September 26, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
You get the feeling that even the people who put together various Bible translations don’t know what in the world to make of—or therefore what in the world to do with—the first part of Luke 17. The NRSV chose as its sub-heading “Some Sayings of Jesus.” The NIV opted for something that looks like the beginning of a shopping list: “Sin, Faith, Duty” (you’re tempted to add “Eggs, Milk, Cheese . . .”)
As younger folks have been given to say in recent years when encountering any utterance they deem a bit off-beat, so we could say of Luke 17, “Well that was random.”
Indeed, not a few preachers might well be tempted to take the week off from the Gospel text and try something else from the Lectionary. (And lucky for you, the CEP website does provide sermon jump start articles on all 3 texts each Sunday!)
But suppose you want to stick with this text. It actually will yield some fine insights.
True, what we seem to have here are some strung-together statements that at first blush seem to not flow well one into the other (and that are anyway rather difficult to figure out even in isolation from each other). The Lectionary probably has not helped matters by choosing to start at verse 5 but the words of the disciples (called “apostles” here, which is an odd anachronism in and of itself—see the “Textual Notes” part of these sermon starters) appear to be some kind of response to the words of Jesus in verses 1-4 about forgiving those who offend us. When the disciples ask for more faith in verse 5, it seems to be in reaction to Jesus’ advice in verse 4 about a seven-fold forgiveness for a seven-time offender. Thus, it’s a little tough to hack off the first four verses of Luke 17 when preaching on this text. (I myself find that replies make more sense when seen in the context of that which is being replied TO! Many and mysterious are the ways of the Lectionary . . .)
But despite the oddities of this passage, what also strikes you when reading it is that Jesus seems to be unusually direct in these verses. Assuming that Jesus was not typically sarcastic or mean-spirited (I suppose we can assume that he was never guilty of sinful patterns of speech that belittle others), it may be that Jesus’ point in these words was that we may at times be guilty of making the Christian faith out to be harder—and maybe more noble—than necessary.
Let me explain. Jesus has just admitted in verses 1-4 that life is full of unsavory people who are intent on tripping us up spiritually. Maybe those who cause others to stumble would indeed be better off at the bottom of the sea, sunk to the depths mafia-style with a cinderblock for a necklace. But the fact is that most of the people who may deserve such a watery grave won’t get one and will keep on causing scandals and spiritual upset for others. These folks are not going to go away and no church—no matter how pious, holy, spiritual, or wonderful—will ever be free of them, either. (Notice that in verse 3 Jesus admitted that the person who sins against you may well be another “disciple” or “brother” and not always some anonymous person from outside the community. Nine times out of ten, we know the names of the people who cause us the greatest hurts in life—most of the time they are also people who at one time or another we called our friends and who we may well call “friend” again in the future!).
The probability that we will be hurt by one another even in the community of faith is high and ongoing.
But the thing to do is to be honest about such hurts and to confront those who offend us. Nothing feels better than a good old fashioned confrontation. Especially when you are convinced that you are the wounded (and so innocent) party, it is something of a moral head-rush to upbraid the one who inflicted the hurt. There is no indignation as sweet as righteous indignation, after all!
But Jesus makes clear that it can never be for the sake of revenge that you do such confronting but with the hope of restoration such that the moment the offender repents, your next job is to get off your high horse of confrontation and forgive this person, letting the matter drop for good. What’s more, that posture of forgiveness needs to be true even for repeat offenders who do the same thing to you over and over and over. (And let’s be honest, the people whom we know and maybe even love who hurt us tend to inflict the same hurt repeatedly across the years. “Why is she ALWAYS like that?” we ask about a mother-in-law, a sister, a friend, a coworker. And the little adverb “always” is apt: those who criticize you for your weight, for your clothing, for the kind of car you drive, for your work habits, or for the overall cut of your jib rarely proffer such critiques just once!)
“Keep on forgiving, “Jesus said in verse 4. So in verse 5, where this lection technically begins, the disciples reply, “Fine, Lord. We can do that just as soon as you increase our faith.” We know, I think, where that request came from. There is more than a hint of an attitude of “Yeah right!” behind this. Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh. Easy for HIM to talk. As someone once said, God forgives wholesale but most of us muddle through on the retail level of forgiveness. God is a five-star general of forgiveness whereas the rest of us are mere lance corporals.
