Summit Presbyterian Church
October 3, 2010
2 Timothy 1: 1-13
Until That Day
Shortly after I graduated from college I spent two years in Brazil, in a small university city. It was a wonderful experience: I made good friends, saw beautiful places and learned a lot. But it was also lonely and often hard. I had gotten a job through friends, and I had people to welcome me and help me settle in, but I was basically on my own. Especially that first year, as I was learning the language and finding my way, I was homesick. I yearned for friends and family. So letters from home meant a lot -- decades later I remember how I could barely contain the excitement and joy I felt when I saw a letter in the mailbox. I knew that when I opened it I'd find words of encouragement, news and gossip. There was always something to make me laugh. Reading them lifted my spirits and helped me feel close to those far-away friends. In this age of cell phones, e-mail, notecards and relatively cheap long distance rates -- let alone facebook and twitter - it's hard to convey - or even remember - what letters were like. (I'm not that old but I feel like I'm talking about the horse and buggy days). Letters didn't come every hour or even every day. Writing them took time. You had to choose what you would say. Perhaps for those reasons letters could be deeply meaningful.
The scripture this morning is such a letter. It may not seem that way when we read it in church. We don't know Paul or Timothy and it was written nearly 2,000 years ago in a very different world. It was a personal letter and also meant to be read out loud to the congregation --- but when we hear it from the pulpit we tend to hear it as a sermon. But if we read between the lines we can see that Timothy - and his congregation - must have been yearning for such a letter, and grateful to receive it. For it seems Timothy was having a hard time. Paul encourages Timothy to "rekindle" the gift of God that he received when Paul laid hands on him -- in baptism or ordination -- so perhaps Timothy was tired, wavering in faith, burned out. Paul, gently, reminds Timothy that God did not give us a spirit of cowardice - so perhaps Timothy was feeling fearful, or timid. Paul tells Timothy not to be ashamed, as he, Paul, was not -- and Timothy may well have been ashamed that his friend and mentor was in prison. Paul tells Timothy to hold to sound teaching, suggesting that Timothy may have been tempted by teachings that promised an easier road. We don't know the details. But we do know that to be a Christian in those early days would have been hard and lonely. Most people thought those Jesus followers were crazy: claiming that some Jewish faith healer executed by the Romans was the savior of the world, risen from the dead, more powerful than any emperor, offering forgiveness of sins as though he were God. Surely many folks thought Christians were deluded, claiming the Kingdom of God was at hand when anyone could see that the Kingdom of Rome was still ruling with a brutal hand and when pain, violence, and hunger were as terrifying as ever. Those early disciples often had to break old ties and leave behind their way of life - it was hardly a path to social acceptance. It was hard to be in the early church because those Christians were divided among themselves - arguing and walking away from each other even more than we do. And they faced the daily struggles that all people faced: keeping body and soul together, finding enough to eat and a safe place to stay; back-breaking work; losing loved ones through death or other kinds of separation. No wonder Timothy was discouraged. He must have hungered for a letter from his mentor and friend.
And Paul's encouraging words can be summed up like this: you are not alone. First, Paul says, remember that I'm praying for you, night and day, grateful to God for your faith. I too, Paul says, long to see you: then I will be filled with joy. Paul then reminds Timothy of his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. A sincere faith lived in them, says Paul, and I'm sure it lives in you, too. Remember them. Paul goes on to mention nineteen other people: Christians in different cities and congregations, all seeking to be faithful. Paul's mention is not always favorable and his news is not always good. Alexander is a jerk, says Paul (in Greek), keep away from him. Trophimus is ill. But Claudia sends greetings! How welcome and interesting that news of other Christians (dare we call it gossip?) must have been to Timothy and his community. But most important, says Paul, God is with you. The gift of God is within you, I laid hands on you myself, and that gift is a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. You don't need to depend on your works to save you, for God calls us with a holy calling, according to God's purpose and grace. And remember the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And if you need to suffer for proclaiming God's word, says Paul, remember that I suffer with you: but we shouldn't be ashamed, for God is trustworthy. We will see it on that day. The Holy Spirit is living in us.
This letter was written to Timothy and his congregation, but here in the Bible it's a word of encouragement for us, too. We face different challenges than those early Christians, but it's also hard for us to lead faithful lives. Even in the midst of the congregation we may feel lonely, or weary and discouraged by all the work. Being a Christian today in this country isn't dangerous the way it was for Timothy - especially when we're timid about it. It's still, in may ways, a road to social acceptance, not social ostracism. But we also have friends and family shaking their heads at our claim that a man who was killed 2,000 years ago is also the source of divine forgiveness and everlasting life, one with God the creator. We're also tempted by other teachings and activities. Teachings, for example, that sidestep God and encourage us to just live up to our potential and do the right thing. We, too, face daily struggles: even in our comfortable and affluent lives we know we could lose our jobs and our homes. We suffer loss of loved ones through death or estrangement, our inner demons threaten to undo us, our bodies betray us. And we face global challenges that Timothy and his congregation could not have dreamed of. The widening gap between rich and poor. Climate change and a nuclear warheads that both threaten to end life as we know it and wipe out civilizations -- I know I'm sounding hysterical but it's true. And we have a ten-year deadline. No wonder we also feel discouraged, fearful and wavering in our faith. So Paul's words are for us, too: We are not alone. We have the faith of our ancestors to rest in. Our ancestors who built this building, our parents and grandparents who may have raised us in faith, all those saints who have gone before us - not necessarily Christians - leading holy lives of love. We also have the company of Christians in every corner of the globe, millions of names we don't know and couldn't pronounce: God has called us together in one church, with one holy calling, according to God's purpose and grace. And as we follow that calling - proclaiming God's love and loving one another; caring for creation, seeking justice and peace -- we can remember that it doesn't all depend on our works. God is trustworthy and will bring all together on that day.
And we not only have the Word in scripture to encourage us. We have the Word in sacrament -- the sacrament of Holy Communion. Holy communion that unites us with Christ in the bread and in the cup. Holy communion that unites us with all the faithful who have gone before us -- those we've loved and those we've never known. Holy Communion that unites us with Christians across the globe, including those we disagree with or who live very different lives. We are not alone. So come to the table: be strengthened to live out your Holy call. And remember: God has give us the Holy Spirit, which lives within us.