Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 2, 2016
2 Timothy 1:1-14 Commentary
It is all at once so clear and yet so paradoxical. The opening verses of Paul’s second letter to Timothy are at once soaring in their reveling in God’s power and grace and yet brutally honest in talking about the suffering the gospel sometimes brings to its best heralds. Paul can see it so clearly: God is all about grace as it turns out. It’s been his plan since before time. Grace was going to lead the way home and that much was established way, way back even before was was. And now this hidden treasure of grace has finally and fully been made manifest in Christ Jesus the Lord. Every good thing God had planned, every gift of salvation he had stored up for us, finally was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul can see it. And he commends the riches of the gospel that tells this good news to his younger counterpart Timothy as he labors in his congregation in Ephesus. Timothy has a gift for preaching and teaching. The Spirit ignited that gift in him when Paul laid his hands on him to set the young Timothy apart for ministry. And that same Holy Spirit that lit up Timothy’s gift also lends us courage, perseverance, love. All in all, it’s just simply a wonderful package of goodies that Paul revels in here.
But the wider world does not always receive it as such. The world resists grace and the gospel message that proclaims it. Who knows why. You’d think people would always have room for good news. You’d think you’d never get in trouble for telling someone about the love of God for his creation. You’d think that a freebie salvation that comes 100% by grace alone would be a deal too good for anyone to pass up.
Not true, however. Because from time immemorial it seems that anyone’s certainty about the truth is always seen as a threat by somebody or another. One person’s good news is another’s bad news and if the Spirit of God fills his servants with love, they are not infrequently met with raw hate. And if the world hates the message, then it’s a simple fact that the best way to deal with that is to rough up the messengers.
Paul, then, cannot gush on and on about God’s wonderful grace without admitting a truth Timothy knew only too well: suffering is often part of the package. Whether you are someone who believes the Pastoral Epistles were pseudepigraphical literature written by someone posing as Paul seeing as he had recently been martyred or that these were indeed the last letters of Paul just before he was killed, either way the fact of Paul’s demise hovers over this letter, and Timothy must have known that too.
The fact that people like Paul hung in there to the point of death is evidence of the utter conviction they had of the gospel’s truth and that grace and humility and sacrifice really do pave the road to God’s kingdom. But the fact that the world has for so long opposed this message may also indicate the presence of a counter-narrative. For something as good as the gospel to be seen as a threat, there must be a competing story that some see as being imperiled by the gospel.
But isn’t that the arc of the wider biblical story anyway? Humanity fell in love with a lie told by the chief of all liars who really does fight against all things divine. There is a counter-narrative out there, one that claims humanity is the measure of all things, that selfishness and getting ahead is all that counts, that brute force is how you make your way in the world no matter how many people you have to step on—or even squash—along the way. Those who know only such lust for power also know only one way to respond to anything that threatens their worldview, and that is also brute force and punishment and the dealing of death. Forgiveness is for losers, grace for wimps, humility for, well, for the humiliated. Be the world’s doormat or claw your way to the top. Those are your choices and so beware those who tell you that being the doormat is the way of salvation.
Of course, perhaps it should be pointed out that sometimes Christians today suffer because, as a matter of fact, they have managed to turn the good news of the gospel of humble grace into its own kind of political power play replete with strong-arm tactics and a lot of ugly shouting and protesting. Not all resistance to the gospel comes about because someone is presenting the gospel in its pure form. Some suffering that people endure is actually well earned. Those who think Christians need to take up arms to force people to behave or to believe ought not be surprised when someone on the other side shoots back.
However, even when the message and the messenger are in wonderful alignment—as was surely the case with Paul—suffering comes. But that is where faith comes in. Because in 2 Timothy 1, as throughout most all of Paul’s writing, there is no hint of self-pity, no rancor or bitterness. Not at all. Why not? Because Paul’s vision is consumed with all the other stuff he talks about here. He sees God and his Lord Jesus clearly. They are good and faithful. They have showered us with promises and are not about to let any one of those promises fall to the ground unfulfilled. There is no shame in telling the truth and no shame in suffering for it.
It’s curious that here and elsewhere (Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 1 comes to mind) Paul seems most concerned that neither he nor anyone else stop talking about the gospel not because they’d be afraid or suddenly become convinced it wasn’t true. No, he worried people would get to be ashamed of the message somehow and this would clog up proclaiming it. Shame would be a curious reason to stop talking about Jesus and his grace. Yet I suspect we know why Paul fretted this. Even today there are more than a few hints in the land that some see the gospel as being too feminine, too wimpy. In the USA at least there has long been a desire to let machismo lead the way, to have a hairy-chested, manly form of Christianity that is muscular and brawny and powerful. Tell some men—and maybe even women—that the gospel tends toward what some might describe as more feminine traits, and you will see shame start creeping over people’s faces.
This phenomenon is just the latest reminder that the counter-narrative that is out there—and the evil one who wants it propagated—can find all kinds of ways to undercut the real Story of Jesus and his love. It’s something of a constant battle to make sure we have our eyes fixed on the One who has revealed his grace to the universe and filled it with light and life precisely by leading a humble life of utter sacrifice, gentleness, mercy, and kindness.
Thirty years ago already the theologian Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen noted in one of her books that when you look at the Fruit of the Spirit as detailed in a place like Galatians 5—and when you contrast those Fruit to the works of the flesh that Paul also details in that chapter and elsewhere—then you cannot help but notice that the traits most to be associated with disciples are the same traits that sociologists and psychologists see as being more feminine. Something similar could be observed regarding the traits Jesus lifts up in his Beatitudes in Matthew 5. At least in the ways boys and girls have been socialized in the last century or so in the Western world, traits like gentleness, meekness, goodness, kindness are regarded as properly demure qualities when manifested by girls/women but “sissy” when they characterize a boy or a man. Likewise, the traits associated with being “macho” (look it up in a dictionary) tend to be the very domineering, virile, powerful, and assertive qualities that are not typically associated with Jesus, the Beatitudes, or the Fruit of the Spirit but that can be seen behind various works of the flesh.
Paul warns not that we become too afraid to speak up for or embody the gospel but that we do not become ashamed of it. But such shame can take many forms, including for men who worry that living in such ways will diminish their manliness (or for women who likewise defer to such attitudes and also come to believe that more masculine traits somehow have something to do with the gospel way of life).
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