The disciples—to use another analogy—feel like a multi-millionaire just told them to go and take care of the endemic problem of hunger in certain African nations. In response the disciples say, “Sure, we will get right on that right after you grant us a couple million of your bucks, OK?” You’ve got all the goodies, they are saying to Jesus, so how about sharing some with us spiritually impoverished guys?
But Jesus doesn’t let it go at that. Instead he reaches for a bit of good old gospel hyperbole—what someone once called the language of sacred excess—and says, “Increase your faith?! Why? The smallest faith in the world can tell trees to walk. You’ve got more faith than that right now so don’t go telling me that you don’t have enough in your faith tank to forgive someone seven times in a row.”
In other words, what you need is not more faith but fewer excuses.
To hammer home Jesus’ actual point a bit more, Jesus then tells a story that as much as says, “Oh and by the way, WHEN you have forgiven someone seven times with the faith you already have, don’t come trotting back to me like some dancing dog and expect a pat on the head for being such a super disciple. You’ll be doing no more than what you’ve seen me do, and what I do is what I’ve seen my Father do. It’s the family way in the kingdom of God and when you act in accordance with who you are by grace, that’s wonderful but you’ll just have to pardon me if we don’t crank up the angel choir with the Hallelujah Chorus each time you forgive your mother-in-law for telling you for the umpteenth time that you may not be good enough for her daughter. This is just how it goes in life. Deal with it and let’s move on.”
This really is the nitty-gritty reality of life. Maybe the NIV was right to sub-title the section with something that resembles a shopping list. This is just how it goes on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings. We have to deal with “Sin, Faith, Duty” even as we learn how to live as a Christian sister or brother to John, Phil, Judy, Sharon . . . “Sin, Faith, Duty” really is like a daily “To Do” list. We maybe don’t like it, but this is very often what the life of grace simply must look like.
Is there anything important about the fact that Luke puts in the anachronism of “apostles” in verse 5? It may be no more than a slip of the pen as Luke wrote this gospel long after “apostles” had become the common term for Jesus’ followers. But it may also have been intentionally put there as a way to signal to the reader that the tensions that surround forgiveness and the need to put up with one another’s failings again and again was indeed going to persist on and on even into the apostolic age of the church. Maybe they really had been known only as “disciples” on the day this conversation with Jesus took place. But the question at hand persisted even long after those same people became known as “apostles.” Those who have ears to hear . . .
In his novel “The Blood of the Lamb,” author Peter DeVries skewered his Calvinist upbringing in many ways. In one particular scene he shows a group of devout men talking with the pastor in a living room of someone’s house. The men seem to be having a grim contest to see who can outdo whom in belittling their own spiritual works. No matter what act of service got mentioned, it was immediately decried as no more than “a filthy rag” that could not but stink to highest heaven compared to the shining glories that God alone possesses. The narrator of the novel observes this scene and then wryly comments, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can imagine what we made of vice.”
Is Luke 17:10 in the Bible to foster an atmosphere of spiritual denigration and abasement? Is Jesus saying here that at the end of every day, the work of a Mother Teresa, of a parish nurse, of a missionary in China, of a Hospice volunteer really amounts to no more than a pile of dirty rags performed by worthless servants who can do no more than plod through the Christian life as a grim set of duties, receiving neither divine nor human approbation or praise?
No. The same Jesus who in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain made it clear that great blessing attends those who live in kingdom ways cannot be interpreted here as saying that this same kingdom-shaped lifestyle is of no account in God’s sight. Nor did Jesus die on the cross for people who, even after being washed by grace, are even still to be accounted as “worthless.” If we rarify or isolate this saying of Jesus and so use it as a blanket statement on how we view Christian living, we make a grave mistake borne of exegetical ignorance of what is really happening in Luke 17.
As noted above in this set of sermon starters, the upshot of Jesus’ words appear to be a response to comments from the disciples that indicate they perhaps thought that loving the unlovable and forgiving even repeat offenders constituted some lofty act of super-Christian living. Jesus tells them that this is not so: they already had all they needed to lead Godly lives that exuded grace and forgiveness. What’s more, exhibiting those traits needed to be considered routine, not so extraordinary as to warrant arresting spectacles of celebration and such.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Cheery this lection is not. The New Testament sermon starter based on Luke 17 for this week is a bit of a challenging passage and so as I noted in that sermon starter, some preachers might be tempted to swap out this week’s Old Testament reading for the Gospel one but if so, then turning to this downbeat passage might make one keep hunting among this week’s Psalm and Epistle selections!
