Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Growing up in a small, Southern Baptist church in Camden, SC, I was taught the sacred writings from childhood. Mr. Mark settled the stories of our faith into my being as he illustrated them week after week on his felt storyboard during children’s worship. The call of Abraham, Noah’s ark, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, the birth and baptism and ministry and parables of Jesus are all etched in my mind because of felt figures. I won many a Snickers bar from memorizing the scripture verse of the week. Ms. Mona continued to teach me scripture as I attended bible study as a youth. These leaders in my home church along with our pastor, whom we called “Preacher Jimmy,” taught me scripture so that it could instruct and inform my life as a Christian disciple. You can imagine the look on Preacher Jimmy’s face when I returned home from college, after having spent a year studying religion at Campbell University, and sat on the front pew of the church flipping through my big red New Oxford Annotated Bible while he preached. It was this very Bible in fact. Turning pages in it is no quiet affair! As he preached I furiously flipped through it, trying to verify everything he said. I was starting to question whether the instruction I had received in my childhood was sound teaching. After the service, Preacher Jimmy told me that I needed to be careful about what I was learning “up there at that liberal university.” Having been recently enlightened, I told him: “I’m not worried about what they are teaching me. I want to know why there are so many things you haven’t told me?! Why didn’t you tell me that the Red Sea was actually the Reed Sea? Why didn’t you tell me that the world wasn’t literally created in seven days but that the story of creation is the story of how God’s people came into being? Why didn’t you tell me that the flood was not a historical event but an important narrative in Jewish history about God’s response to the people of Israel turning away and chasing after sin?”
It turns out Preacher Jimmy and I now have very different views of what sound teaching is. For him the claim that all Scripture is inspired by God or God-breathed means that every word, every sentence was literally true, but for me the fact that all Scripture is inspired by God means that all scripture has the capacity to inform our living as Christian disciples. But Preacher Jimmy did have a point. He was right to caution me about my attitude towards the sacred writings of our faith. My religion degree left me with a lot of knowledge, an ability to do historical criticism, but it also left me with no way to connect this knowledge to my faith. Sometimes it dismissed the texts of our faith because it measured their importance only by how they compared to historical fact. My undergraduate education helped me to deconstruct the fundamentalist reading of scripture that I was taught in my childhood, but it failed to help me understand how scripture, once deconstructed, could still teach and form and shape Christian disciples. My religion degree disoriented me, deconstructing my literal reading of scripture, helping me to understand that it is not helpful to read scripture like a non-fiction modern textbook, particularly when that passage goes against the whole ethos of the gospel message. For example, my religion degree taught me that I should not read the words from 1 Timothy 2 about women learning in quietness and submission and apply that literal meaning to my every day life. It taught me that those words were spoken in a certain cultural context and that context must be taken into consideration. Furthermore, it also taught me that the larger ethos of the gospel is that in Christ there is no east or west or male or female and that when the Holy Spirit is upon us, all of God’s children, regardless of who they are, shall prophesy. My seminary training completely reoriented me, challenging me to take seriously what scripture has to teach us instead of just deconstructing it and pointing out how problematic it might be. Going to seminary was my way back to the basics; it helped me to reclaim those important stories that I had known since childhood and allowed me to hold on to them in all of their historical, literary, and textual complexity.
In our text for today, Paul calls on Timothy to remember what he had learned during his childhood. Theologian Tom Long says, “The point of this advice for Timothy to remember his teachers is not just that Timothy should recall what they taught but also that he should remember who they were: people who held steady to the gospel when others wandered away, people who were sustained by God in times of trouble and persecution. The doctrinal content they imparted to ‘Timothy’ is important, but so is the texture of their faithful lives.”[i] While I find myself in disagreement over doctrine with those who raised me in the faith, the texture of their faithful lives still witnesses to me. They persisted in their faith, and it always carried them through, always kept them steady. They oriented me to the stories of our faith. You have to at least know the story before it can be deconstructed and then hopefully reconstructed!
In our culture, we can no longer take it for granted that people have even been oriented to the stories of scripture, much less know how to remain steady in their faith. This morning we have the opportunity to sit again at the feet of Professor Paul in his Ministry 101 class, to go back to the basics, and to learn how to persist in ministry while living in a world where Christian discipleship is becoming increasingly foreign. As Stephen mentioned last week 2 Timothy is a part of the Pastoral Epistles, a group of letters that were written to churches after the first generation of apostles like Paul were gone and as they struggled to hold to sound doctrine in the face of cultural and religious distractions. The author of 2 Timothy is not the historical Paul, and the letter’s recipient is not the historical Timothy. The author is someone who speaks in the voice of the apostle Paul, channeling Paul’s wisdom and authority, offering guidance to those at the church of Ephesus who are struggling in their ministry. I will continue to call the writer, Paul, and the letter recipient, Timothy, because the figures they represent are more important than historical accuracy.
