Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:1-14
Hanging in my office is a shadow box full of my grandfather Oscar’s sermon notes, written in his hand. The sermon notes contain his thoughts on 1 Corinthians, Romans 1, Revelation 4, and John 14. In fact, my grandfather’s pastor used the notes hanging in my office to write the eulogy for his funeral, which was two years ago this month. My grandfather was the son of a farmer; when he heard the call into ministry after he returned from WWII, he had to go back and get his high school diploma and college degree before he could go to divinity school. His calling story reminds me a lot of the many calling stories in Scripture where God works through someone unqualified, someone the world least expects. Above the shadow box, I have his old mailbox nameplate that reads “Rev. Oscar R. Adams” in old-school, type-writer script. It’s a rusty but beautiful little artifact from his ordinary daily existence that I uncovered in his shed after he died.
Every day when I walk into my office I see my grandfather’s name and a tangible representation of his faith, his calling, and his daily life. I am reminded that I am not the first Christian in my family; nor am I the first minister. I am one in a long line of faithful people, family and church family, ordinary people who practiced their faith and handed it down to me through everyday words and deeds. Those faithful people showed me what love looks like: they taught me, hugged me, read with me, prayed for me, cooked for me, laughed and cried and argued with me. When the going gets tough in life or in ministry, I am comforted by the lived example of those who have gone before me. I am relieved to know that I am not the first, nor will I be the last, that I don’t have to make this stuff up. It is freeing to know that the advancement of God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on my cleverness or charisma or any extraordinary feat of superhuman faithfulness. I am but a small cog in God’s great machine, but one tiny member of a Body working slowly but surely for the coming of the kingdom, but one small speck in a vast universe that God is slowly willing towards eternal shalom. It doesn’t disappoint me to realize that our ministry in this place and time is small in the scheme of things. On the contrary, it energizes me to realize that the power of the God who defeated death and brought immortality and life to light is at work in my inadequacy in the same way that power was at work in my grandfather. I am excited when I realize that we ordinary people have been entrusted with the treasure of the gospel, that we are called not to be great but to be faithful, and that the Holy Spirit will help us in every weakness.
In the new religious landscape of 2016, it is easy to become discouraged about the state of the church. How should we respond to declining attendance, to increasing apathy, to the seeming impotence of the church to move our society’s public life towards righteousness? How should we respond when we look around and the churches that seem to be “succeeding” often look nothing like the faith that has been passed down to us? Do we lash out in bitterness or isolate ourselves from the rest of society until we slowly disappear? Do we race to accommodate each shift in the cultural winds? What is going on? Where is God in all this? What should ministry look like in 2016? What does this old, strange collection of writings from thousands of years ago that we call the Bible have to say to our fast-paced, 21st-century lives? What does a faith bound up in bodies and hands and bread and wine and water have to say to a world that is technology-obsessed and increasingly disconnected from bodily engagement and place-oriented reality? What good are the old songs and the old liturgy and the old story to a people that is endlessly focused on the new, the consumable, the disposable, the relevant, and the young?
Today we begin a new sermon series from the book of 2 Timothy called “Ministry 101 with Professor Paul” where we will ask all these questions and more. Together, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are called the Pastoral Epistles, and they are some of the most neglected books in the New Testament canon. One of the reasons many are skeptical of them is that although the author calls himself Paul (and I will call him “Paul”) and addresses the letters to Timothy and Titus, who were two of Paul’s most notable pastoral protégés, these letters are almost certainly not written by the historical person of Paul, nor are they intended for the historical people, Timothy and Titus. The style of the prose, the vocabulary, the kinds of church issues being addressed, all point to the fact that they were likely written thirty years after Paul’s death around the end of the first century. Our culture, with its individualized understanding of intellectual property and authenticity, finds this disturbing. How can someone who says they are someone they aren’t be trusted to relay the Word of God to us? Another problem with the Pastoral Epistles is that they have often been used to reinforce oppressive values and biblical literalism. These suspicions have caused many to dismiss the Pastoral Epistles as less important contributions to the New Testament than the letters we know Paul himself wrote. But this approach to the texts ignores the context from which they emerged, ignores the wisdom of the early church that preserved them, and ignores the fact that the Holy Spirit saw fit to speak through them to the church for 1800 years before we smart modern folk figured out they might not be written by Paul and that same Spirit has continued to speak through them despite our misgivings after we came to that conclusion.
