The Drama of Scripture, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Plymouth First United Methodist, October 20, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Mary Ann Cain is one of my favorite people. She is a lay-person, she’s wise, full of vim and vinegar, well-read, and devoted to Christ and His Church. She was our Director of Adult Ministries or Education or some such title when I served in Elkhart, and she continued to serve until she retired some years after I headed off to a new congregation. I remember in some setting that we were a part of, when she said something that was pretty simple but profound. She said, God equips those whom God calls. Mary Ann wasn’t the first to say it, of course, there are variations of that statement in several places in the New Testament, but at that moment I really heard it. It was a word of encouragement for whatever was happening in my ministry at the time. It’s a word that has continued to encourage me over the years, and one I’ve shared with others along the way who needed to know that they weren’t being sent out alone, defenseless, like sheep to the wolves.
God equips those whom God calls.
We’re going to step off the trail we’ve been traveling this morning for a bit as Jesus and his followers continue on toward Jerusalem without us. We’ll pitch a tent, rest our weary feet and catch back up with them next week.
This morning, we’re going to jump ahead to 2nd Timothy to look at a section of the letter that Paul wrote to encourage and equip Timothy in his ministry. Paul knows that it won’t be long before he’ll no longer be able to do that for Timothy. Here in his 2nd letter to the young pastor, Paul is an old man expecting to die soon. He’s in prison. He’s had his first legal hearing and he is waiting for the second one. He expects a death sentence. There are things he wants to be sure to tell Timothy before he dies.
Scholars disagree on whether Paul is the actual author of the letter. It may very well have been written at some point after his death by a secretary of sorts, whose purpose was to communicate Paul’s concerns, his teachings/his words of encouragement/his heart to this young pastor who he has mentored and partnered with in ministry. In the first part of the letter he names the challenges Timothy faces, and points him to the pillars that will sustain and empower his ministry.
He begins by affirming Timothy’s background and experiences: Continue with the things you’ve learned, Paul says. With the things you’ve come to know, the things you learned growing up, the things that I have taught you, that others have taught you along the way. Timothy had the advantage of being raised in the faith. Though his father was Greek, his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois were Jewish followers of Jesus. He had the witness of tradition. You’ve known the holy scriptures, Paul says, and they’ve taught you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Jesus Christ.
The holy scriptures that Paul is talking about were the Old Testament writings: the Hebrew Scripture. The gospels were being written around the same time frame as this letter was written, but it wouldn’t be until some years later that the church would identify them, along with Acts, and certain epistles as scripture, as well. We might say that Timothy and Paul and the others were still living the New Testament…creating it through their writings, their lives and experiences. And yet, as Paul said earlier in this letter to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David—that is my gospel,” we can see that the heart of our New Testament, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is what inspired them…The good news of Jesus Christ is what sends them forward, to communicate God’s love and the salvation found through Him.
Paul continues to address the role of scripture in Timothy’s ministry. “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.”
There are some who have interpreted this teaching as proof of the literal correctness of scripture, basically, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
As we read Paul’s words in today’s lesson, it’s helpful for us to look at the context Paul is addressing: the setting in which he and Timothy find themselves. In Paul’s day, Sadducees and Samaritans considered only the Torah (the Law) to be authoritative, and didn’t give the same weight to the Prophets or other writings that we consider part of the Old Testament today. Paul was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees did count the Prophets and Writings as authoritative. When Paul wrote that “every scripture is inspired by God,” he may have been saying that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings are all inspired by God (in contrast to the Sadducees, who claimed that only the Torah carried this kind of authority).
Adam Hamilton notes in his book Half Truths, that when Paul writes “every scripture is inspired by God” he likely is not referring to every word or verse in the Old Testament, but instead is addressing a question of which individual writings circulating among Jewish communities in the 1st century were influenced by God.
Hamilton continues, “I read [the Bible] recognizing that the biblical authors were people, writing for various purposes and for specific audiences in particular historical circumstances… These authors related their experiences of God—the way they heard him speak, as well as the way they thought and believed about God and God’s will for their lives. God was at work in them, influencing their writing, and God continues to influence all of us as we read their words. This is far different from saying, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” (Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things The Bible Doesn’t Say [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016).
Food for thought.
Paul continues in verse 16, advising Timothy that scripture is not only “inspired by God” but it is “useful.” Not necessarily useful for me to get done what I think needs to get done, but rather “useful” for God to get what God wants out of me. That makes us bold to believe that right here in our church, almighty God with the power of the Holy Spirit uses these ancient, sometimes hard to understand strange writings called scripture “for teaching, for reproof (showing mistakes), for correcting, and for training character.” Why?? “So that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” for God.
