What do you think of when you think of Paul? A fiery speaker? A bold witness for Christ? Sometimes a kind of “bull in the china shop”? A great leader or an authoritarian tyrant, depending on your perspective? We can find all of those qualities in Paul’s letters. But 2 Timothy is different, I think, and that’s why I love it.
Like some of the other letters we’ve been reflecting on, we’re not sure if Paul wrote it himself or if someone wrote it later using Paul’s name—a definite no-no in our day but perfectly acceptable in that time and place. Scholars point out that our letter, along with 1 Timothy and Titus (which together are called the Pastoral Epistles) focus more on church structure and doctrine than the letters we know to be Paul’s. Vocabulary and sentence structure are different. But the writer clearly claims to be Paul, and pretty early on the Church accepted the letter as either written by Paul or true to Paul’s thinking. Personally, I come down on the side of Paul being the author—not just because of the scholarly arguments for that position but also because of how personal the letter is. It’s hard for me to imagine a ghost-writer expressing the heart-felt message that is in this letter to Timothy.
Paul had met Timothy in the city of Lystra. Paul and Silas had arrived there during Paul’s second missionary journey. We know from the book of Acts that Timothy had a good reputation in Lystra, and later in Paul’s letter, we learn that he was well-versed in the Scriptures we call the Old Testament. He understood how they point to God’s promises that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It was Paul who laid hands on Timothy as he was incorporated into the body of Christ.
Timothy’s father was a non-believer—a “Greek.” But his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois were Jewish women who had become Christ-followers. Paul remembers Timothy’s sincere faith, a faith that mirrors the faith his mother and grandmother had. These women had been steadfast in their Jewish faith. Their faith in Jesus wasn’t a new thing but an outgrowth of a life-time of faith. Timothy’s faith was formed by what was passed on to him by his mother and grandmother.
When Paul left Lystra, he and Silas took Timothy with them. It seems like everywhere they went, there was a disturbance, and Paul would have to get out of Dodge fast, so Timothy and Silas were often left behind to mop up before rejoining Paul. Almost all of Paul’s letters mention Timothy as his companion and co-worker.
Now, Paul is writing from prison in Rome shortly before his death, to Timothy who is leading the church in Ephesus. Paul pours out his heart to Timothy. He writes of his joys and his sorrows. He writes of the hurt caused him by the desertion of people he thought of as supporters and worries about those pushing false doctrine. He gives Timothy practical advice for how to pastor his people, and he encourages Timothy with words that will bolster him when the going gets tough. He reminds Timothy to rely on what has been passed on to him by his mother, his grandmother, and by Paul himself.
Paul writes of what he believes—the bedrock that sustains him, the gospel of Jesus Christ: that he “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Paul writes of how even in chains, in spite of all that he has suffered, he is not ashamed to have been a witness for Christ. He writes these poignant words of utter confidence in Jesus: “For I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” All this, Paul passes on to Timothy.
What has been passed onto you, and who did the passing? Was it a parent or grandparent, an aunt or an uncle? Was there someone outside your family who made a real impact on your faith—someone who took an interest in you and who taught you what they knew, who invited you to share their own ministries, who encouraged you to use your gifts in Jesus’ name? Who were the people in your life whose hearts were the places where you knew faith lived?
The first person who was that for me was my Grandma Greenlee. I grew up in the United Church of Christ—Grandma Williams’ church. But I had lots of Saturday night sleepovers at Grandma Greenlee’s, and that always meant going to her Methodist Church on Sunday mornings. Although Grandma Williams was very active in our church, and as an adult I came to realize how strong my mother’s faith was, it was Grandma Greenlee who really gave me the foundation for my faith. She taught me, partly by example and partly by instruction, the practices that sustain faith and help it grow.
It was Grandma Greenlee who taught me the Lord’s Prayer, which we said together before bedtime every night. She taught me the 23rd Psalm, so that I could say it from memory. I watched her read from her Bible every night as I settled into the twin bed beside hers, and I saw her lay aside her “Upper Room” when I greeted her in the mornings. She was one of those people who could talk about Jesus the same way she talked about any friend—as someone who was part of her daily life whom she talked with often, and who was her constant companion, in good times and bad.
When my brother called to tell me that she had died, he described how he had gone into her apartment and saw her sitting on the sofa, with her head turned toward the sliding glass doors. And as he described how peaceful she looked, I had an image of Jesus walking toward her, his hand reaching for hers, and her smiling acceptance of his invitation to go home with him. That moment was a kind of epiphany for me, when I knew I wanted that kind of faith—that kind of relationship with Jesus—for myself. That’s what Grandma Greenlee passed on to me.
All through my faith journey, I’ve met people who helped me build on that foundation: Yvonne Heminger, an older woman at the church where I was a member, who passionately lived out her commitment to social justice in Jesus’ name. Ken Hanna, who taught the first Bible Study I ever participated in. Kelly Fowler, a neighbor whom God used to get me to go on an Emmaus Walk, a pivotal point in my faith journey. Claudine Leary, a friend from seminary and a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, whose depth of prayer and faith leave me speechless. All of these people, and countless more, have passed on to me a greater understanding of who Jesus is and the tools I’ve needed to build a life of faith, just as Lois and Eunice, and maybe friends and neighbors in Lystra and the people of the church in Ephesus, and maybe Silas and certainly Paul passed on what they knew to Timothy.
In this story of what was passed on to Timothy, there is a challenge for us to pass on what we know to others. Certainly, as Christians we raise our children in the Church, giving them the best foundation we can. When parents have their babies baptized in the United Methodist Church, they promise to do what Eunice and Lois did for Timothy: they accept as their duty and privilege to live before their children a life that becomes the Gospel, to bring them up in the Christian faith, to teach them the Holy Scriptures, and to participate in worship.