Timothy is contending with the glitzy, false gospel of the false teachers in Ephesus. Their gospel is diluted. Their gospel is both watered down and dressed up so that it’s positive and uplifting, causing no pain. Their gospel is embarrassed by the bodily suffering taught by Jesus and by Paul. The false teachers have misused scripture; they have played word games with the text; they’ve spiritualized it and stripped it of the incarnational way of Jesus. Paul is not arguing about what scripture is but how scripture should be used. Scripture is for instruction, for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. We are to use it to form and inform our faith and the faith of the church. Scripture is to ground us so that we can be inspired to stay the course and persist in faithfulness.
Timothy is wavering in his commitments to his calling to ministry because of how difficult it has become to persist in such a hostile environment. So Paul takes it up a notch in chapter 4. To signal his seriousness, he solemnly urges Timothy and claims to do so in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, who is appearing and bringing his kingdom with him. This reminder of coming judgment is a direct warning to false teachers who only care about the spiritual and have invented some kind of allegorical resurrection. Judgment will happen to bodies – the quick or the alive bodies and the dead bodies. So, Paul says let’s get real. Proclaim the message. No matter what – preach the word! Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, whether the soil is fertile or dry, whether people’s hearts are open or closed, whether it’s what people want to hear or not. Preach the word! Convince, rebuke, and encourage – all at the same time. And be patient because people will not want to listen; people will take a step forward and then five steps back; people will be faithful and then will give in to despair. Timothy is not to just preach the Bible but to preach the whole gospel message, the message that he saw fleshed out in the lives of his mother and his grandmother and Paul. He is to persist in this preaching and sound teaching no matter whether people listen or not, no matter whether people like it or not.
Paul tells Timothy that the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but Timothy knows the time has already come. The people around him want to be entertained; they want to feel good; they want to be flattered; they want to think well of themselves; they want what they want, when and how they want it. They have closed their ears to the gospel and their ears have starting itching for something to amuse them. Itching ears want easy faith that doesn’t deal with the messiness of bodies or the pain of crucifixion so they accumulate false teachers that will entertain and appease them. But this false gospel leads to false comfort, and when the going gets really rough, it all falls apart. One theologian says,
“People may momentarily be flattered by a spirituality that emphasizes airy freedom, creativity, and escape, but eventually all of us will come face-to-face with our embodiment and our place as creatures in time and place. Our own bodies will age. We will, most of us, deal with marriages needing vigilant care, with vexed parenting relationships, with demanding friendships, with parents in bodily and perhaps mental decline. If we do not have an embodied theology that makes sense of the suffering entanglements of real human relationships, we will be given over to despair.”[ii]
This sound doctrine that Timothy is to remain faithful to is the gospel of incarnation, the gospel of a God who came in the flesh and suffered alongside us.
Paul tells Timothy to have patience when he thinks he can’t do it anymore; to always be alert, aware, and maintain the capacity for clear judgment; to endure suffering; to do the work of an evangelist; and to carry out his ministry fully. What an encouraging word to overhear the morning of my installation service as your fifth senior pastor! It is daunting to begin ministry in a time like ours, in a culture where everyone’s ears are itching. We’ve spent Second Wednesdays talking about what it means to be church in 2016. We’ve talked about declining attendance, how attendance is no longer an indicator of health in the same way as it once was, the resistance to membership, the pervasive anxiety of the mainline church, and the way different generations, particularly Baby Boomers and Millennials, are changing the way we think about long-established church programs. We’ve been talking about how people interact with our church communities in drastically different ways. People who only attend once per month consider themselves regular attenders. Non-traditional work hours, aging parents, grandchildren in need of childcare, youth who belong to travel sports leagues, and owning vacation homes have all impacted how present people are in their worshipping communities on Sunday morning.
