First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 20

William Loader

Pentecost 20: 2 October  2 Timothy 1:1-14

This letter is at one level a puzzle. It reads as a remarkably personal letter with reference to Timothy's mother and grandmother and to Paul's sufferings. At the same time it is widely held not to come directly from Paul but to emanate from a later period when it was felt necessary to appeal to earlier authorities and to represent what they might say to the present. Such letters often used personal elements to give them an air of reality.

However we assess authorship, it is clear that the letter has some major concerns. People have been turning away from the faith, as Paul and his successors taught it. The alternatives are described as myths, wrangles about words, and assertions that the resurrection has already occurred. We are dealing with strife in the Christian community and Paul or someone sees the need to alert the leadership, represented by Timothy, either symbolically or literally. Uncharacteristic of Paul, at least in his undisputed letters, there is no argument. There is simply an appeal which takes various forms, urging faithfulness to the tradition.

That tradition includes Paul's status as well as the gospel he preached. It is striking that the verse following our passage asserts that all of Asia has abandoned Paul. To what extent that reflects historical reality is not clear. Next week's passage also stops short of allusion to another problem: teachers claiming the resurrection is past. We are being given what is deemed of more timeless quality, but the gems were born in pressure and heat, and without that context remain somewhat abstract.

Perhaps the allusion to Timothy's grandmother and mother functions also as a chain of succession, ensuring continuity. Timothy is Paul's true heir. The letter also seeks to address all such leaders. The current need is to stoke up the fire (1:6). That Paul is said to have laid hands on Timothy. This might be an allusion to a primitive kind of ordination. It may be a reference to baptism. Either way the author sees the Spirit as the basis for confidence. There is a concern about the possibility of demoralisation in the face of the new challenges.

It is important not to become ashamed of Paul and his gospel, which is their heritage. 1:9 contains an echo of a major Pauline theme: not by works, but by grace. Grace is celebrated in the language of predestination, as it often was, to emphasise God's choice. We find something similar in Ephesians. Usually the focus is not on others not predestined, but simply on love, in the same manner as lovers might assert that they were meant for each other. It is doxological rather than theological. The context of Paul's struggles seem far away. The issue is not tension with Judaism and Jewish Christians, nor even justification, but the overcoming of mortality, a common theme in later generations.

Paul's confidence expressed in 1:11-12 is to inspire similar confidence by example - also in the face of potential suffering. It expresses a fundamental hope in God without needing to know the details. God will keep him. How could this be said when Paul most likely died a terrible death in Rome? The author would retort that even in and through such a death there is a keeping which gives a deep sense of peace and enables one to go on. 1:13-14 points to the letter's main concern: remain a faithful bearer of the tradition. In this way the letter speaks especially to those whom the church has formally entrusted with this task by ordination.

Being a bearer of the tradition according to 2 Timothy does not mean closing up shop, burying the treasure, to use the imagery of the famous parable. Rather it means ensuring the connections are upheld and consistency maintained, while letting the fire burn and good news shine in our contemporary contexts and never losing sight of this central task, whatever disputes and wrangles, right or wrong, may (and may need to) way-lay us.

Gospel: Pentecost 20: 2 October Luke 17:5-10

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