Let’s take a little break here and reflect on the holy scripture in our lives, here and now. As Christians, we continue to recognize the significance of scripture as it informs/shapes our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. We embrace scripture as the Word of God: it’s how we come to know who God is, about God’s love for us and for our world.
But, let’s be honest: reading it and understanding it can be a challenge. The Bible is old. The newest parts of scripture are 2000 years old. Nothing in the Bible was written in English. All of scripture arose in cultures very different from our own. It’s no wonder it can be hard for us to understand. You don’t just pick up a work by Homer or Dostoyevsky, even one of their books translated into English, and think that you could easily read it and immediately understand it.
The late Ellsworth Kalas a UM pastor and preaching professor at Asbury Seminary whose name is on several books on my shelf wrote this: “our Bible is not what one would expect a book of religious instruction should be. If you and I were preparing a book to bless and guide people’s lives, we wouldn’t include large portions of Numbers, Chronicles or Ezekiel. And we’d organize it differently. We have to acknowledge that this book has a style and purpose of its own; and we confess that in a sense, it has succeeded in spite of itself. On the surface, it isn’t the sort of book which looks like a bestseller. It’s long, and there are many dull and difficult portions. And while there is a plot, you have to pay attention if you’re to find it.”
But Kalas insisted that the plot was worth discovering…and truly, it is. In spite of its difficulty the Bible is a story of a love affair between God and the human race. The Bible tells us of God’s love for us. It’s literature that wants to do more than simply convey some historical information to us. It wants to do more than give us some accurate descriptions of who God really is and what God is up to in the world.
Scripture wants to change us, to transform our world. It wants to commandeer our lives. Paul told Timothy that scripture’s goal is to make us different people than we were before we listened to the ancient texts. Scripture wants to say something to us that we can’t hear anywhere else, and in saying that special word to us, scripture wants to transform us…and even more than that, to enlist us in following Jesus.
We might think of church as lifetime training in how to listen to scripture read and preached, and then how to interpret and live out scripture in our daily lives. We come, we listen, we open ourselves up to what God is saying to us.
The theologian Karl Barth said that when we listen to scripture, we ought not first of all ask ourselves how we might better understand the text, the historical context or how the text might be useful or relevant in our lives (although that can be useful, as we’ve already seen in understanding today’s lesson). Instead, we ought ask: How might God be calling me to change through this text? How is every text a summons, a vocation, a call to conversion?
The ancient words of scripture are called the living word of God. Maybe you’ve had this experience: the story is familiar to you, you’ve read the same story/the same text a number of times. But for some reason, on one particular day when you read it or heard it read, you saw it in a completely different way. It meant something different than it ever did before, because of whatever was happening in your life at that time. I read something this week that described it this way: as we read the Bible, it reads us.
Understanding scripture doesn’t require that you learn New Testament Greek. It doesn’t mean that you have to engage in a scholarly study of Christian history. It does require that you cultivate a humble willingness to let scripture penetrate your soul, that you be open to hearing your name called in the reading of scripture and that you listen for God’s summons to you, your assignment delivered through these ancient texts, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, become the voice of God here, now.
In the last verses of today’s text Paul commissions Timothy to the ministry to which he’s called. He’s been called, he’s been equipped and Paul is sending him out as an ambassador for Christ. As he does so, he tells Timothy to proclaim the message/preach the word, to be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable (CEB reads convenient or inconvenient). Correct, confront and encourage with patient instruction. And know that times change, that people don’t always want to hear words that are challenging or different: they (we) prefer seeking out teachers/instruction that makes us feel good about who we are now and where we are now, rather than being challenged to hear a new thing that God may be calling us to do…but persevere, carry on, do the work of a preacher of the Good News.
As United Methodist pastors, we’re commissioned/ordained to preach and teach the Word of God, to provide pastoral care and counsel, to administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and to order the life of the church for service in mission and ministry. Alongside this pastoral role, I believe with all my heart and soul that each and every one of us in our baptisms are called to serve as ministers, as well. We are all invited into the drama of scripture and ministry. To preach the word through the way we live our lives, to be persistent in faithfulness, to be encouragers who care enough to challenge one another to be our best selves, to engage in the study of God’s word—both personal and group study as much as possible so that we will know God’s word and allow it to shape our lives each and every day. As Christians, all of us together are called.
And in so many ways, God will equip you. God equips those whom God calls. May that give us the confidence we need to live faithfully and fully in Christ’s service. Amen.