Lamentations 1 is just not a very happy text. But then, it is what one would expect from a book with a name like “Lamentations.” It would be startling to turn to such a book and find joyful ditties or sweet-sounding sentiments such as you might find inside the average Hallmark card. No, the dirge of sorrow that one reads in these six verses fits the bill for a book such as this.
It’s not our favorite thing in the Bible to read, however. And if the preacher were to focus on only these verses, one might worry about how such a sermon would turn out. If preachers are called to proclaim some version or another of the Good News of the Gospel in every sermon—if we want to point to Christ and to his kingdom in some way no matter what the text—then a passage like this one presents a mighty challenge.
But maybe contemporary discomfiture with a text like this runs deeper and is undergirded by other things we ought to ponder. After all, much of worship these days (at least in some churches today, including some of the largest and fastest growing congregations) does not give a lot of quarter to lament. As my friend Paul Ryan once noted, many churches now have what they dub as “Praise Teams” but few would ever dare to commission a “Lament Team.” Praise Teams stand in front of the congregation in part to help people sing better but many such teams that I have witnessed seem also to be standing up in front of everyone to send the signals as to how everyone should also be feeling on a given Sunday morning. Flashing smiles and beaming forth beatific facial expressions, some Praise Team members seem to say, “This is what you are supposed to look like when you come before God!”
But what if you don’t feel like that on a given week? Where is the person standing up in front of church who can send the signal that there is room in worship and in the congregation of God’s people to look and feel otherwise? Where is there room for what Walter Brueggemann has called “the Friday voice of faith”?
We are not very good at lamenting. What Christians in North America do seem pretty good at, however, is anger. We are able to give voice to our indignation over political figures, policies, and other features to the cultural landscape that tick us off. Some Christians are, therefore, pretty adept at making big, angry, accusatory placards to carry with them to rallies or to picket in front of the Supreme Court or something.
Anger and rebuke we’ve got. Lament and dirge . . . not so much.
I wonder what that says about us as a church? When we see things that are broken in our world—yes, even when the precise way in which they are broken is a cause of moral offense to us—should we react in anger or lament? What’s the source of each?
Anger seems to be a response borne of indignation, as though we had something better coming to us and someone let us down. Anger is sometimes called “love offended.” If we offer love to someone and act consistently loving toward them but get only hurt and abuse in return, we’re angry about that. We didn’t deserve it given what we had proffered in the first place. Or possibly anger can be the way holiness reacts to what is unholy. In the Bible God is never fundamentally an angry Deity—anger (as Abraham Heschel so well pointed out many years ago) is never a constitutive attribute of Yahweh in the manner it may be of certain Greek gods and such. But God is supremely holy, and thus many of the times when something of the wrath of God flares up in the Bible, it is because that holiness encountered something untoward and tawdry.
Of course, we Christians are called to holiness but we none of us as yet have holiness all sewn up. And we are called to be loving but we none of us as yet have love down pat, either. And it’s an open question just how much love the average Christian believer or entire congregation has consistently offered to the people around us in society who so often make us angry. When we get angry at society, we could say that maybe it stems from our holiness or our love but it’s an open question if we can really sell that idea (or if we really believe it ourselves). It seems more likely that we’re angry for more selfish reasons on a trajectory of the petulant child who pouts whenever she doesn’t get her way. Our anger, in other words, stems less from our holiness or love being offended and more from our sense of moral superiority and an inflated sense of our own piety. But those are not laudable sources from which to be angry.
In any event, as someone once wrote: the face of anger is never lovely, and it’s also, therefore, an unlikely emotion by which to promote the gospel.
But where would lament come from, yes, even lament over our society and its brokenness? Might this not be a more spiritually informed reaction to the sin and sorrow we see around us? Might not lament stem from a heartfelt wish that everyone could see things God’s way and live into God’s shalom. Lament may be our reaction when we sense how much better things could be if only God’s ways were followed and yet we must witness how far so many people are from that ideal. Lament may be what comes when we see people being hurt by their ignorance and their blindness to the ways of God—we weep not because so-and-so is such a bad person but because he or she is such an uninformed person. It’s sad.
