The Unchained Word
Pentecost XV; September 5, 2021
II Timothy 2:1-13
Let me get this out the way right up front: if you have done any study of the New Testament, you may have been taught that Paul probably didn’t write II Timothy. Well, that was a prevailing scholarly opinion for over a century, but is not universal. There are good reasons to claim that Paul did write this, so I’m going to go ahead and speak about the author as Paul. And frankly, it doesn’t matter a whole lot, anyway. It’s still in the Bible.
Paul writes that he is committed to the gospel that claims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, long expected by God’s people, and that Jesus is raised from the dead. In that light, he starts out by reminding us of the importance of passing on that gospel from one generation to the next. Human survival depends on people passing on lots and lots of knowledge from one generation to the next, and that includes the knowledge of God.
Let me dive into this a little deeper. Paul says that the Gospel is that Jesus is the Son of David and that he is raised from the dead. As the Son of David, Jesus is the human figure that people have longed for; he is the hope for salvation, the way of peace, the vehicle for God to turn this world more and more into the kingdom of God. God had promised David that he would have an heir who would be the righteous ruler of God’s people; Jesus is that heir. So Jesus is our salvation; Jesus is our hope.
Paul says that Jesus is raised from the dead: that means that he is alive, he is our living Lord, whom we can know and serve. He gives us grace; he receives our praise. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Paul doesn’t write, “Remember doctrine about Jesus;” he writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” I emphasize this to make clear the most important aspect of transmitting the Faith from one generation to the next. It is not most important to teach doctrines; Paul didn’t say to remember the doctrine of the Resurrection, but to remember Jesus Christ, who is raised. It is not most important to help young people become good church members. It is most important to teach each generation to know Jesus Christ. When you parents take vows of baptism, your promise is not merely to pass on information about Jesus to your children. Your promise is to help them to know Jesus.
If we fail to do it, I believe God will find a way to get it done, but we will have missed our opportunity. Though Paul is in chains for the gospel he serves, the word of God is not chained. If we chain our lips and do not teach a generation to know Jesus Christ, God will find a way to get the unchained word out just the same. But we will have missed out.
Now, to emphasize the seriousness of dedication to the gospel of Jesus, Paul gives us some compelling images: the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. Can you identify with any of these? I know we have quite a few veterans in our congregation, and I wonder if Paul’s words ring true. He says that the soldier is not to get bogged down in trivialities, but is to have single-minded focus on the orders of the superior officer. Here’s a moment from my own life that illustrates that for me. For many years I played the role of the Lord Mayor at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Now, in 16th-century England, mayors were not elected; they were appointed by the Earl or other noble responsible for the town. So I used to joke that I was a politician, but that I needed only one vote to stay in office: the vote of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick.
The soldier is devoted to the army’s discipline. The athlete is devoted to their sport. You may have enjoyed the Olympics this summer and admired the skill of these young athletes. Perhaps you heard or read about the hours they put into training, and the other aspects of life they neglect in their discipline. Perhaps you know dancers, and their hard work and training, and their strict diet and other discipline. And Paul also notes farmers, who if they work hard deserve to receive the benefits of the harvest.
Likewise, to know and follow Jesus Christ takes discipline. Worship, study, service, and prayer all interfere with other aspects of life, but they are worth the prize of knowing Jesus. Paul often uses the image of the athlete, and the reward of wearing the laurel wreath after winning the race. In our day, we would talk about the gold medal: all the training, discipline, and sacrifice are rewarded by wearing the gold medal. Likewise, the disciplined spiritual life is rewarded by knowing Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.
Paul finishes the section I read by quoting an old hymn, and it gives me a chance to say something about perfectionism. That is always the danger in any undertaking: the danger of being a perfectionist, so that if I cannot do it flawlessly, then I’m not going to do it at all.
Imagine you’re driving to Kansas City. You have a destination in mind, but you get distracted and miss your exit. Do you give up and go back to Omaha? No, you get back on track and find another way there. Is there a soldier who never gets off task? Is there a runner who never has a bad day? Is there a farmer who never misses a chore that should be done?
If you undertook the Year of the Bible but missed some days, and therefore figured you should just give up: please, try again. If you try to pray every day but missed last Thursday: don’t stop. If you’ve given to the last three emergency appeals and need to take a break to marshal your resources, you can give again later. If you fell out of the habit of attending worship, start again.
The hymn says, “If we deny him, he will also deny us; If we are faithless, he remains faithful – For he cannot deny himself.”
That felt contradictory to me until I found some help to understand it. This is what I take it to mean. If you intentionally turn away from Christ, if you deny your vows to him and leave his Church, then he will deny you as well. But if you are struggling to follow him, but don’t get it perfectly; you are trying to be faithful, but find that you are faithless, well, you still belong to Christ. If you are faithless, despite your best intentions, he will not be faithless to you. Christ cannot deny himself, and you are part of Christ.
If you forget all the rest of this sermon, please remember that: when you are struggling to live by the unchained word of God, you are part of Christ. When you are in his Church, you are part of Christ. When you remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David, you are part of Christ. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he will also deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful –
For he cannot deny himself.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master