< October 10, 2010 >

Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:8-15


"Remember Jesus Christ!"

This is quite a command. And we are certainly in for a surprise if we think that remembering is simply "calling to mind" or looking at a painting of Jesus or contemplating a cross in our sanctuaries. It also will not be particularly helpful if we attempt to image what this "remembering" meant for the community to which it was addressed. One of the important aspects of the pastoral epistles is their attempt at translating Paul's teaching, the Gospel, into a new context. They give us a model for such a translation. The result -- the product of their translation -- is not and cannot be ours. We are called to translate the Gospel anew, perhaps even, every day.

This particular passage gives us some indication about how such a translation might happen. Reformulating the Gospel for our present communities of faith begins with "remembering" Jesus Christ. Here is the source and the goal of all translation. And remembering has certain attributes, as we can see in this text.

Jesus Christ, as the writer points out, whom we remember was a historical person. Now this seems to contradict what I just wrote: that we are not just calling to mind a person or event. However, the paradoxical nature of Gospel-remembering is precisely that, yes, we remember a historical person, but at the same time we remember the only person not bound by history. God's Word, the writer carefully points out, is not chained. It is not chained to a historical moment, it is not written once and set in stone, it is here and now as living Word, that is historical and yet ever new. Remembering is remembering Jesus Christ present in our midst today. Where? In whom? These are the questions you as a preacher propose and encourage your community of faith to answer.

A particular beautiful aspect of this remembering is that it is sung! Yes, we are not only remembering with words and concepts but with song. "The saying is sure..." The quote that follows is believed to be from an early hymn that this community most likely sang. They would have recognized it. They would "remember" that this Jesus, who is present today, is the one who brings life from our deaths, who sustains us even as we struggle to be faithful in our work of translation, who respects us and our work, our context, so deeply that if we deny him, he will not insist on making his presence felt, like a burden, an imposition, law. Violence is not his way. And if, in our faith, we falter, Jesus Christ remains this historical presence through all time for us.

Perhaps the other readings for the day give complimentary suggestions as to what this remembering means. In the Gospel, only one of the healed lepers returns. Only one returns to praise God. Here again, remembering is uttered in song, in a life that now dances in freedom, and seeks the kingdom of God, first, in all things. Jeremiah has a different call: "seek the welfare of the city." Here remembering is doing what is right for others, for the city, its inhabitants. It is embodying ways of justice.

The admonitions in the last few verses only reinforce what has been said about remembering Jesus Christ. Obviously, the writer understands something other than "doctrine" with the phrase "word of truth." Wrangling apparently follows doctrine, ideas, and concepts very closely! The veracity of this recognition is more than exemplified in our own day, especially in church politics. This wrangling does "no good" and leads only to "ruin." When our remembering Jesus Christ is reduced to concepts, doctrine or ideas, when it is boxed in then, quite simply, Jesus Christ is no longer the center of remembering. Then, our own invented notions are the center.

Here lies the danger of all doctrine, no matter how important (for doctrine is also one way in which we "translate," one way in which we "remember"): too quickly doctrine binds the word of truth, puts it in chains. For doctrine has always the tendency to turn itself into the truth rather than merely pointing towards the truth, who is not an "idea" or a concept but a person, Jesus Christ. When doctrine becomes the center of attention, then only wrangling ensues since communion cannot be created by our work but is given through the Holy Spirit.

What matters, for the writer to this early Christian community, is that remembering is known through the way they live, before God, that is, remembering Jesus Christ present today, for them, in the here and now. Presenting oneself  "to God," I believe, means presenting oneself to one's brothers and sisters. The community does not present itself to an imagery throne but to the world, to the city (Jeremiah -- see the best for the city!), to the neighbor in thanksgiving. The judge likewise is the other!

"Rightly" speaking the word of truth? Rightly is one of those words that continually pushes us back to "pure" or "correct" doctrine. Yes, as we have seen, "rightly" has little to do with conformity to doctrine. It has to do with conformity to Jesus Christ. Rightly speaking is remembering Jesus Christ. It is freeing the Gospel for the other. It is suffering in that attempt. It is rejoicing and singing because it knows that this work of remembering is always God's own work in our lives.