Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Second Timothy begins—as New Testament letters often do—with a greeting, an expression of gratitude, and a prayer.

Luke 17:5
"Increase our faith!" Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 6, 2019

Second Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Second Timothy begins—as New Testament letters often do—with a greeting, an expression of gratitude, and a prayer.

What follows in the case of 2 Timothy is an exhortation not to be ashamed of the testimony about Jesus, which Paul (I realize that the author of 2 Timothy seems pretty clearly to be someone other than Paul, but for simplicity’s sake I will refer to the author as “Paul”), in a sense, embodies.

There is a clear progression in how Paul frames up that testimony:

  1. God saved us.
  2. God calls us to a holy calling.
  3. God has a grace-purpose: to abolish death, and to bring life and immortality to light.

This testimony is given (verse 9) to us by Christ Jesus from before time—hearkening to the beginning of the Gospel of John—revealed (verse 10) by Jesus’ incarnation, and then entrusted (see also verses 6, 13-14) to us as the “good treasure” which we are, in turn, to embody and testify to.

Paul then exhorts Timothy to face, as Paul has, the “cost of discipleship.” Paul says, “for this reason—his testimony about Jesus—“I suffer as I do.” Paul exhorts Timothy to join him in this suffering, or at least the possibility of suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

Which, at least for me as I reflect on the Gospel in present era, begs two basic questions, which are related:

Is there a social cost to preaching the Gospel, or to living it out, or to sharing it?

And, is there a danger of conforming our testimony about Jesus to the expectations or desires of this present age?

Second question first. I think the answer is clearly “Yes!” There is such a danger, and probably always has been, ever since Christ first walked the earth. In my current setting—in affluent, well-educated middle-America—there are those who are tempted to think of Jesus not as Suffering Servant, but as CEO. Less as God-incarnate, more as a wise teacher; more as a social engineer or community organizer, than a Savior. Each of these temptations to our testimony about Jesus arises from a particular cultural milieu, and has less to do with Jesus himself and more to do with we who would testify to him. I wonder if we aren’t, sometimes, just a little embarrassed by Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, diagnosed this kind of preaching rather sharply:

“A [person] who first tried to guess ‘what the public wants,’ and then preached that as Christianity because the public wants it, would be a pretty mixture of fool and knave.”

The Christian message, or better, the message about the Christ cannot, in its essence, be conformed to the shape(s) that our cultures might more tolerably digest. To change the message to make it more palatable is to distort and destroy it.

Paul puts it a bit more gently saying, not just to Timothy but to us, “Hold fast to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

First question second, then. Is there a social cost to embodying the Gospel? There probably ought to be.

Such suffering is, for most of us, of little account; our lives are not required of us. And yet, it can be a barrier.

Two of my own stories might illustrate the point.

When I was a senior in college, after I had been accepted into seminary, I saw one of my professors (and letter of recommendation writers) in the campus coffee shop. I dropped by his table to tell him, with no small excitement, that I was going to be a pastor. A young woman at the end of the table looked up from her studying, frowned at me, and shook her head. (For the record, she didn’t know me, and so her head-shaking was not thereby justified.)

A frown and a headshake at my happiness over going to seminary. Hardly dangerous. Hardly a source of “suffering.” Hardly offensive, even. And yet, that puckered brow and shuddering countenance have stuck with me.

Another from when I was in college. When I was a junior I studied in Shanghai as an exchange student. I lived in the foreign students’ dormitory with my Canadian roommate, two other Americans, a couple of Australians, one Italian, ten or twelve Japanese, and over fifty students from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. We western types, as well as the Japanese, were there to study Chinese language, literature, and history, which was facilitated at the university or college level. The African and Arab students were in China because of arrangements made at the government level, to study math and science in English; to my knowledge none of them studied Chinese formally. Which left many of them very isolated.

This was in the days running up to the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. I remember watching on Chinese television coverage of the first use of the so-called “smart bombs.” It was a tense time to be an American studying abroad. In the foreign students’ dormitory, just inside the entrance, there was a chalk board for student announcements. As my days in Shanghai wore down and we drew closer to war, more and more frequently we would walk into the dorm and find that chalkboard filled with Arabic script. And as often as not, there would be one English word somewhere in the midst of it: Bush. It was tense.

My Zambian pal Enock went so far as to tell the Arab students, many of whom were Muslim, that I was not only a student, but in the U.S. Marines as well. Enock’s thinking, if you can call it that, was to protect me. As he told me, “Karl, if they think you are an American soldier, they will not dare to touch you, for fear.” Helpful.

Shortly after New Year’s my Canadian roommate was on a trip to Beijing, and I was up late, studying for an exam. There was a knock on my door, and when I opened it, was met by one of the Muslim students from Yemen. He stood in the door in formal attire, with his jambiya at his hip. The jambiya is a ceremonial (but very functional) dagger, with a broad, curved blade of about six inches, and is worn by all Yemenis men of age. So, there he stood, knife and all.

Well, I did exactly what you would have done in that situation, at that tense time … I invited him in.

He entered, and promptly did two things—he shut the door behind him, and then reached up and pulled the wire from the two-way speaker above the door. That two-way speaker was a way for the front desk—usually manned by two old Chinese communist party members—both to contact us for any reason, and to listen in on us; which they did. Every now and then we would hear it pop on as they eavesdropped. With the wire pulled, there was no communication, one way or the other.

I didn’t know what to expect in that moment. And I didn’t really know what to do. So, I asked him how I could help him.

  • He began by telling me about his family, his wife and four sons who were back in Yemen.
  • He told me that he had been separated from them for more than three years as he pursued his degree in mathematics, and that he missed them.
  • He had been trying, for the better part of two years, to get the university to allow them to come and live with him, with no success.
  • He had come to me, hoping that I would write a letter to the president of Huadong Shifan Daxui, East China Normal University, in Chinese—because a letter in Chinese would be, he said, more respectful, and more likely to succeed.

So, I did. We spent the next couple of hours working over a letter in Chinese, asking that his family be allowed to come and join him. He gave me his words, and I did my best to put them into Chinese.

When we had finished, I gave him the letter and asked him another question, “Why did you come to me? There are others here whose Chinese is much better, who have been here longer and who would do a better job. Why me?”

And he said, “I come to you because I know that you are a Christian. And I knew a Christian would help me.”

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be that kind of Christian, the kind that creates expectations.

Now, to be clear, I share this not because I’m the hero of the story. I’m not. The point is that the testimony of Jesus, embodied (however feebly) in us, is filled with potential; the potential, to be sure of un-safety and suffering, but also the potential for faith and love to break forth from us.

This text from 2 Timothy exhorts all who read and preach from it to “Guard the good treasure” entrusted to us. The best way, the only way, is to at once “hold to” this standard, and to unleash it.