lost I was until [God, in all of God’s mercy] found me.”

And so, let me leave you with this question in the meantime: “Have you ever experienced a time when it was only in being found that you realized how truly lost you were?” My friends, this is the heart of the gospel that St. Paul is bringing home to us this day, as with Norm and Ralph … “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners [finding us, in all our lostness]” (I Timothy 1:15. Emphasis added in brackets. RSV).

Walking together in Christ’s love,
John Christopherson, Senior Pastor