Sermon, Oct. 2

Read my sermon on today’s Gospel, from 2019, here.

  1. This Sunday’s Texts
    1. Powerful, emotional Old Testament text; demanding, strange Gospel. But I like what I’ve preached about them in the past. Didn’t have something new to say. 
      1. So I found myself looking at the 2 Timothy reading. 
    2. A few weeks ago I admitted: clergy don’t know all Scriptures equally well. 
      1. There are parts we rushed by in our seminary classes
      2. Parts we tend to ignore in favor of other texts, when preaching. 
      3. Moving towards a decade and a half as a preacher – I’m feeling a pull to spent time with the ones I’ve avoided? 
      4. I’m not sure I’ve ever preached on 2 Tim or its siblings at all. So, here we go. 
  1. The Pastoral Epistles
    1. Referring to my Harper-Collins Study Bible – not taking it as my authority, but it summarizes well what I have read and learned elsewhere. 
      1. 1 and 2nd letters to Timothy & letter to Titus – have been seen for a long time as a set. 
      2. Called the Pastoral Epistles because of their concern with leadership roles and church order. 
      3. It’s also been recognized for at least a couple of hundred years that although all three begin by introducing the author of the letter as the apostle Paul, they very likely were not really written by Paul. 
        1. Why? Lots of reasons. First, vocabulary and style notably similar across these three, and notably different from the letters we are pretty sure are really Paul’s voice. 
        2. References to aspects of church order that almost certainly didn’t emerge till long after Paul’s death. 
        3. Key theological and social questions handled very differently from Paul’s thinking and writing. 
    2. Who are Timothy and Titus, the supposed recipients of these letters? 
      1. Timothy – first mentioned in Acts 16 – Paul meets him & takes him on as a helper & fellow traveler. 
        1. In Pauline letters, Paul describes him as a beloved child in the Lord, and brother and co-worker in proclaiming the Gospel. 
      2. We know less about Titus but he is likewise a sometimes companion to Paul, mentioned in the letters to the church in Corinth.
      3. It’s clear that these were real people. Not impossible that there could be letters Paul wrote directly to Timothy, or Titus. But… is that what these are? 
  1. Pseudepigrapha
    1. There’s a word for letters that pretend to be written by someone they were’t really written by: Pseudepigrapha. A known thing in both the ancient and contemporary worlds. 
    2. I had picked up the idea that in the ancient world, people didn’t really mind this. That their ideas of authorship and history and authenticity were more flexible than ours. 
      1. It is true that in the centuries surrounding the time of Jesus, there was a lot of this kind of thing being written. 
      2. For example: Just last week we heard a reference to Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived about 600 years before the time of Jesus. 
        1. There is a Book of Baruch in the Apocrypha, probably written about a hundred years before Jesus, give or take, and reflecting on the experience of exile. 
        2. Study Bible intro to Baruch: “It was a common practice during the late Second Temple period” – which encompasses both Jesus’ and Paul’s lifetimes – “to compose edifying works that expanded the biblical tradition.” 
        3. So: Edifying fan fiction. Using existing characters – like Baruch, Daniel, Moses –  to tell a new story, or offer a new perspective on an existing story. 
        4. It seems that this was an accepted literary practice; no actual intention to deceive. 
    3. BUT. But, but, but. Writing a short story about how the exile felt to Baruch, five hundred years after his death, is actually pretty different from writing a letter in Paul’s name, maybe ten or twenty years after Paul’s death. 
      1. Bible scholar Bruce Metzger – difference between a literary pseudepigrapha, and a forgery, with intent to deceive and to borrow someone else’s authority. 
      2. And people in the decades of the early church WERE concerned with authorship and authenticity. 
        1. 2 Thess 3:17 – end of one of the true Paul letters: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”
          1. He doesn’t quite say, “If the letter doesn’t have my handwriting, don’t trust it,” but it seems close! 
          2. Of course letters would have been copied and shared; and Paul seems to have dictated most of his letters, and just written a short message at the end and signed them. That little bit of Paul’s handwriting would not have been much protection against forgery. But the point is: It was a concern.
          3. Likewise the Didache, one of the earliest Christian texts, talks about the need for churches to check out visiting preachers & try to suss out whether they are the real thing or just grifters. 
          4. Early Christians were aware – as we are aware – that there are folks who will try to get in on anything, for their own benefit or to promote their own agendas; and they tried to guard against it. 
