Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, Year C, 2019
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
‘The Inheritance of a Living Faith’
“yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:8
These words of Jesus seem to resonate with us in this day, in a way that perhaps they didn’t in the past. In our earlier years for example, when churches seemed so much more full.
We are all aware of declining numbers across churches in the Western world (although less aware of dramatic growth in other places), and of course the growth of the ‘Nones’, those whom when asked express no religious affiliation. So perhaps we might also ask with Jesus, ‘will the Son of Man find faith when he comes?’
Which of course begs a question – what is meant by ‘Faith’? What is it that Jesus looks for upon his return? It is here that St Paul’s second letter to Timothy suggests to us something which we may not have well understood regarding the nature of faith.
This letter is without doubt the most personal of Paul’s writings as he seeks to advise his young friend from what we assume is a prison cell, where he tells us his life is now being poured out . . . Paul sees the end of his life approaching, and looking around he is deeply concerned about how things are going in the infant church. He seeks to strengthen Timothy for what he is sure will be an arduous ministry, we assume in Ephesus. Yet as I said, it is deeply personal and herein we also discover something about the nature of faith.
Paul for example dresses Timothy as ‘my true child in the faith’, and that intergenerational theme is further made explicit in the opening verses of the epistle where Paul recounts how Timothy has come to inherit faith, wherein he writes
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
A faith that lives . . . From Paul speaking of Timothy as his child in the faith, to the passing of faith from Grandmother to mother to Timothy himself, Paul speaks of faith in a way that is perhaps alien to us . . .
Recently I was mulling over the question of how we teach the faith . . . it wasn’t long before I realised that we had become captive to a way of speaking of faith which had been stripped of this living personal aspect.
So I have heard more times than I wish to recount or recall of ‘learning styles’ – e.g. ‘some of us are visual learners and some learn better from a book . . .’. Notice what has gone missing, the teacher, the one who is passing on the faith. And assumed there is in some large part a faith that has been stripped of its Life, reached to a set of facts which it was necessary to recall and recount, as if they could exist as it were ‘in the cloud’ out there, apart from human beings . . . and yet Paul does not speak in those terms at all.
In his letter to the Galatians at one point he cries out in desperation ‘My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .’
The handing on of Faith is understood far more as it were in terms of the passing on of life – the parallel is generative birth. As Paul addresses Timothy he sees at once that Timothy has received the Life of faith from him and also from his maternal parental line – From Lois to Eunice to Timothy
In our reading today, we may well be aware of verse 16 of the 3rd chapter of this letter – ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ , but taking it out of context, unplugs it from the Life of faith. We might know that verse off by heart, we may have memorised much scripture, but without Life, it is nothing. It can be no more than a dead letter . . . yet that is not how Paul presents this word. we began at verse 14 wherein he says ‘as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ knowing from whom you learned it . . .
The ‘from whom’ is not irrelevant in Paul’s eyes. It does matter! The Who was it who passed the faith to you . . .
Paul in prison remembers Timothy, he remembers his tears – perhaps the tears of those elders of the Ephesian church knowing they would not see him again. And he exhorts Timothy as he recalls his faith to call to mind those from whom he learned it . . . there lives were lives of faith. Lives of faith. Paul, Lois, Eunice – people for whom Faith was their beating heart, the core of their existence, and thus it is perhaps not too much to say, those from whom it was truly Natural for this faith to pass on to the next generation along with their genes and their habits and everything else that made them up – for it was their faith that made them most fully and truly alive . . . A Living faith -inseperable from its carrier . . .
From generation, to generation . . . and then it wasn’t . . . I remember in my early childhood, busses full of children for the annual Sunday School outing, and perhaps I am not alone in such a memory – and indeed I know that there are more than a few amongst us who knew that, but have not seen faith handed down through the generations . . . I remember the first echoes of this in 1979, visiting bishops from Africa coming to the Lambeth conference asking the question of us in England ‘where are your children’ . . . and yet how many ‘Rachel’s’ lamented for their children who were no more . . .
Perhaps it was our mistaken idea that faith was nothing more than a set of ideas – that it could be transmitted impersonally, that all you needed was a bible – a bible which remember none of the early Christians had – they had to learn scripture together – or a Youtube video . . . You cannot pass on that which is not Alive to you, your life blood, your heart . . . What have our children inherited from us?? In an age when people are inheriting more materially than in any time in history . . . perhaps that was it . . . in this age, where is the Life of the Spirit of God? Where is the Inheritance of Faith
Just this week as I was pondering these words of Paul – ‘knowing from whom you learned it . . .’ I started scrabbling around in my wallet – not for money, but for something which I was sure was there, and sure enough I found it and something else beside. I found a lovely prayer from one of my daughters – addressed to Our Father, giving thanks for her father – And then A scrap of paper which I found by my father’s death bed – upon it a meditation of Cardinal Newman which contains these words
“I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.”
These are precious to me – they place me in a line of faith, and I see now my grandchildren beginning their journey in the life of the church with Godly parents – and that gives me hope
I wonder if we have become so alienated from the Life of Faith that we no longer pass it on, because it isn;t our life? our lives speak of that chichis deepest and innermost – our lives speak our gods . . . We can get caught up in transmitting facts but f they are not rooted in our lives, our faithless lives will speak far more clearly to those amongst whom we live, if indeed we do live amongst people in this depersonalised world.
Paul encourages Timothy in the faith and calls on his to remain to the last, doing the work of an evangelist. I must admit that I was brought up in a church culture where ‘evangleists’ were special people – but the reality is that we are all messengers of one type or another – do our lives speak Faith? or some other message?
Paul as he writes is pouring out his Life, his Life which is woven through with this Lively Faith
Our faith is founded on, it is sourced from and flows from a Life poured out – the stream of living water flowing from the side of Christ Jesus himself, who emptied himself . . .
It is returning to the Source of Life – crying out to the one who gladly gives good gifts to those who ask – for the Holy Spirit which is the Hallmark of faith, the first fruit of the Life that is eternal, of the Life that conquers death, of the Life that speaks hope even in this day