But we also have the duty and privilege of passing on what we know to others outside our families. Sometimes that’s through preaching and teaching, and I am grateful for all are willing to take on those roles. I’ve learned a lot from gifted preachers. I’ve learned a lot from dedicated teachers. Jesus tell us to speak of him to others: “Go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” he said. When we join the church, we promise to uphold it by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. We are called, like Paul, to give testimony about our faith in Jesus.
But I have to say that what I’ve learned best is what I’ve observed. Even what I learned through classes and Bible studies and sermons stuck with me best if I observed my teachers living out what they taught. Perhaps that’s why, later in his letter, Paul calls on Timothy to remember all he has observed of Paul: his teachings, his conduct, his aim in life, his faith, his patience, his love, his steadfastness, his persecutions, and his suffering. We can pass on to others what we know of faith by how we live it in observable ways as much as we can by talking about it.
So how do we do that? The more I read the letters of the New Testament, the more I realize how practical and timely they are in giving guidelines for observably holy living. And, much of what they say is summed up for us as United Methodists in what are called the General Rules. These rules were passed on to us by John Wesley and are written down in our Book of Discipline. There are three of them. The first is “Do no harm.” The second is “Do good.” And the third (in Wesley’s words) is “Attend upon all the ordinances of God” or (in the late Bishop Rueben Job’s paraphrase) “Stay in love with God.”
The first two rules have to do with how we treat others and how we treat God’s natural world—in our relationships, our work, and our service. But as Wesley often pointed out, treating others well doesn’t mark us as Christians. Wesley said that even people who know nothing about Jesus can do the same. Those first two rules (“Do no harm” and “Do good”) are an essential part of a Christian life but don’t distinguish it. What is unique to us and marks our lives as Christian lives is how we the third—how we carry out what God has ordained as ways that sustain a life of faith.
For each of the General Rules, Wesley lists practical things we can do to live them out, and these are all included in the Book of Discipline. I’ll put a link on our web site if you’d like to look at them. The first two lists are kind of long, but the last is short and is drawn specifically from Scripture. It includes six ways God has given us to help us stay in love with God: “The public worship of God. The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded. The Supper of the Lord. Family and private prayer. Searching the Scriptures. Fasting or abstinence.” I’m not sure if Grandma Greenlee knew about the General Rules or not, but she surely lived them out. And as I think back over the people who had the greatest influence on my faith, I realize they did, too.
Participating in worship together was a priority. I often hear people say, “I don’t need to worship in a church. I worship better by myself listening to music or walking in the woods.” And of course, we can worship alone. But worshiping alone is not enough; it’s not a substitute for worshiping together. We worship together because Jesus gathered us together as a community. We look to the example of the early church and even farther back to the Old Testament and observe how God’s people worshiped together. Even on those days when we’re “not in the mood,” we need to be part of the gathered community because the people sitting next to us need us here and God wants us here. Regularly engaging in public worship together passes on to others something about what it means to be part of Christ’s body—that we are a community united by our love of Jesus.
For the people who passed on the most to me, Communion was a high point of their worship. In some churches, attendance is lower on Sundays when Communion is served. But, Wesley urged Christians to take Communion as often as they could, and the people who passed on the most to me did just that, coming eagerly to the table, every chance they got. Coming to the Lord’s table is where we are reminded through the tangible elements of bread and wine how much Jesus loves us. The Communion table is a visible sign that points to what we believe—that Jesus is the food that nourishes us and the blood that saves us. When others observe us coming to the table, we pass on to them what it looks like to be part of Jesus’ family, forgiven and redeemed.
Scripture had a central role in the lives of the people who passed the most on to me. They heard it read and preached on in worship. They read it daily. And they didn’t just read it or listen to it, they searched it; they thought about it and reflected on it to see what truth it held for them each day. They read it over and over so that it became part of them. When others observe us making Scripture the well that we draw from when we need guidance, strength, assurance, comfort, correction, or companionship, or when we just need words to express what we cannot express ourselves, we pass on to them the same resource we have been given to build our lives of faith.
The people who passed on the most to me were praying people. I watched them pray silently, as grandma did in her bed after we turned out the lights, and I listened to them pray aloud. They prayed at our dinner tables and in worship and in meetings. They weren’t afraid to offer a spontaneous prayer for someone over the phone or in the hallway at church or in the parking lot. They prayed their own words and they prayed the words of others that they found in Scripture and in books. They set aside specific times for prayer, and they prayed whenever the need or opportunity arose. When others observe us praying, they learn not to be worried about the how’s and the when’s of prayer, but we pass on to them the freedom we know that comes from having the Holy Spirit praying with us and for us at all times.
Fasting and abstinence are harder to observe, especially since Jesus tells us not to make a big show of them. But the people who passed the most on to me lived lives of restraint, and that is a kind of abstinence. They were generous givers, because they opted to spend less on themselves so they had more to give. They didn’t need the flashiest toys, the biggest house, or the fanciest car because they had a different kind of treasure. When people observe in us that the things of this world pale in importance to the treasure that has been entrusted to us, we pass on to them our confidence and trust in God and in Christ Jesus, who is able to guard until that day when he comes again what we have entrusted to him—our very lives.
One thing we cannot pass on to others is faith itself. Only God, through the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, can do that. But we can pass on the words of Scripture. We can pass on the practices we use to stay in love with God. We can pass on a vision of what it means to live as God’s beloved and redeemed community. Pass on what you can. Pass on what has been passed on to you. For in that way, we help others to receive for themselves the gift of faith that now lives in us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young