Monday, November 07, 2016


2 Timothy 2:8-15[1]
I don’t know about you, but I must confess that I find betrayal something most difficult to forgive. I’ve learned over the years to forgive a lot. But I still struggle to forgive a perceived betrayal of trust. Most of us have some experience with this unfortunate part of human life. The truth of the matter is that people are prone to let us down. They very likely mean well, but when push comes to shove, they can disappoint us in the most disheartening of ways. Of course, since we’re people too, that applies to us as well. Recognizing that about myself helps me to forgive others. And as we all know, forgiving someone is something we do as much for ourselves as we do for one who we think has wronged us. But betrayal remains a challenge.
If you pay close attention to the history of the people who claim to trust and obey God, you will find that we have betrayed God’s trust repeatedly. That’s the theme of the history books in the Bible: there is a cycle of betrayal, the subjection of the people to a hostile enemy, repentance and restoration, followed by further betrayal. It’s one of the major plots in the story of the people of Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible. They continually betrayed God’s trust, and he restored them every time. This applies to the history of the Church as well. The truly remarkable feature of this story is the way that God remains true to himself by remaining faithful to love and care for his people.
Our lesson from 2 Timothy for today presents us with an interesting “litany.” It is one of the “sure” or “faithful” sayings that are found throughout 1 and 2 Timothy. The first part is fairly clear: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11-12). This is a theme that St. Paul was fond of: our baptism into the body of Christ constitutes our sharing in his death and resurrection. The purpose of this, as he says elsewhere, is “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
It’s the second part of the litany that’s troubling: “if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). On the surface, that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds positively menacing. We’ve been talking about the good news of our salvation by God’s grace alone as a gift of his unconditional love. But this seems to introduce some conditions for actually achieving the end result of salvation: eternal life. That impression is only reinforced by remembering that Jesus himself said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
It sounds like we’re back to trying to earn God’s love and trying to do enough good to deserve salvation! There is, of course, another way to look at this strange litany. If we look at it from the perspective of the way God has actually dealt with his people for generations, we could see it as a promise. From that point of view it could mean that even when we are at times “faithless” and betray his trust, he remains faithful to us, and continues to love us and offer us grace and mercy. That would seem to make more sense in the light of the consistent witness of the Scriptures. The most fundamental affirmation of the Bible is that God remains faithful to us, no matter what.[2]
But there’s still that part about denying and being denied that causes us to wonder about all that. Would Jesus really deny us if we happened to not perfectly live up to our commitment to follow him and to bear witness to him? Does God really reject us if we have times in our lives when we fall short and are “faithless”? That seems to be the implication here, at least on the surface. And many in the history of the church have understood it that way: they think it means that if we fall short or lose heart, God will remain true to himself by punishing us accordingly![3]
Again, I would argue that reading doesn’t do justice to the way God actually deals with his fallible and wayward people in Scripture. Whatever “denying” and being “denied” means in this context, it has to take into account the fact that Peter specifically “denied” Jesus three times, and yet he was not “denied” but restored!  Perhaps that’s the point—even if we fall short to the extent of denying Christ the way Peter did, God’s faithfulness provides a way back for us. Whatever the “denying” that leads to being “denied” means, it has to be something more than just human weakness. It must be a final and definitive rejection of God’s grace and mercy and love.[4]
The Bible bears witness time and again to the promise that, even if we are faithless to the extent of betraying God, God will remain faithful to his love, mercy, and grace towards us, which are unconditional and irrevocable.[5] In light of our experience with betrayal, it may be hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around this promise. When we experience betrayal, we don’t readily respond by offering even forgiveness, let alone unconditional love. But as the Scriptures remind us, our way is not God’s way. God’s way is to send his son to die for those who are at odds with him. God’s way is to forgive and restore those who stumble and fall. God’s way is to remain faithful to us, even when we can at times be faithless.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/9/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, 109: “‘He remains faithful’ (πιστὸς μένει) cannot refer to God’s insistence upon formal recompense; such an interpretation contradicts the usage of the terms. Rather it is the thought of God’s faithfulness to the covenant (cf Rom 3:2f).” Contrast William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 520. He sees no conflict in affirming that this verse both “asserts the absolute seriousness of apostasy after one has professed faith in Christ, giving a reminder of the fact of final judgment” and that it “teaches the marvelous faithfulness of God whose promises to people remain despite the temporary faithlessness of some”!
[3] See, notably, John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 218-19: “he threatens that they who, through the dread of persecution, leave off the confession of his name, have no part or lot with Christ. … Hence it is evident, that all who deny Christ are disowned by him.”
[4] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:844, where he refers to the tradition rooted in Judaism that “God remained faithful to the chosen people, even when they proved faithless time and time again.”  In that light, it makes sense to conclude with him that “denying” is a deliberate and determined action, not simply a failure of nerve.
[5] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:510, where he describes “God’s action in relation to the apostasy of the creature” as one of grace and reconciliation, and in this God is supremely true to himself and his purposes as revealed from the beginning of Creation.

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