What if the circumstances in which the Pastoral Epistles were written make them more important for us today, not less? The Pastoral Epistles were written to churches after the first generation of apostles like Paul were gone, as they struggled to maintain a sound faith in the face of cultural and religious distractions. The excitement and initial challenge of starting the church were over. Now they had to learn how to keep the fire burning into the next period while avoiding the many pitfalls of ministry. Professor and Pastor Tom Long says this about the Pastoral Epistles:
Some of the issues faced in these letters are our issues once again—the lure and peril of ‘spirituality’ for Christians, the character of authentic worship, the qualities needed for sound leadership, the relationship between family life and the ‘family’ of the church. And even those matters in these letters that seem remote from our current situation, the author approaches them with the elements we need as we address our own challenges: a love for the church, a firm gospel compass in hand, and a clear and courageous voice. As Christians in North America venture out from the ruins of the churches we once knew seeking new ways of being church, the Pastoral Epistles can refresh our memory about what really counts in Christian community.
So for the next three weeks we will sit at the feet of the teachings of the Pauline tradition that we find transmitted in 2 Timothy and allow the Holy Spirit to breath new life into us and our ministries through these texts. We’re going to read these texts generously and give God the benefit of the doubt about the Spirit’s ability to speak through them. We’re going back to basics, back to Ministry 101, and asking the foundational questions facing us in 2016: what really counts in Christian community? How do we identify and resist false teaching when it arises in our midst? What might faithful ministry look like in this place and time where God has seen fit to put us?
Our text for this morning from the opening of 2 Timothy is one of the more striking texts in all of the Epistles. We can feel the intimacy between “Paul” and his beloved child in ministry, “Timothy.” We are given glimpses of Timothy crying after visiting Paul in prison. We can picture the scene of Timothy’s ordination as Paul lays hands on him and he receives the empowering of the Holy Spirit for gospel ministry. We picture the faithfulness of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice and our own ancestors in the faith are called to memory. Paul is clearly trying to evoke the tradition from which Timothy comes as a way to encourage him to rekindle the gift of God within him and stay the course. It is a tradition not of abstract ideas but of God working through physical encounter with other people. It is a tradition that graciously accepts the gifts of God through those who have come before us, rather than assuming that we have it all figured out here and now and that our ancestors in the faith have nothing to teach us.
We have two tendencies in our culture, both of which must be avoided: to resist all kinds of change no matter what, and to too easily cast aside the traditions and memories handed down to us for whatever is new or flashy. Will Willimon, long-time dean of Duke Chapel, professor at Duke Divinity, and United Methodist bishop remarked after attending a megachurch worship service recently: “You ought to apologize to my grandmother. Was she really as dumb as you imply in your disposal of the songs, texts, and rites that enabled her to stay faithful?” When we throw away the liturgy and music and words passed down to us that formed our ancestors into faithful people, we are essentially saying that their witness means nothing to us. This is not to say that we shouldn’t receive those gifts and mold them for our time and place, but as we innovate, we must always be careful we aren’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater, a thing we Baptists in our fervor for reform are prone to do. We have to be on our guard against the idolization of the past, which is full of nostalgia for the ways things used to be, and the idolization of the contemporary, which always looks to market the next best thing. Both will wreck the kind of hospitable, deep, intergenerational, welcoming community we are called to cultivate. Here at GFBC we are striving to be intentionally intergenerational and diverse in our worship, in our faith formation, and in our fellowship for this very reason. If we segregate ourselves by age and identity and interest, there’s no way we can learn from each other or our ancestors in the faith. We are passing down a treasure that we received with open hands from those who have come before us. The reason all of us came to faith is that someone loved us—and Jesus—enough to tell us the story and show us the way, and submitting to the saints who have gone before us is a humble way to acknowledge that we didn’t achieve our faith of our own power and merit: it was given to us by God.
The reason Paul is urging Timothy to remember the tradition from which he comes and to rekindle the gift of God within him is that Timothy’s church was being inundated by false teachers proclaiming a different gospel than the one Paul proclaimed. Paul tells Timothy he will need the spirit of power he received through the laying on of hands to help his congregation resist the other gospels proclaimed by false teachers in their midst. Tom Long describes the false teachers like this:
The false teachers are offering a glitzier gospel. They preach an attractive, freeform spirituality with an air of adventure and a dash of escape from mundane reality thrown in as a bonus. The good leaders, on the other hand, have a messier gospel, an incarnational gospel bound to flesh and blood and earth, a gospel that proclaims God’s redemption is to be found in such labor-intensive activities as raising children, keeping marriages strong, and trying to build a church fellowship of trust and support out of the often-contentious and conflicted lives of real human beings.
