Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Faith in a Time of Triviality
2 Tim 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10[1]
Christian faith can be incredibly discouraging. That may sound like the ultimate oxymoron to you, but I think it’s true. If you find that surprising, you may be shocked by this: the fact of the matter is that we’re not the first Christians to experience this discouragement. Our Scripture lesson for today conveys St. Paul’s response to the fact that Timothy and the believers in his care were discouraged. It would seem that they found themselves in a setting where it was getting increasingly difficult to live the Christian life. It’s hard to understand all that may have gone into the situation, but for some reason, they were struggling with a sense of being ashamed of their faith (2 Tim. 1:8).[2] I don’t know about you, but that surprises me. I wouldn’t have expected Christians in the First Century to feel ashamed of the faith. It makes me wonder what made them feel ashamed.
I wonder if they felt ashamed because they found themselves feeling discouraged from going against the grain all the time. Taking up a counter-cultural lifestyle can be energizing, especially at first. But after months and years of swimming up stream, it can get exhausting. I wonder if Timothy and the believers in Ephesus were feeling the pressure of the sacrifices and ostracism and opposition that can be a part of what it means to be a Christian.
It would also seem that Timothy and the band of struggling believers he was serving were feeling ashamed because they were losing out to some competitors preaching a different gospel.[3] We don’t know all that these “impostors” stood for, but what we do know is that they imposed harsh demands on those who bought into their spiel, while indulging their own pleasures to their hearts delight. They wormed their way into congregations by creating conflict with the established leaders, and then used the influence they gained to milk the people for money (Some things never change!). It would seem Timothy and his flock felt ashamed of the gospel because these “impostors” were so successful at gaining converts, while they were struggling to survive.
I don’t know about you, but part of what discourages me about the Christian faith these days is the way so many people seem to make it something trivial. It seems like there are so many who approach the faith in terms of gimmicks and cheap clichés. They do whatever it takes to “succeed” at church—even if it means stripping the guts out of the gospel. You may think I’m exaggerating, but one group in Corpus Christi actually gave away an estimated $2 million worth of prizes on Easter Sunday to get people to come to church.[4] Prizes included bikes, furniture, flat screen TVs, and 16 cars! On Easter Sunday! As appalling as that is, in my opinion it is just the most blatant example of what happens every Sunday—selling people a Jesus who will make all their dreams come true. When it seems like the whole world is running to those who take such a “consumer-friendly approach,” it makes it hard for those of us who try to stay true to the path of the cross to continue to put that message out there, week in and week out.[5]
But I think something St. Paul told Timothy might help us here. He reminded Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). In a very real sense, St. Paul reminds discouraged believers of all times and places that we are not called to “succeed,” but rather to keep the faith. And God’s powerful and loving presence is always there to inspire us as we strive to present a compelling alternative to all the cheap tricks and silly slogans.[6]
It would seem that from time to time we can all get discouraged about our faith. When that happens, I think we need to remember the lesson Jesus tried to teach his disciples. They came to him asking for “more faith” to be able to live up to the challenging demands of Christian discipleship, and he answered that they didn’t need more faith but rather an sense of what faith is all about.[7] Faith is not a matter of performing spectacular feats; rather it is about continuing to speak the Gospel and live it out every day, regardless of the outcome. When we struggle with discouragement in our day and time, we can remember that it is not our “success” but rather our perseverance that demonstrates God’s powerful and loving presence among us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/3/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:839.
[3] Cf. Alyce M. McKenzie, “2 Timothy 1:3-7,” Interpretation 60 (July 2006):319.
[4] “Easter eggs and more than $1M in prizes at S. Texas megachurch,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times March 27, 2010; accessed at http://www.caller.com/news/2010/mar/27/the-million-dollar-giveaway/?print=1. Cf. also “23,500 attend church's Easter services featuring 16 free cars, millions in prizes,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times April 4, 2010; accessed at http://www.caller.com/news/2010/apr/04/churchs-giveaway-attracts-thousands/ .
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 99: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
[6] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 84-86, where he speaks of the Spirit of God as the “the life-force of the resurrection” which is being poured out on all living beings to enhance “vitality,” which he further defines as “love of life” which is “nothing other than true humanity.” Cf. also ibid, 97, where he says, “In this world, with its modern ‘sickness unto death’, true spirituality will be the restoration of the love for life—that is to say, vitality. The full and unreserved ‘yes’ to life, and the full and unreserved love for the living are the first experiences of God’s Spirit.” It seems to me that this “love of life” can go a long way toward empowering us to persevere in our faith.
[7] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible IX:322: “They assumed that they had faith but would need a greater faith in order to measure up to Jesus’ challenge to confront and forgive those who have sinned. Jesus shatters their illusions about faith; they don’t even have faith comparable to a tiny mustard seed. … The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. The saying is not about being able to do miraculous works or spectacular tricks. On the contrary, Jesus assures the disciples that with even a little faith they can live by his teachings on discipleship.”


Clarksbury UMC said...

since finding your blog on textweek. com I've enjoyed reading them as I prepare my own sermons. With regard to footnote #4 on the 2 Timothy passage, part of the link is missing and does not work. The corrected link is http://www.caller.com/news/2010/mar/27/the-million-dollar-giveaway/?print=1

Thank for sharing your insight.

Alan Brehm said...

Thanks for both the compliment and the correction!