In our culture people seek to get their “spiritual tanks” filled by brunch with friends, meditation walks in nature, and motivational talks on television shows or their favorite NPR program. Even folks who’ve learned sound doctrine from childhood seek to get their ears scratched by attending churches that make them feel good by never challenging them, allowing them to view the sacred writings as nice stories instead of useful for teaching and for correction, allowing them to stay in the orientation or disorientation phase of interpreting scripture and never challenging them to move to the reorientation phase, where scripture still has something to say about their lives. Becoming a senior pastor in this religious landscape where ears are always itching and the role of a pastor is no longer a widely respected role is indeed daunting. But Paul’s word to Timothy today reminds me in order to carry out ministry fully, we have to be persistent. Tom Long’s rewriting of this part of the passage is powerful:
“People will forever be seeking out their gurus, their spiritual guides, their mystical personal trainers, their new age prophets, but good teachers are to stay the course. Always be sober – that is, be temperate, even-keeled, sturdy. Be ready to ‘endure suffering’ because it will surely come. … Don’t merely dabble in ministry, wishing all the while that you were somebody else, doing something else – a tailor, a goatherd, a Greek philosopher, a rock star, a therapist, or a celebrated novelist – but instead ‘carry out your ministry fully,’ with an abundance of energy, confidence, commitment, and joy.”[iii]
I dabbled in ministry for awhile, keeping my distance from the church, yearning to be a therapist or a chaplain just because I thought I’d be more respected, particularly as a woman in ministry. Paul’s word of caution is not just for ministers. All Christians sometimes dabble in ministry, veering from the path of faithful living because sometimes we’d rather be prestigious, sometimes we’d rather be rich, sometimes we’d rather be respected by the world, sometimes we’d rather be accepted by our friends, sometimes we’d rather be comfortable, sometimes we’d rather avoid the pain that comes from persisting as disciples. But the church shouldn’t wish it was something else either. The church is not a social club, the YMCA, Intervarsity, social services, or even the church of the past. The church is to be the church, committed to using scripture to help faithfully inform how we are present in the world. We are not to reduce the gospel so it sounds better or meets people’s perceived needs. We are not to abuse the Bible by only interpreting it literally. We are not to avoid the truth to prevent people from experiencing pain. We are not to distort the gospel to pander to people’s ever changing desires. Theologian Joseph Price says, “The gifts of the faithful teacher include patience, persistence, and consistency; they often do not appear in ministers [or lay leaders] on the fast track to success and popularity. Instead, they are gifts that must be cultivated in the soil of suffering, in the process of chaining one’s desires for the sake of submitting fully to God’s demands for ministry.”[iv]
We do not call ourselves evangelists anymore, but perhaps we should reconsider what being an evangelist means. Evangelists, like Timothy, witness to their faith through both their words and the way they live their lives. When we don’t witness to our faith, we create a vacuum for dazzling messages from false teachers, for something, for anything to make meaning of people’s lives! Paul encourages us along with Timothy to be evangelists and not to put our trust in our skill, our words, or our ability to change the culture we live in but to put our trust in the word. We can carry out our ministry fully with an abundance of energy, confidence, commitment, and joy because through the study of scripture, God will equip us to do so.
Greenwood Forest, as we begin this new phase of ministry together, God is calling us to be persistent, to keep praying, to uphold the gospel message, and to not lose heart in the religious landscape of 2016. We have been gifted Paul’s words of encouragement to Timothy this morning. Through Paul’s letter, God beckons us back to the basics, calling out to us: Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Hold fast to scripture. Let it read and interpret you, your life, and your world. Remember what it is for. It was not meant to make you feel good or to justify your lifestyle. It was not meant to justify a world where the poor and oppressed are kept down and the powerful are kept up. It was not meant to justify the denigration of any of God’s children. Allow the word to redirect your living. Allow it to convict you of sin. Allow it to equip you to be faithful. Jesus is always appearing; his kingdom is unfolding right before our eyes. Proclaim the gospel – whether the time is favorable or unfavorable! Do not distort the gospel to make it more attractive or palatable. It is not propaganda intended to grow the church for it’s own sake. The gospel is to always bear witness to Christ. We are to help one another by both rebuking and encouraging one another. This will require patience and commitment to the hard work of building relationships together in community. Be warned – there are people in the world and people among you who will want their ears scratched and will abandon faithful preaching and sound teaching for something that feels good, something that suits their own desires, something that gives them instant gratification, something that helps them avoid pain, something that keeps them from having to face the truth. Be steady. Be persistent. Prepare to endure suffering. Carry out your ministry fully as the body of Christ in Cary. Know that you can persist because God will persist with you, as God persisted with Paul, with Timothy, with the congregation at Ephesus, and with the mothers and grandmothers of your faith. Greenwood Forest, let us stand on the promises of God this morning and forever, as we seek together to carry out our ministry fully.