Any of that sound familiar? The key word to me in all of this is incarnational. The central confession in the Christian faith aside from “He is risen indeed!” is “The Word became flesh.” False teachers then—and false teachers now—would have you believe that hyper-spirituality is the goal, that we should simultaneously be ashamed of our bodies and ignore them in our worship and ministry, that the measure of our faith is how we feel rather than what we do. False teachers shun the messiness of everyday life in community, opting instead to recreate a spiritual high that narcoticizes people rather than addressing their suffering. But God affirms the diversity and complexity of our bodily existence in creation and ultimately affirmed it by taking on flesh to redeem it. We are not trying to escape the physical realities of this world; we are working with God to bring them from death to life. Any ministry that is not rooted in being present physically with each other and with God, in honoring and loving the people and places around us, participates in EXcarnation rather than INcarnation. This is one of the reasons we as a church have moved away from sending money and goods away to people and places with which we are disconnected and towards collaborating with partners in our own neighborhood, people we can see and touch, people who can correct our false assumptions, people with whom we can build relationships and who can impact us just as much as we can impact them.
At the end of the passage Paul encourages Timothy to hold to the standard of sound teaching he heard from Paul. What is this “sound teaching” and how can we hold to it in our ministry today? Is this the author’s attempt to establish some sort of rigid set of doctrines that must be agreed to? Any time you say “sound teaching” Baptists start shifting in their seats. It sounds like Paul is trying to enforce a set of beliefs here, and we know that this type of legalism has gotten the church in deep trouble throughout its history. However, I don’t think legalism is what Paul is after here. If you look at how Paul defines the gospel he proclaimed, it is not about a set of beliefs; it is about a person: “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust.” Sound teaching is about knowing the person of Jesus Christ not agreeing to some abstract set of principles. Right living is about emulating his life, not adhering to a set of rules bound up in human culture.
Oscar Romero put it like this: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of laws to be obeyed, of prohibitions. That makes it very distasteful. Christianity is a person, one who loved us so much, one who calls for our love. Christianity is Christ.” Oscar Romero, who was the Archbishop of San Salvador, understood better than most how to live an incarnate faith that emulates the life and love of Christ. He spoke out against poverty, torture, and killings of civilians in San Salvador and was eventually assassinated while he presided over communion. His witness has inspired countless Christians in Latin America and all over the world to more courageously live out their faith. Just last year Pope Francis began the process of making Oscar Romero a saint. But his understanding of the Christian life was simple, just like my grandfather Oscar’s was: live like Jesus lived. Imagine how much more compelling the church would be to the world, if instead of shouting about rules and regulations, we simply lived like Christ lived and loved like Christ loved? Do you think we would have a problem attracting folks to our movement if instead of rigidity they saw the freedom that comes with the self-sacrificing love of Jesus? If we were humble enough to receive the good gifts of our ancestors and embody our faith in real and present ways with our neighbors? What if Ministry 101 isn’t about knowledge or data or complex theological truths, but simply about refocusing on the fundamental goal of our faith: learning to live like Christ?
It is easy to be afraid about the future of the church when we look out at our present challenges. On the surface, it could seem like we’re down for the count or like we might be put to shame by a glitzier, more attractive gospel. But just as Paul encouraged Timothy to look at his imprisonment and suffering through the eyes of the gospel, we must also look at the state of the church in 2016 through those eyes. Was Christ put to shame when he was stripped, beaten, and crucified? Did death and suffering have the final word? No! The gospel of Christ brings life and immortality to light in the midst of suffering and death and change. God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline! As we face the challenges of ministry in 2016, we have to rely on the power of the God who saved us and called us with a holy calling in spite of our shortcomings. We have to trust in the One we know is able to guard the church and be confident that the survival of the church is in God’s hands. We only need to hold on to the sound teaching that we have in the person of Jesus Christ, who passed from death to life so that we might cast out all fear and follow him wherever he leads us.
 Thomas G. Long, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, 2-3.
 Long, 188.
 Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, 8-9.