Make no mistake: lament is a very different reaction than anger. And it may be the more spiritual reaction even as the face of lament—unlike the unlovely visage of anger—is the face that best brings forth and witnesses to the Gospel. Since we are not God and so cannot claim perfect holiness or perfect love directed at the world, our reaction to the world’s sin and brokenness should not be first of all anger—as though we have offered the world our best and it was rejected or as though we are ourselves so holy as to be offended by all who are less holy—but rather we should react with lament, with sheer heartbreak over what could be but is not. Even if the situations we survey are the result of sin—as was the case for Judah’s situation as it is described in Lamentations 1—even so we can lament as the author of Lamentations does.
A sermon on Lamentations 1 would not, on the face of the passage at least, seem to be one that would contain good news or grace. But perhaps if we help people to focus on the nature of lament and what it is that causes genuine lament, we will find a way to get back to grace after all. Perhaps it really is Christian lament over sin and brokenness that can provide us with the best opportunity to move people toward what’s good and lovely and gracious about the Christian life and the Gospel itself. And that may be a good news emerging out of lament after all!
It is not weak faith but strong faith that has the ability to lament. It takes courage to lament, especially if the lament is—like many laments in the Bible are—essentially a complaint to God for God’s own dereliction of duty. “You promised us thus-and-so, O God, and we got the opposite. You owe us! How long will you ignore the cries of our pleading??”
That’s plucky faith.
Elie Wiesel once wrote that for a Jewish person, you can be with God, for God, disappointed with God, or even angry with God but the one thing a true Jew can never be is to be without God. So long as God is in the picture, lament can happen, and so can praise and thanksgiving and lots of other things but the point is that it is not the person without God who laments but the person who is with God in some way and who knows better than anyone what the Lord God desires for our lives and for this cosmos generally.
The story is told that in one of the Nazi concentration camps where Jews were housed (and many eventually murdered) some of the rabbis and other Jewish leaders present decided one day to put God on trial for unfaithfulness. The entire trial essentially amounted to a lament for the broken condition of God’s world and now of God’s people. Arguments were made, witnesses were called, Scripture’s promises were read and put into the dock. Finally a verdict was pronounced: God was guilty as charged of letting go of his promises. They were about to begin pondering what kind of a sentence to pass when they had to break off for the day.
It was time, you see, for evening prayers.
Author: Stan Mast
The lectionary is on a roll in these early weeks of autumn, or in a rut. How you see it will depend on whether you like being instructed. For the last four Sundays (Psalms 1, 113, 146, and part of Psalm 51) the lectionary has been focusing on Psalms that give counsel to God’s people in the framework of praise. These are hymns that teach, poems specifically designed to instruct God’s people in wise living.
Psalm 37 is perhaps the classic example of such didactic, sapiential Psalms. Indeed, there isn’t a single word of praise in this Psalm, not one word directed to God. It is all God speaking to us through the mouth of a teacher, preacher, mentor, or some other wise person. It is all teaching.
In fact, the Psalmist is so intent on instruction that he arranges the Psalm as an alphabetic acrostic; every other verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, there is no progression of thought in the Psalm, just a drumbeat repetition of a theme developed around the alphabet. That is probably a mnemonic device designed to help children or older disciples learn the single lesson being taught here.
The entire Psalm is directed toward one question, a question that occupied Israel’s thought for centuries. We hear it at the end of our reading for today in verse 9, but it is repeated in verses 11, 22, 29, and 34. Who will inherit the land, that is, the land promised to Abraham in the original covenant promises in Genesis? In his fine book, Waiting for the Land, Dr. Arie Leder (my colleague at Calvin Theological Seminary), shows how central the land was in Israel’s life: the promise of the land to a nomadic family, the yearning for it in a foreign land, the march toward it through the wilderness, the conquest and settlement of it, the enjoyment of it during the golden years, the loss of it in the Babylon Captivity, the promise of restoration to the land, etc.
The land was central to Israel’s identity and welfare. But when Psalm 37 was written, God’s people were worried about their future in the land. Who would inherit it in this new age? Who will continue to live in the land, enjoying the promised blessings of Yahweh? God’s simple answer is first heard in verse 9, but it reverberates throughout this Psalm. “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”
Given the specificity of that problem, a contemporary North American preacher may well wonder how she can preach this Psalm to a non-Jewish 21st century congregation. Well, think of that last verse again. Where do we see evil threatening the welfare of those who hope in the Lord? Where do we see the wicked persecuting the righteous? Obviously, we see that in the Middle East, where the Christians in Iraq and Syria are specifically targeted by ISIS and threatened with death if they don’t convert, pay a tax, or leave. They are being driven off their land by “evil men.” More subtly, we see it in America or Canada, where some of your congregants will identify with Israel because they feel they are losing the land they love. Having suffered one defeat after another in the culture wars that have changed the moral and spiritual landscape of their country, they feel like men and woman without a country.
