Monday, October 24, 2016

The Courage to Serve

The Courage to Serve
2 Timothy 1:1-14[1]
Life these days is not for the faint of heart. The challenges we face are of a nature that most of us couldn’t have imagined them even ten years ago. And the challenges that our children face are such that we cannot entirely understand them. The pace at which life continues to change can be frightening. It reminds me of a quote from The Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business … going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[2] I suppose that’s always been true, but for some reason it feels more so today than ever.
This can be especially true of our Christian lives. We may not be used to thinking of living the Christian life as something challenging. Most of us were raised to believe that if we have faith, do the right things, and practice kindness, then we will be rewarded with a life in which the desires of our hearts are fulfilled. But the reality is that if we truly follow our crucified Savior we will face challenges that we may not be able or even want to imagine.[3] A life of following Jesus in discipleship will demand the best we have to offer.[4] It will require all the faith and love and courage that we can muster!
In our Scripture lesson for today, this theme is addressed in connection with Paul’s life. By his own testimony, Paul was climbing the ladder of success in his world. He was “advancing” in the world of Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries (cf. Gal. 1:14). He was on the “fast-track” to becoming a person of influence and power in his religion. But all that changed when he met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. After that earth-shaking encounter, Paul turned his life around completely. He says more than once that in that experience he felt the call to proclaim the gospel he had fought and to serve the church he had tried to destroy.
Because of his radical change, it’s understandable that he had to “suffer for the gospel,” as our text says (1 Tim. 1:8). It’s not hard to find references to support that claim. If you just read through the relevant chapters of the book of Acts you find quite a resume of suffering: hounded from one town to the next by enemies; imprisoned and publicly humiliated; attacked and left for dead; finally arrested by the Roman authorities and shipwrecked in the process of his journey to Rome for trial. I’d say it’s probably not the kind of life most of us would want to sign up for. I’m not sure Paul himself would have signed up for it if he had known in advance all that he would have to go through.
But Paul seemingly took it all in stride. In fact, it seems that he saw the hardships he endured as a part of his calling to proclaim the gospel and serve the church.[5] In fact, our lesson puts it this way: “For this gospel I was appointed a herald …, and for this reason I suffer as I do” (2 Tim. 1:11-12). What he had to suffer in his service to Christ was in his mind simply a part of his calling. And so he could also say, “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust” (2 Tim. 1:12). No matter what he had to face for the sake of his faith and his calling, he knew he could trust his Lord and Savior.[6]
At the same time, Paul knew that the work he was doing was not something he could accomplish in his strength alone. He knew that it was the power of the Spirit of God that enabled him to continue serving and facing his challenges. Our lesson describes that power by saying, “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7, NIV). It’s not hard to imagine that kind of boldness when we think about the heroes of the faith, like Paul. But I’m not so sure we think of the Spirit’s presence in our own lives as something that is powerful. But that is precisely what the Scripture lesson clearly states: we have been given the gift of the Spirit that empowers us to serve Christ and his church in the same way that it has empowered faithful servants of God throughout the ages.[7]
The Bible clearly frames the Christian life as one of service. We are called to follow our Savior in a life of giving ourselves away for the sake of others.[8] At times that means setting aside our wants and even perhaps our needs to serve others. It means making sacrifices for the sake of the Body of Christ and the kingdom of God.[9] That kind of service can take its toll on us. We may not have to endure the same kinds of suffering Paul did. But the simple fact of it is that serving others diligently, week after week, month after month, and year after year, can be exhausting even for the best of us. It can leave us feeling empty, at times perhaps disheartened, and possibly even bitter.
That’s when we have to find the courage to keep serving. We can rely on the encouragement of our friends and fellow travelers on this journey of faith to help us. We can also continually rekindle our own inner resolve to make our lives count for the sake of Christ. But good news of our Scripture lesson today is that we are not left to our own strength alone to continue the demanding life of service. The Spirit is the one who gives us the power, the love, and the discipline to keep living the Christian life. Through thick and thin, the Spirit keeps giving us the courage to serve.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/2/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 2d edition (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 72.
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21: “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.  It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”
[4] Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, Learning Jesus, 201 “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity.  It is the very essence of Christian identity.”
[5] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Intepreters Bible XI:835: “That the gospel involves suffering is another characteristic theme of Paul (e.g., Rom 8:17-23; 2 Cor 4:7-18), as also is the conviction that such suffering can only be endured by God's enabling and that such weakness is the necessary complement to any experience of God's power (see 2 Cor 4:7; 12:9-10).”
[6] Cf. W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 490: “Just as God can guard what Paul—and Timothy by implication—has deposited with God, so Timothy is to guard what God has deposited with him. And as Timothy is to hold to the pattern of Paul’s gospel, empowered by the divine gifts of faith and love, so also Timothy is to guard the gospel not with his human abilities but empowered by the Holy Spirit … who lives within him.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 294: “The new people of God see themselves … as being ‘the creation of the Spirit,’ …. The Spirit calls them into life; the Spirit gives the community the authority for its mission; the Spirit makes its living power and the ministries that spring from them effective; the Spirit unites, orders and preserves it.”
[8] Referring to the Nicene Creed’s statement that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” Moltmann, Church in the Power, 360-61, argues that the church is “apostolic” to the extent that it participates in the mission of Christ and the Apostles, and that “inescapably” entails suffering. He says, “the church is apostolic when it takes up its cross.” See also Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 424: “Words that do not cost anything and deeds that are meant to make us popular have nothing to do with the [apostolic] character of the people of God.”
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 207-8: “Grace … is the indicative which carries with it a categorical imperative” that we should live our entire lives to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”

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