Monday, October 10, 2016

Taking Hold of Life

Taking Hold of Life
1 Timothy 6:6-19[1]
I think it’s safe to say that we as a people tend to be active. We’d rather do something than just sit around and wait. In fact, in comparison with other “modern” countries, we tend to work more hours than anyone, with perhaps one or two notable exceptions. I’d say there are a variety of reasons for this. For some of us, we just prefer to be busy and productive to doing nothing. For others, our sense of self-esteem is found in our work, so striving to work hard helps us feel better about ourselves. Still others work as much as we can simply to earn as much money as possible. We all have our reasons, but we tend to go out and take hold of what we want in life.
Unfortunately, the things to which we devote ourselves in this quest to take hold of life usually fail to give us any lasting satisfaction.[2] We tend to look for life in all the wrong places. Even the most fulfilling career is, at the end of the day, still a job. It is a means to make a livelihood. And there are times when we would rather do just about any other job. A home is at times simply a house, a family can at times make us feel crazy, and there’s only so much fun we can squeeze out of any activity. Our ultimate security rests on money. We live in a society that operates on the basis of money. It’s a part of life. But when we trust our money to enable us to take hold of the life we want, we’re very likely setting ourselves up for disappointment.
One of the focal points of our lesson from First Timothy for today is that there is only way to take hold of the life that is truly life: by placing our hope in God. This may sound strange in light of our discussion last week about how salvation is a gift of God’s grace and there’s nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. This week, the Scripture lesson tells us to “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called” (1 Tim. 6:12). That sounds very different from what we heard last week. It sounds like we’re expected to play an active role in our salvation.
You may be wondering how it can be both ways: our salvation is something that comes to us as a gift of God’s love, quite apart from anything we could possibly do. And yet at the same time we are called to take hold of the new life that God offers us in an active way. Those two statements might seem to contradict one another. If salvation is a gift, how can we play an active role in it? And if we’re called to “take hold” of our salvation by what we do, how can it be a gift? This dilemma is one that some are tempted to resolve by choosing one side or the other: either grace or our actions are the basis for salvation, but not both. Yet, the Scriptures consistently present both perspectives.
I think at least part of the answer to this question is that, while salvation is a gift of God’s grace, we are still “called,” and that implies a response.[3] We don’t just sit back and kick our feet up thinking we’ve got it made. The new life that God offers us doesn’t just work automatically, without any purposeful action on our part. Rather, our Scripture lesson reminds us that it is something that we are called to “take hold.” As St. Paul tells us elsewhere, the life we have received as a gift of God’s love is something we are to “work out” (Phil 2:12) and “press on to make it [our] own” (Phil. 3:12). In this balance between God’s grace and our response, of course God’s grace has priority.[4] There would be no salvation for us to take hold unless God had made a way. But our response is still an important part of the equation.
Be that as it may, our lesson provides us with a rather strange way of “taking hold” of this life that God offers us. The way we’re to do that is through “godliness combined with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). I’m not sure either one of those factors that our text says lead to true life are familiar to us. Here, “godliness” is not a “holier than thou” attitude, but the sum total of what it means to live the Christian life. And “contentment” is not the equivalent to being complacent. Rather it is a perspective on life that is based on the conviction that all that we are and all that we have comes from God and rests firmly in God’s hands.[5] Our lesson applies it primarily to our attitude toward money. But I think the point of the passage is to find contentment by letting go not just our wealth, but all the strategies we have for holding on to what we think will give us life. When we do that, then we are beginning to “take hold” the life God offers us so freely.
In essence, the message of our lesson is that we take hold of our lives by letting them go, by entrusting them into God’s hands. Rather than pursuing our own means for securing our lives, we’re to put our hope in “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). That’s the way to find “godliness combined with contentment.” That’s the way to take hold of “the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19). It may seem contradictory to say that we “take hold” of true life by letting go of everything that we think gives us life. But the only certain basis for a satisfying life is found in God. Only when we let go the things we think give us life and set our hope on God’s unfailing love do we truly take hold of the “eternal life” to which we are called.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/25/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, where he advocates “Care of the Soul,” or what I would call “embracing your life as it is,” as an important way of learning to fully appreciate life. He describes this process (p. xix) as “an appreciation of the paradoxical mysteries that blend light and darkness into the grandeur of what human life and culture can be.” In his book, he discusses, work, families, love, and possession, among other topics. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety.”
[3] James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Intepreters Bible XI:829: “Eternal life is a gift of God's calling—a regular term for God's initiative in establishing the process of salvation (2 Tim 1:9; cf. Rom 4:17; 9:11, 24; 1 Cor 1:9; 1 Thess 5:24)—but they must ‘take hold of,’ ‘grasp’ it.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:646: “The good fight in which the Christian finds himself must be accepted and fought. He must really lay hold on the eternal life to which he is called (1 Tim. 6:12). What is meant by the terms ‘fight’ and ‘lay hold’? He is to be what he is, namely, a disciple, a witness, a Christian. He is to remain, and continually to become again, what he is.”
[4] Cf. W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 368: “Salvation in the PE [Pastoral Epistles] is by God’s grace and mercy alone (cf. 1 Tim 1:12–17). There is an emphasis in the PE on the practical outworking of Christianity such as the doing of good deeds (cf. 1 Tim 2:10; 6:18), but these actions are the result of one’s faith and not attempts to earn God’s favor.”
[5] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:828: “autarkeia [contentment] was a favorite virtue of the Stoics and Cynics, the two main classical alternatives to Christianity. It denoted ‘self-sufficiency,’ ‘contentment’ and characterized an attitude that cherished simplicity and a life lived in acceptance of the hand dealt out by nature or fortune. Here perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the Pastorals we can see a pattern of Christianity in which specific Christian teaching and virtues like love are integrated with already acknowledged virtues cherished by others.” Cf. also Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 341: “Paul’s contentment is rooted in a faith that denies his own ability to perform his tasks and asserts the need for total reliance on the all-powerful God.”

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