      1. It’s possible that some of the stylistic differences between the Pastoral Epistles and the other Pauline letters could be explained by the secretary thing… 
        1. Some folks hold that, as a way to believe this author when he names himself as Paul while also acknowledging the big differences of style. 
        2. But that runs us up against the differences of content, not just vocabulary. 
      2. Neil Elliott book, “Liberating Paul”
        1. Canonical betrayal of Paul: When the Church, over a couple of centuries a long time ago, decided what would be included in the NT, it *betrayed* Paul by including the Pastoral Epistles – because the Pastorals are not just different but diametrically opposed. 
          1. Especially 1 Tim and Titus, there is a lot of emphasis on social order and respectability. Women should be quiet in church. Church leaders should be well regarded in the wider community, and make sure their children behave. Widows who want to be supported by the church should have only been married once, not be gossips, and so on. (Probably pass a drug test…) Older women should avoid getting drunk. Slaves should not talk back to their masters. And oh, by the way, slaves, if your master is a Christian too, that shouldn’t make you think you can talk to them as equals; rather, you should serve them all the more, since by doing so you’re helping a fellow believer! 
        2. Elliott – this is conventional morality, defining Christian living in terms of norms of respectability and proper behavior in the surrounding culture. Sharp contrast with “real” Paul, who favored the “leadership of charismatic women, egalitarian communities, and resistance to Roman coercion.” 
        3. Overall, he says, reading the Pastoral Epistles as if they are actually Paul’s voice turns Paul from an “apostle of freedom” into a “priest of social convention.”
      3. Elliott notes that some people have an understandable feeling that since these letters did become part of the Bible, we should trust the Holy Spirit working through the church and accept their authority. To that, he says: Yes, but: what if they were accepted into the Bible under false pretenses? If we now believe them to be deliberate forgeries… how are we bound to read and regard these texts, as Christians?
  1. BUT. If you’re listening very closely indeed, you may have noticed that all that applies to 1 Tim and Titus. 
    1. 2 Tim is at least a little less clear. 
      1. It has a lot of similarities to the other two letters.
      2. It also has significant differences. 
        1. There is less of the social order stuff and, frankly, the misogyny – though there is a passage in chapter 3 about how people have to be careful about false teachers ensnaring “silly women” who are “overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires.” Don’t love that! 
        2. Instead, more focus on advising Timothy – or “Timothy” – to stay strong and keep proclaiming the Gospel, no matter what happens. 
          1. Understanding of the letter that Paul is imprisoned in Rome – his final imprisonment – and that Christians are facing a wave of persecution. 
        3. Is 2 Tim different because it’s a different voice – or just because it’s a different kind of letter? Some scholars think the Pastorals were written together and intended to be read together. 
          1. A little symphony with three movements – second one strikes a different tone, third one reprises themes from the first.  
          2. Scholars of ancient texts would describe 2 Tim as falling into the genre of “testament” – someone offering final advice before their anticipated death. This was a kind of text that people wrote and read. 
    2. Differences between 2 Tim & 1 Tim just in the short passage we have today. Let me point out one. 
      1. “I remind you to fan the flame of the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”
        1. 1 Tim 4.14: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” 
          1. “Council of elders” is one of the bits that sounds like it’s talking about the church in the second century. Not a known form of church organization in Paul’s time. (And this sounds like ordination.) 
          2. OTOH, for Paul to lay hands on Timothy as a way to pass on the Holy Spirit is totally consistent with Acts & Paul’s known letters. 
    3. It is possible that 2 Tim preserves fragments of actual letters of Paul. It’s also possible that this is just a pretty skilled forgery. 
      1. After all, the stakes were fairly high, if this author was motivated by wanting their opinions about how everybody should be acting at church to bear the weight of Paul’s authority.  
      2. The author here – if not Paul – had clearly studied at least some of Paul’s letters, and the book of Acts. Knew Paul’s writing pretty well. 
        1. These letters are petty; Paul could be petty.
        2. These letters have poetic moments; Paul could be poetic.
        3. These letters use some weird sports and military metaphors; Paul sometimes did that too. 
