Sermon for 2nd October 2010 Good Shepherd Murrayfield.
“For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” 2 Tim 1:6 (New American Bible)
Once upon a time (I trust this is a suitable beginning for a sermon!) not so very long ago, this text would have been preached on in both the RC and the Episcopal Churches as either (or both) an affirmation or a defence of the 3-fold Apostolic ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon – and ya, boo, sucks to the Presbyterians! It would also have been cited as being written by the apostle Paul himself. I intend to do neither of those things. Firstly, there are more New Testament scholars than not who think this is at the very best written by Paul’s post martyrdom disciples in the spirit of and in tribute to the Apostle. The phrasing’s all wrong and the language too different for it to be by the man himself. Some would say that the references to Church order and structure mean it is really written in the early 2nd century AD. Paul died in 67 AD; but that the 2nd letter to Timothy contains a number of bits and pieces from his actual writings and from very early Christian liturgies (v10 might be a quote from an early Eucharistic Prayer).
But why am I telling you all this? What, in the immortal words of a wee Glasgow woman who went to St Ninian’s Pollokshields when I was a Curate there, has this got to do with the price of Spam in Govan? I’m illustrating what the point of this Epistle is: using the gifts God has given us. God gave me a brain and I can use it when I read the Bible and study the Scriptures. Just because I believe in God and go to Church, I am not by pious custom or divine commandment required to check my mind in at the West Door! And neither are you! I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I get really narked by the assumption both within the wider Church and in the non-God Bothering world that if you believe you have to be a credulous half wit who thinks that God dictated every word in the Bible by some form of ancient Dictaphone to the people who are named as the authors of the assorted bits of ancient literature that make up the Christian Holy Book. (The “I confess” by the way was an example of the sort of liturgical quoting that might have happened in verse 10!).
The gifts given us by the imposition of hands does not and cannot in the Church today refer exclusively to the ordained. In our modern baptismal liturgies, hands are laid on, the baby or adult is anointed and the gift of the spirit is prayed for and given. The comments attributed to Paul are properly addressed not just to the young leader of a young Church (Timothy) or even to Church leaders in general in every age – they are properly addressed to every single baptised Christian called by grace and the Holy Spirit. In other words, to each and every person here today.
And they are challenging words indeed: we are reminded that we are not called to be cowering, timorous Church mice. Because we have within each one of us the actual presence of Christ himself with whom we were joined in a spiritual and mystical union when we were baptised. That gift may have lain dormant, it may never have expressed itself in anything other than quiet unostentatious faith and steadfast Christian loyalty, but it is a gift each one of us has. Often we forget that. We forget that Christ is part of us, especially when the spiritual going underfoot is soggy to bloody difficult. We forget to draw on his resurrection power, his grace and strength. We need to hear that message today, so that we may truly live and serve – or rather, that Christ may really go on living and redeeming the world through us.
We are also challenged to follow the examples of the Great ones of God – like Paul, like John Henry Newman, like St Francis, whose Feast Day is tomorrow. We can do worse than study the lives of God’s saints and draw inspiration from them. Different ones will inspire different people. Some will not inspire us at all. Personally, I cannot abide St Jerome! The Scottish Prayer Book has a very apposite collect that sums this up nicely: it begins “O God the King of saints” and it has the neat phrase “inspired by their example and aided by their prayers” to sum up the usefulness of God’s saints for us today.
We are also encouraged to trust in the Grace of God: ”I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day” (v12). Never mind Richard Dawkins and company, trust in God and Grace to win out in the end. The reference in verse 5 to Timothy’s mother and grandmother is significant here. They were both Jewish born (you are Jewish if you mother is Jewish), yet must have been Christians (converts in others words). Timothy is a Greek name so his mother probably married a Gentile. Both would have been ostracised from their birth community of faith for apostasy and his mother doubly abhorred for marrying out with the accepted cultural norms of the day. Yet they trusted and in due course they triumphed because the Grace of God surrounded them. We too like them can learn to trust and to triumph.
The final challenge is for us to trust in the truth and power of the Gospel as it comes to us through the words of Holy Scripture. “Take as your norm the sound words you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (v13). At a profound level, it is quite irrelevant when or by whom this epistle is written. They are sound words expressing the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus and have been recognised as such within the Christian Community over the ages. That is what matters. They have spoken and continue to speak through the action of the Holy Spirit to faithful souls in every age and culture. That is what makes them Scripture, not who wrote them or when or what bits were added on later by well intentioned editors or fans. It is their power to speak to us and to inform us, guide us and even change our actions and our thinking that make them the Scriptures of God. And it is their ability to draw us nearer to God and to make us more Christ like through Grace that makes them Holy. May the holy and life-giving Word of God, the Christ himself, stir into flame the gifts that lie within each one of us, so that his will may be done and the Day of Glory may arrive.