Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing, 6th October 2019 by Revd Sue McCoan
2 Timothy 1:1-14
The ancients tell a story to illustrate the spiritual life.
A young monastic came up on an elder one day, sitting amongst a group of praying, working, meditating people.
‘I have the capacity to walk on water,’ the young disciple said, ‘so let’s you and I go onto that small lake over there and carry on a spiritual discussion.’
But the Teacher answered, ‘If what you are trying to do is get away from all these people, why do you not come with me and fly into the air. We can drift along in the open sky and talk there.’
The young seeker replied, ‘I can’t do that. The power to fly is not one I possess’.
‘Just so’, said the teacher. ‘Your power of remaining still on the top of water is one that is possessed by fish. And my capacity of floating through the air can be done by any bird. These abilities have nothing to do with real truth, and in fact may be the basis of arrogance, not spirituality. If we’re going to talk about spiritual things, we should be talking right here.’
(From: ‘Wisdom Distilled from the Daily’, Joan Chittister, p1)
It’s natural to want to make progress, and it’s natural to want to measure the progress we make, including in spiritual matters. You have to feel for the disciples of Jesus, who have followed this extraordinary man and have often struggled to keep up with it all. If only they had more faith, it might all fall into place. If only they had more faith, they could have confidence that they were doing the right thing. If only they had more faith, they might stand a sporting chance of living up to some of his teaching about things like forgiveness.
We might relate to any or all of that.
So the disciples ask.
‘Lord’, they say to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith’.
How can that not be a good thing to ask for?
But as soon as Jesus answers, they know they’ve got it wrong again.
If you have even a tiny amount of faith – a mustard seed seems to be the measure of tininess in the bible – you can do spectacular things, like getting trees to uproot themselves. That feels like a bit of a slap in the face – he seems to be saying, you don’t even have as much as a tiny faith, because you can’t do those things.
But Jesus is not out to be unkind, and there is a deeper point here. Which is that faith is not something that can be measured in amounts. Faith is not like a currency, where the more you have of it, the more you can do with it. So asking for an increase in faith is asking the wrong question; it doesn’t make sense.
Jesus invites them to look at it a different way. He tells them a parable. Suppose you have a servant. He works in the fields in the daytime and then his job is to come in and get your supper, and serve you. That’s what you expect of him; that’s what he expects too. He’s an employee, possibly even a slave; he does what he’s told. You don’t start doing his work for him, or giving him special thanks.
And that’s how it is as disciples of Jesus. You are not to expect special favours or thanks. You are not in the business of trying to achieve holiness, or measuring the amount of faith you have, or any other subtle way you might devise of thinking you are making spiritual progress. Your job is to use the faith you have, and get done the work you are called to do. End of.
This is not the teaching we necessarily want to hear. But it is incredibly helpful to Christians who have been living in faith for many years and know they are still full of contradictions, still get angry, still get troubled by doubts. It is helpful to Christians who have lived really good lives and then find themselves facing illness or hardship and wonder how faith will get them through. It’s helpful to Christians who, despite coming to church and doing what they can, feel they are making no real difference to anybody and might as well not bother.
Jesus says: Use the faith you have. Get the work done. Keep going.
There’s something of that same sentiment in our first reading, from Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Timothy seems to be having a bit of a wobble in his faith: Paul urges him not to be ashamed, not to have a spirit of timidity, but to fan into flame the gift of God. Paul is at this stage in prison, so Timothy’s wobbles are not without reason. If Paul, the founder of churches, is in prison, what happens to those churches? And, closer to home, if Paul, Timothy’s mentor in faith, can be put in prison, then what might happen to Timothy?. The advice from Paul is the same as the advice Jesus gave to his disciples: get on with the work. Never mind the effect, or the consequences: carry on doing what you are doing. Keep going.
This is sound advice. But what is the work that we are to get on with? We might think, it’s a bit different for the disciples, with direct access to Jesus, and Timothy the protégé of Paul – they already have a really significant call, they know what God wants them to do. They are already streets ahead of us in spiritual matters. Where does that leave the rest of us, who are still living an ordinary life, who have days jobs and families and might not think we have been called at all?
I want to focus here, not on Timothy himself, but on the 2 other people named in this reading. Did you notice them? Paul says he knows about Timothy’s sincere faith because he saw the same faith in Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. Paul had become Timothy’s mentor but it wasn’t Paul who brought Timothy to faith. It was his mum and his grandma.
We know very little about Lois and Eunice, apart from a few words in Acts chapter 16. But we know the one thing that mattered, which was that they were able to hand on their new faith to young Tim. It’s not always easy for parents to do this – children have to separate from their parents, as part of growing up, and one of the marks of separation is often the rejection of their parents’ faith – but grandparents are in a slightly different position. They have less responsibility, and so are able to engage with the child in a slightly different way. I suspect it was Grandma Lois who had the bigger part to play in Timothy’s faith life.
And this is where we come in. Some of you here are grandparents; some of us are godparents, or aunts and uncles, or family friends. That is, we have children in our lives, who might not come to church, but for whom we might be able to show God’s love.
The United Reformed church has been doing some thinking, at national level, about these relationships. You might know, they produce a lot of material to support youth and children’s work, and they sent it out to all churches, and then they kept hearing, why do you send this to us? We don’t have any children here. So they produced two booklets, specifically for churches that don’t have children or young people in Sunday worship. These were brought to the last church meeting, but we weren’t all there.
The first asks, Where are the children? And it points out that there are children in our lives, even if not in our churches: the ones we carry in our hearts, like our grandchildren and godchildren, like Timothy; the children who come for activities in our premises; children we support through the work of charities. We can pray for these children, and in fact we shall be doing that in our prayers very soon.
The other booklet is really aimed at new grandparents or godparents, and talks about how we can build up relationships, how we can show what our own faith means, even if the child or the parents are not interested in faith themselves. So if there are children in your life that you care about, you might like one of these. We can order more copies.
This is just one way in which we can use the faith we have. We have all the faith we need; we just need to get on with the work. And whether that work is small or large, whether it is visible to others or not, whether it involves paperwork or precious children, it is the work we are called to do. So we keep going.