Who will inherit the land? What kind of people will win? What are the conditions that will assure us a full and happy life in the land God has given us? All those questions raise the existential question common to all human beings, how do we decide how to live? Do we take our directions from the culture around us or from the revelation of God’s will in Scripture? Do we watch the human drama and particularly the power and prosperity of the wicked or do we trust the providence of God and his promises about the future? Do we give in to the pressures of the present or live by the promises of the future? Do we focus on the way things seem in the world or do we have faith in what God says in his Word? Do we live by sight or by faith?
As we deal with the answer Psalm 37 gives to that central question, we will need to be careful how we define the alternatives, particularly because Psalm 37 frames the issue as a struggle between the wicked and the righteous. Who are the wicked? Because Psalm 37 often talks about the wealthy, it would be easy to identify the wicked as the uber-wealthy, the infamous 1% or the upper 10%. In this day of glaring and growing income inequality, any socially conscious preacher would be tempted to move in that direction in a sermon on Psalm 37.
But a careful reading of Psalm 37 shows that these “wicked wealthy” are not wicked because they are wealthy, but are wealthy because they are wicked. Not all wealthy people are wicked; indeed, some are chief among the righteous (e.g., Job, Abraham, David). But the wealthy identified as wicked in Psalm 37 have gotten their riches by oppression and violence, by financial schemes and cheating, by ruthless business practices, by keeping far too much of what they gain rather than using it for the welfare of others. They have taken charge of their own affairs and achieved success “by hook or by crook.” They are the masters of their own fate, the captains of their souls.
We know those last words are a true description of the wicked, because of the way the Psalm characterizes the righteous—not in terms of a legalistic adherence to a list of rules, but in terms of a deep trust in the Lord and a commitment to doing good. “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture (verse 3).” The righteous are not the self-righteous Pharisees strutting around so that all can see their goodness, but the humble waiting in stillness and hope in times of trouble (verse 7). The righteous are not the irritating “goody two shoes” who give a bad name to holiness, but humble folks who simply look to the Lord as their prime source of joy and peace and their refuge in the challenges of life (verses 39-40).
As we call our congregations to be righteous in a wicked world, we should pay attention to the pregnant words and phrases of Psalm 37. For example, the Psalmist uses the word “fret” three times in our reading for today, obviously emphasizing that response to a world in which the wicked seem to win all the time. “Do not fret because of evil men….” The word conjures up images of little old ladies nervously knotting their hankies or anxious little children obsessively chewing their fingernails.
But the word is more powerful than that. In the Hebrew it is harah, which means “heated, inflamed with anger, intensely worked up in a self-harmful way.” No wonder verse 8 precedes the call not to fret with a warning about anger. “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath.” This kind of intense, angry fretting can lead to disillusionment and mistrust. That’s why the Psalmist contrasts fretting with trusting. Don’t let the inequities of life shake your faith in the Lord. “Do not fret—it leads only to evil.”
Further, don’t miss the positive way Psalm 37 describes the life of the righteous. God’s people can get the impression that trusting God and following Christ is restrictive and boring, especially if we spend a lot of time watching the cavorting and carousing of the wicked. But verse 4 pictures the life of the faithful in very positive terms. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Of course, we’ll need to take care that we don’t fall into a “health and wealth gospel” understanding of that verse. It’s not a promise that we’ll get everything the world calls prosperity and success, if we just focus on God and his promises. If we truly delight in the Lord, our values will be shaped by the Lord and we will desire what he values. Verse 5 and 6 put it very well. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of our cause like the noon day sun.” Show your congregation the beauty of those words, and you will help them want to be righteous. The life of the righteous is filled with delight and light.
We will also need to help our people understand verse 7, where those who trust the Lord are told to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him….” That is not a call to what one writer called “passive quietism” that simply rolls over and plays dead before the evil in the world. In the face of overwhelming wickedness, there is surely a place for righteous anger (but remember the warning of James 1:20 about the ultimate ineffectiveness of such anger). While such anger may be justified, verse 7 seems to be saying that it is more effective to calmly seek justice in an unjust world. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 about his identification with the hurting are a clarion call to get up and help the marginalized. Sitting passively in the face of is itself an evil thing. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke) So, don’t let your folks read verse 7 that way.