      3. These letters lay it on thick with specific names and details; does that point to their authenticity, or were they, as my study bible puts it, “crafted to lend pathos and concreteness to the Letter’s warnings and exhortations”? 
  1. How do we read and receive this text? 
    1. It comes to us as Scripture, for better or worse – though we’re free to find it more or less spiritually helpful. 
      1. I feel bound to at least ask, with a text like this: Is there a word or a witness here for me, for us, today? Accepting that sometimes the answer might be No. 
    2. When I first read this passage, this line seized my attention: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
    3. Is this small-s spirit or capital-S Spirit? I’m not sure it matters. I think the understanding of the early church was that in baptism, the Holy Spirit activates something that keeps working inside us, especially if we tend to it – fan its flames, as this author advises. 
    4. Let’s take these gifts of the Spirit in order. First comes Power – dunamis in Greek, the root of our words dynamite and dynamic. It can mean magical or holy power, but more commonly it means ability, strength, capacity to do stuff. 
      1. I sometimes talk about agency – our ability to act. Having a sense of agency is important; feeling helpless eats away at our souls. 
      2. That’s one reason even small actions in the face of big problems do matter.  We need to feel our ability to push our lives and world closer to our hopes and intentions. And sometimes small steps give us courage to take bigger steps. 
      3. Our text here says that’s one of the things the spirit does in us: gives us power. Strengthens our capacity to act. 
    1. Love. The Greek of the New Testament has several words for love; the word here is Agape. Agape is the word used for God’s love for humanity, and the ideal for the kind of love Christians should have towards one another and our neighbors: an unselfish love that always seeks the good of the other. 
      1. So that’s another thing the Holy Spirit kindles in us: our capacity to love and bear with one another.
    2. And then there’s the last word, self-discipline. I spent a long time on this word!
      1. It’s part of the distinctive vocabulary of the Pastoral Epistles – used in all three, and not really elsewhere. 
      2. It’s been translated lots of different ways: sobriety, self-control, moderation, sound-mindedness. 
      3. Since it isn’t used elsewhere in the New Testament, we can’t look at it in other contexts to help understand it.
      4. I looked and looked for more information about this word – and finally I hit Greek ethics, that whole big body of ancient literature about what it means to be a good person and what our purpose in life should be. 
      5. It turns out the root of this word – sophron – was a pretty core idea in Greek ethics. Jewish scholars in the first century were studying that stuff, so I think it’s probably what this text has in mind. 
      6. Sophron is related to a word I talk about a lot: Sozo, meaning rescued, saved, restored. Sophron combines that word with a word for mind or understanding. So, “sound mind” really is maybe the simplest translation – “sound” as in “safe and sound.” 
      7. There are literal entire books about the concept of sophron in Greek ethics. But from what I could find easily, it refers to being a person who knows what the right thing to do is – and is able to do it, without inner struggle. 
        1. It’s a state of harmony, of being in alignment within yourself and with the world, of being attuned to truth, in a way that leads towards right action. 
      8. The word here in our text is a becoming-word. It’s sophron plus a suffix that indicates being called towards something. So: the spirit within us draws us towards that kind of clarity and alignment and capacity to know and do what is good and right. 
    3. Next Sunday, God willing, we’re doing a baptism at our 10AM service. The family is new to the church, seeking a faith home. We’ll bless baby S and name her as Christ’s own forever. 
      1. It’s the Church’s understanding that the Holy Spirit does something within a person at baptism. And maybe the author of 2 Tim here – whoever he may be – has given us a way to think about those gifts of the Spirit within us. 
      2. The gift of power – the capacity to act in the world, to make a difference. I want that for S, and for all of us.
      3. The gift of love – the capacity to connect, to share, to give and receive care, to build community. I want that for S, and for all of us.
      4. And the gift of sophron – of something deep inside that shapes us, over a lifetime, towards knowing and choosing the good. I want that for S, and for all of us. 
      5. May we fan the flames of the gifts that are within us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, friends. Amen. 


A few sources… 

John Stott, though he ultimately believes 2 Tim at least is Pauline, has some helpful blog posts working through the pseudepigrapha idea:

Excerpt of Neil Elliott’s book:

Regarding sophron, I read lots of stuff. This is dense but fascinating –