June 30, 2019, Charles D. Mayer
I have shared a number of times from this pulpit that while I felt called to ordained ministry quite early in my life, I was also quite resistant to the idea. It really was for me an experience of being pursued by the “hound of heaven.” For a lot of my life, my sense has been that what I was resisting most was what I pictured as the lifestyle of the clergyperson. But it was really much deeper than that.
“I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they … will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
What I was resisting was much more than a certain lifestyle. It was something that I felt in my gut but didn’t yet understand intellectually; the Wesleyan tradition calls it “prevenient grace.” It’s the grace that “prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God” (The United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2004). It’s the grace that leads us to understand the demanding particularity of Christian faith. It’s the grace that starts all Christian people, lay and ordained alike, towards taking seriously what Paul says to Timothy in today’s epistle lesson, which can be summed up in three words: stay on message.
2 Timothy is a very interesting text. Along with 1 Timothy and Titus, it is one of the so-called “pastoral epistles” – not usually considered authentic letters of Paul, but written in his name, they are usually dated very late, as much as 40-50 years after the Thessalonian, Corinthian, and Roman letters. But there is evidence that 2 Timothy – today’s text – may actually have been written much earlier than 1 Timothy and Titus, possibly even by Paul himself, or more likely by someone who was with Paul at the time of his death and wrote very shortly after that event.
This is because 2 Timothy reads very clearly as a last-testamentary discourse, or farewell speech (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 676). Today’s passage especially consists of the words of a man who is about to die: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). If we think over the great sweep of Paul’s ministry, the huge scope of his accomplishment of bringing the gospel to the gentile world, the personal transformation that was required of him, the sacrifices he made, these words spoken at the end of his life are of great and poignant importance: stay on message. There will be many distractions. Already, people with “itching ears” (4:3) – isn’t that a marvelous expression? – are “wandering away to myths” (4:4). Paul fears that the church he has worked so hard to establish will lose its focus – especially its doctrinal focus – and begin to falter.
This is the saint who gives our church its name, speaking to us on the feast day that he shares with St. Peter. St. Peter was never able to fully allow himself to embrace a ministry to the gentile world. It was St. Paul, devout Jew that he was, who stretched himself in this extraordinary way. We would do well to let his last wishes shape and define our life together. Let there be no limit to our welcome; but let it be a welcome to a life shaped by the gospel, and to the demanding particularity of Christian faith.
It’s really quite amazing how easy it is to be distracted from the orthodox Christian story, as unique and compelling as it is. Back to my personal story again for just a moment. When I first arrived at the Harvard Divinity School to study for my M.Div., my neighbor across the hall in Divinity Hall, Don Haymes, was a graduate of Abilene Christian College in Abilene, Texas. I learned that Abilene Christian sent it’s two best graduates to the Harvard Divinity School each year. Now Abilene Christian was conservative with a capital “C” – really a different environment than anything I had ever been exposed to. I got to know several of these students, and believe me, they were conservative, especially on scripture and doctrine. But man was it good to have them around.
Right at the beginning of that first year, I remember a conversation with Don about why we had decided to come to Divinity School. I went on about wanting to make the world a better place, or something of that sort. Don said: “I’m here because Jesus rose.” “Huh?” I said. “Charlie,” he said, “if he didn’t get up we are wasting our time!”
St. Paul would have been proud of Don Haymes. I come from a much more liberal tradition than Don does, and our views diverge on many things, to be sure. But remember I said that I thought I’d been resisting seminary because I was worried about what the lifestyle of a clergyperson would be, but that it was really much deeper? Well, the deeper matter is right in this story. It’s not “lifestyle” – this is a superficial notion in comparison to what Don was saying, and what St. Paul was saying as he prepared to die. It’s about life shaped by and formed in Jesus, and the truth about who we think he is. This is the life we Christians are asked to live, and to exemplify. This is the life into which we invite others. It is unique – it is demanding – it is particular. It is the message we seek to bear in our own bodies and in our own lives. And it is still the best hope for our world.
As I complete these two rich months with you covering Mother Cooper’s sabbatical, I urge you to contemplate St. Paul’s admonition as words for this community, named for him: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:5).
God bless you all.