Rather, focus on what that verse actually says. We are to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him….” It is easy to be overwhelmed by the power of evil in the world, to be cowed into inactivity by the sheer force of wickedness. So we must focus on the awesomeness of the Lord. We won’t be able to do that if we are fearfully watching the world go by and fretting that God isn’t doing anything. We have to stop our racing minds, quiet our fearful hearts, and be still before the Lord’s sovereign power. We have to fold our busy hand, close our darting eyes, stand still in the rat race, and wait patiently for the Lord to act.
He will do that in the future. That emphasis on the future is a key in Psalm 37. It doesn’t so much explain the situation that makes the righteous fret; there is no theodicy here, clarifying the ways of God with his people. Rather there are promises and reassurances of what God will do in the future. Note the preponderance of future tenses, culminating in verse 9. “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”
Time is a key factor in this Psalm, but it is time as God calculates it. The wicked seem so successful and substantial, but their day in the sun is as temporary as the grass in an arid land, as insubstantial as a wisp of weed. The righteous cry out, “How long, O Lord?” It seems as though he will never act. But, says the Psalm, you have to believe that God will come in his own good time.
It takes a lot of faith to believe that. And that’s exactly what Psalm 37 is, a statement of faith. The only way we can do all the things Psalm 37 calls us to do is to trust that the Lord is sovereign and faithful to his people. Our reading for today is filled with imperatives, and we should preach that. We need to strongly call ourselves and our people to an active faith. But to actually trust him that way, we’ll need a solid foundation truth. The Psalm ends with exactly that. “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.”
Those last words can easily be connected to Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom God saves us. Indeed, unless we focus on him, people will not be able to trust an unseen and sometimes apparently inactive God. When we find ourselves fretting about our place in a world filled with wickedness, we must put our faith in Christ who said, “In the world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The future promised in Psalm 37 has come in Christ, and he is coming again to finish the job. So, “trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.” The Good Shepherd is with you.
To bring closer to home the central issue of inheriting the land, you might think of your own variations on examples like these. I know a teacher whose professional life was shortened by the bullying of a group of “mean girl” colleagues who pushed her out of her place as department head by a campaign of lies. Or, I remember a little boy who hated school because the “cool kids” had decided he wasn’t cool enough and ostracized him. Every day he wandered the playground in exquisitely painful isolation. There was with no place he felt at home and accepted. He had no place in the land.
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is all at once so clear and yet so paradoxical. The opening verses of Paul’s second letter to Timothy are at once soaring in their reveling in God’s power and grace and yet brutally honest in talking about the suffering the gospel sometimes brings to its best heralds. Paul can see it so clearly: God is all about grace as it turns out. It’s been his plan since before time. Grace was going to lead the way home and that much was established way, way back even before was was. And now this hidden treasure of grace has finally and fully been made manifest in Christ Jesus the Lord. Every good thing God had planned, every gift of salvation he had stored up for us, finally was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul can see it. And he commends the riches of the gospel that tells this good news to his younger counterpart Timothy as he labors in his congregation in Ephesus. Timothy has a gift for preaching and teaching. The Spirit ignited that gift in him when Paul laid his hands on him to set the young Timothy apart for ministry. And that same Holy Spirit that lit up Timothy’s gift also lends us courage, perseverance, love. All in all, it’s just simply a wonderful package of goodies that Paul revels in here.
But the wider world does not always receive it as such. The world resists grace and the gospel message that proclaims it. Who knows why. You’d think people would always have room for good news. You’d think you’d never get in trouble for telling someone about the love of God for his creation. You’d think that a freebie salvation that comes 100% by grace alone would be a deal too good for anyone to pass up.
Not true, however. Because from time immemorial it seems that anyone’s certainty about the truth is always seen as a threat by somebody or another. One person’s good news is another’s bad news and if the Spirit of God fills his servants with love, they are not infrequently met with raw hate. And if the world hates the message, then it’s a simple fact that the best way to deal with that is to rough up the messengers.
Paul, then, cannot gush on and on about God’s wonderful grace without admitting a truth Timothy knew only too well: suffering is often part of the package. Whether you are someone who believes the Pastoral Epistles were pseudepigraphical literature written by someone posing as Paul seeing as he had recently been martyred or that these were indeed the last letters of Paul just before he was killed, either way the fact of Paul’s demise hovers over this letter, and Timothy must have known that too.
