2 Timothy 1:6-9; 13, 14 [NRSV]
For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.
Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
Today’s scripture reading in 2 Timothy is a letter most likely written long after the apostle Paul had passed on. We can figure that out by looking at the literary character of 2 Timothy, the theology, and also the mention of historical things that occurred after Paul’s death. So most likely we are looking at a letter written by someone else, in Paul’s name [a ghost writer]. This isn’t trickery or meant to confuse us. This is simply a tradition of letter writing that honored a person and passed on his/her legacy. It is often referred to as a testament, the famous “last words” or legacy of a famous person. You can find this type of testament writing in the Hebrew Scriptures [Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.] and in the New Testament [Jesus].
The point of this testament letter is encouragement. At that time, probably the first part of the 2nd century, followers of Jesus of Nazareth were suffering persecution. False teachers were everywhere, promoting a false, agenda-based gospel, imperial cultures were spreading across the land, and people were scared and discouraged. So this letter encourages Timothy by reminding him of his roots. His mother, a devout Jew, and his grandmother, a follower of the Jesus way, were the ones who mentored him in faith. What was most important? Trusting God, finding grace in following this Jesus way, and embracing strength of the Spirit.
The laying on of hands is of course a tangible symbol that we still use in the modern faith community. It is a physical touch that reminds a person of his/her connection to a wider community. It is a support network. Typically, the modern church does the laying on of hands for ordination of clergy. But it really could be done at any time and in any place, and for anyone. Having experienced it myself on various occasions, I will say that it can be a powerful reminder that we are not alone.
Our practice of faith is not real unless it is lived out with other people, in the world.
The touch reminds us.
See, oftentimes the word faith remains just a word. This is a mistake.
Anyone can believe in something if he/she decides to believe it. We can believe some incredibly absurd things sometimes. If you watch a lot of television, you know where this can go. Some of us can believe someone or something without even checking the facts or even pausing for a moment to think about it!
Why is that? I think it’s because when we are desperate, we are willing to buy into anything that may relieve our suffering—even if it is completely hollow, empty, and even untrue. Suffering can cause that sort of desperation.
But this is not faith. This is just empty belief. I have plenty of experiences to back this up. Many people have come to me at various times in my life looking for concrete and quick answers to their suffering.
Give me the answer, Josh!
Make me feel better…and now!
What can I believe to make my suffering go away?!
Of course, they were always disappointed [and some got angry], because I did not tell them what they wanted to hear. There is no quick fix. Believing in some dogma or doctrine doesn’t heal your wounds, get you a good job, or fix your family’s issues. Neither does believing every word your religious leader says.
So here is why I find hope in 2 Timothy and what I hear it saying to us:
Faith is a muscle and must be developed and worked out over time.
Fear and suffering do not overpower grace and love.
Faith is a muscle. That’s right—it’s something we have to work on and develop. We can claim to believe in something or someone, but it doesn’t become real until that belief is tested in real-time, in the world. You say you love Jesus and believe in his teachings? Okay, that’s great. But it doesn’t become real until you are faced with applying that in your life. I have known plenty of people who said they loved Jesus but when it came to loving a person who identified as gay or lesbian, or someone they called immigrant; or someone of a different social level; or someone of another religious tradition; all of a sudden, that person’s love ran quickly out the door. I’ve also known too many people who claimed to be followers of Christ, but when they lost a job or got sick or suffered the loss of a loved one, they followed only a path of hate, depression, and apathy and sadly spread it around to others.
Faith is a muscle. If you don’t keep your muscles active, they develop atrophy. Faith can get flabby. It has to be tested by life. And it’s not easy. Throughout my life, my faith has changed drastically. Experiences have forced me to into a corner sometimes and I have had to adjust. Relationships with people have changed my way of thinking and living. Along this journey, I am so grateful for these slaps in the face, radical changes, and opportunities for growth. But it never ends.
Neither does suffering. And 2 Timothy does not ignore suffering. Fear is a real thing.
So the message is: don’t push your suffering and fear to the side.
Recognize them, and then embrace the grace and love you already have in you.
Do not be ashamed is saying do no let fear rule your life.
Grace and love are fear-conquerors. In Timothy’s story, he did not come to faith because of fear.
He came to faith because people loved him and showed him grace. And he discovered God that way.
So do not be ashamed.
Love and grace are part of your story.
We need to hear this, you and I.
We too get discouraged with what is happening in our world. For sure.
It’s insane sometimes, isn’t it? How many wars need to rage on? How many people must suffer or die?
Why do some never get the food and water they need to live?
Why do others hoard money and resources all for themselves?
Why is there prejudice and racism in our communities?
Why do people seem to prefer violence over conversation?
Why do I suffer from physical pain?
Why are my memories of a horrific past still haunting me?
When will this suffering end?
These questions are unanswerable.
There are no cookie cutter solutions to make us feel better.
But, in honesty and in community, I think we discover that grace and love are more powerful than fear.
Yes, I know. Consider this planet–we are all very, very different and unique. We speak different languages, wear different clothes; we pray differently; we have different ideas; we often don’t agree. But we do share this: we all suffer and deal with the day to day struggles of life. We all do. In the midst of that suffering we search for meaning and peace. We all do. No matter where we live, there are times when we just don’t know if we’ll make it and there are moments when fear surrounds us. All of us around the world want children to be safe, loved, mentored, and fed. Everyone wants access to healthcare, and clean water, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and education, and a job that makes them feel useful to the world.
An honest faith admits that this is not reality for everyone. Suffering is real. But an honest, developing faith doesn’t wait for things to get better, or for death, or for the second coming.
Instead, love and grace must be rekindled.
Today we should light that fire again, because this flame can consume fear.
That is our encouragement.
This fire–this light–exists in everyone.
And sometimes we will especially need others to lay hands on us and give us encouragement and a simple human touch. Other times we will need to re-light the fire in someone else who is depressed or without hope. And other times, as a community, we will need to join our flames together with others who also seek grace and love.
Friends, rekindle the flame of love and grace in yourself.
Look out into the world and see that we are not limited by these walls, nor permanently paralyzed by fear. We are indeed global citizens, light-bearers of a world in need of compassion and love.
So build that muscle.