First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 21

William Loader

Pentecost 21: 9 October  2 Timothy 2:8-15

The instructions coming from Paul to Timothy are designed to be read aloud and so to have an impact on those identified with Timothy. This was doubtless intended from the beginning and has been the function of the letter ever since. One might suppose that the issues addressed are very much those of the time for which Paul’s wisdom is being appealed to, whether in person or impersonated by those who hold him in high regard.

Our passage takes up  midstream what begins in 2:1 as an exhortation to take notice of Paul. It is the appeal directly or indirectly to Paul’s authority. Timothy and those succeeding him in the Pauline churches (2:2) are to hold fast to the tradition they have received and not be swayed by competing Christian influences. Entanglements are to be avoided, as in the life of the soldier, a metaphor the writer particularly likes (2:3-4). The entanglements may be the affairs of ordinary everyday life, but are more probably the annoying distractions from other Christian teachers which will soon become the focus of attention (2:14, 16-18).

Obeying the commanding officer and keeping the rules of athletic competition (8:4-5) have their equivalent in the discipline of ministry staying faithful to the tradition. Perhaps the image of the farmer (8:6-7) is meant to reinforce the custom in the early churches that preachers should be financially supported. They, too, faced budgetary restraints! Perhaps it is another reference to the prior status of Timothy and his group over against the new teachers.

Our passage begins with an appeal to the resurrection and to Paul’s preaching, echoing Romans 1:3-4. The new teachers, Hymanaeus and Philetus (2:17), are denying the resurrection or, more specifically, denying that it is still future. They appear to espouse the view that there is no future resurrection. We have new life now. Probably their view was associated with an individualising of hope which saw the gospel as something which guaranteed the individual everlasting life, including life after death, but saw no need to have a broader vision of hope for transformation of all humanity, the vision of a transformed society, rooted in the hopes of social justice and the kingdom of God. Theirs had become a spirituality of just the soul, such as we find regularly in the church through the centuries. Paul faced a similar problem with some at Corinth and so wrote his defiant response in 1 Corinthians 15.

Here there is a vision of eternal glory. In the light of it Paul and Timothy and his colleagues are to put up with hardship to sustain the ministry of God’s word which carries its own momentum (2:9-10). As often in these letters, the author cites traditional material which may have belonged to a hymn or a set formulation and is neatly phrased (2:11-13). Being a Christian means identifying with Christ in his vision. That means suffering with him, but it also entails the faith that one will share in Christ’s future. There are still some echoes of Jesus’ own preferred language of the “kingdom of God” (2:12a “we shall reign with him). It envisages not a blessed immortal soul, but a community in which the cries of the poor have been heard and there is justice and peace. We have moved far away from Jesus if it just means we are victorious.

There is an interesting twist in the balanced sentences. We might expect: “If we are unfaithful, he will be unfaithful to us”, but that cannot be so. Rather he remains faithful (2:13). The explanation is even more striking: he cannot deny himself. This is tantamount to saying: Christ will not cease to be Christ. Christ will not cease caring, even if we stop caring. It is a way of speaking about constancy of compassion.

2:14 brings us back to the immediate issue. The leaders are not to be distracted by arguments with people like Hymanaeus and Philetus (2:17), who appear to have been carried away from a kind of spirituality which in the author’s view distracts from the heart of the gospel and its hope. Every generation knows of disputes which have the potential to displace the central urgent issues of the good news. Some of them are, in any case, seen in clearer perspective when we are clearer about the heart of the gospel.

The right way of leadership, according to 2:15 includes the right way to interpret scripture. In the tradition of Paul this is not in parroting its commands and prohibitions. On the contrary, to the ire of Paul’s opponents, it was sorting out what is central and what is not, what remains applicable and what is to be discarded in the interests of the radically inclusive message of grace. It got Paul into deep trouble with those whom we might call the fundamentalists of his day, who refused to contemplate that the word could be rightly discerned and and critically engaged in this way. Paul tells us of his struggles even with leaders like Peter (see Gal 2:11-14).

So Timothy and his leaders need to sustain Paul’s approach and avoid the endless chatter of distractions from the heart of the gospel (2:16). This is about much more that people who talk too much. It is about avoiding the distractions of a religiosity that has lost sight of the vision of the kingdom and retreated to an individual piety which sees the good news only in terms of being guaranteed we go to heaven when we die – as if that is all that matters. While such an approach has become much more amenable since we have become less inclined to believe in a future general resurrection, there is a real danger that in the process of rethinking such global and communal expressions of hope we retreat to an individualism which not only loses the wider future vision for a supposed climax of history but also loses this breadth in its understanding of the gospel in the here and now.

Gospel: Pentecost 21: 9 October Luke 17:11-19

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