The fact that people like Paul hung in there to the point of death is evidence of the utter conviction they had of the gospel’s truth and that grace and humility and sacrifice really do pave the road to God’s kingdom. But the fact that the world has for so long opposed this message may also indicate the presence of a counter-narrative. For something as good as the gospel to be seen as a threat, there must be a competing story that some see as being imperiled by the gospel.
But isn’t that the arc of the wider biblical story anyway? Humanity fell in love with a lie told by the chief of all liars who really does fight against all things divine. There is a counter-narrative out there, one that claims humanity is the measure of all things, that selfishness and getting ahead is all that counts, that brute force is how you make your way in the world no matter how many people you have to step on—or even squash—along the way. Those who know only such lust for power also know only one way to respond to anything that threatens their worldview, and that is also brute force and punishment and the dealing of death. Forgiveness is for losers, grace for wimps, humility for, well, for the humiliated. Be the world’s doormat or claw your way to the top. Those are your choices and so beware those who tell you that being the doormat is the way of salvation.
Of course, perhaps it should be pointed out that sometimes Christians today suffer because, as a matter of fact, they have managed to turn the good news of the gospel of humble grace into its own kind of political power play replete with strong-arm tactics and a lot of ugly shouting and protesting. Not all resistance to the gospel comes about because someone is presenting the gospel in its pure form. Some suffering that people endure is actually well earned. Those who think Christians need to take up arms to force people to behave or to believe ought not be surprised when someone on the other side shoots back.
However, even when the message and the messenger are in wonderful alignment—as was surely the case with Paul—suffering comes. But that is where faith comes in. Because in 2 Timothy 1, as throughout most all of Paul’s writing, there is no hint of self-pity, no rancor or bitterness. Not at all. Why not? Because Paul’s vision is consumed with all the other stuff he talks about here. He sees God and his Lord Jesus clearly. They are good and faithful. They have showered us with promises and are not about to let any one of those promises fall to the ground unfulfilled. There is no shame in telling the truth and no shame in suffering for it.
It’s curious that here and elsewhere (Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 1 comes to mind) Paul seems most concerned that neither he nor anyone else stop talking about the gospel not because they’d be afraid or suddenly become convinced it wasn’t true. No, he worried people would get to be ashamed of the message somehow and this would clog up proclaiming it. Shame would be a curious reason to stop talking about Jesus and his grace. Yet I suspect we know why Paul fretted this. Even today there are more than a few hints in the land that some see the gospel as being too feminine, too wimpy. In the USA at least there has long been a desire to let machismo lead the way, to have a hairy-chested, manly form of Christianity that is muscular and brawny and powerful. Tell some men—and maybe even women—that the gospel tends toward what some might describe as more feminine traits, and you will see shame start creeping over people’s faces.
This phenomenon is just the latest reminder that the counter-narrative that is out there—and the evil one who wants it propagated—can find all kinds of ways to undercut the real Story of Jesus and his love. It’s something of a constant battle to make sure we have our eyes fixed on the One who has revealed his grace to the universe and filled it with light and life precisely by leading a humble life of utter sacrifice, gentleness, mercy, and kindness.
Thirty years ago already the theologian Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen noted in one of her books that when you look at the Fruit of the Spirit as detailed in a place like Galatians 5—and when you contrast those Fruit to the works of the flesh that Paul also details in that chapter and elsewhere—then you cannot help but notice that the traits most to be associated with disciples are the same traits that sociologists and psychologists see as being more feminine. Something similar could be observed regarding the traits Jesus lifts up in his Beatitudes in Matthew 5. At least in the ways boys and girls have been socialized in the last century or so in the Western world, traits like gentleness, meekness, goodness, kindness are regarded as properly demure qualities when manifested by girls/women but “sissy” when they characterize a boy or a man. Likewise, the traits associated with being “macho” (look it up in a dictionary) tend to be the very domineering, virile, powerful, and assertive qualities that are not typically associated with Jesus, the Beatitudes, or the Fruit of the Spirit but that can be seen behind various works of the flesh.
Paul warns not that we become too afraid to speak up for or embody the gospel but that we do not become ashamed of it. But such shame can take many forms, including for men who worry that living in such ways will diminish their manliness (or for women who likewise defer to such attitudes and also come to believe that more masculine traits somehow have something to do with the gospel way of life).